Agent of change
Kyle Strongin isn't a top-tier rep -- yet -- but he's poised to move up the draft board
ON A BITTERLY COLD February afternoon, Kyle Strongin is holed up inside the first-floor restaurant of the Indianapolis Crowne Plaza, his eyes glued to a flat screen that hangs high on the wall and is showing live coverage of the NFL scouting combine's marquee event: the 40-yard dash. Even though Lucas Oil Stadium, which hosts the league's annual meat market, is just a quarter-mile away, Strongin has no choice but to watch the proceedings on TV, because the only people allowed inside the Luke are league personnel.
The 32-year-old NFL agent leans forward in his chair, iPhone in hand, momentarily oblivious to the circus around him. Ten feet away, All-American Jadeveon Clowney, having completed his jaw-dropping workout earlier in the morning, sits at a coffee table and holds court. His dreadlocks matted down underneath a pair of gold-plated Monster headphones, Clowney chats with mega-agent Bus Cook while receiving congratulatory fist bumps from seemingly everyone who passes by. On the opposite side of the room, a tall, slender man dressed in a black pinstriped suit and black shirt, with matching bright orange tie and socks -- no doubt one of the high-end tailors who descend on the combine annually in the hopes of landing tomorrow's millionaires as clients -- makes his way from table to table. Nearby, two financial advisers sit side-by-side trying unsuccessfully to look inconspicuous.
Meanwhile, Strongin peers up at the chiseled warriors in black-and-light-blue tank tops who are taking turns running 120 feet at full bore up the sideline of the Colts' home field. One by one, they start at the goal line, crouched like predators waiting to pounce, then explode into a blur of arms and legs, muscles and sweat. For some, like Clowney, the 40-yard dash means nothing. The 6-foot-5, 266-pound defensive end from South Carolina came to Indy as the presumptive top pick in the upcoming NFL draft, and he is the exception to the rule -- for him, every tenth of a second doesn't count. Whether his time is 4.6 or 4.7, he will make millions. (For the record, earlier that morning, Clowney clocked a 4.53, the fastest time among all defensive ends.) For others, such as Tyler Starr, the 40-yard dash means everything.
A 6-foot-4, 250-pound linebacker from South Dakota, Starr is one of seven relatively anonymous players in this year's draft class who signed with Strongin. Even though Starr was named the Missouri Valley Conference's defensive player of the year, because of his small-school pedigree, experts project him as a borderline prospect, the kind of player whose combine stats could nudge him in either direction. If he makes a strong showing in Indy, Starr could become the object of some team's late-round affection. But a poor performance could render him an undrafted afterthought. For Starr, says Strongin: "Every tenth of a second does count."
As the agent watches the linebackers run and waits for LB30 (the number on Starr's combine jersey) to appear, he trades texts with his wife, Julie, who is back home in Nashville following the proceedings on her computer in real time via NFL.com's live stream. Of the 13 clients Strongin has signed since becoming an agent in July 2011, not a single one has been drafted. He knows that this is not unusual for someone who's trying to build a client base. You don't just hang a shingle and -- poof -- you're Tom Condon or Jimmy Sexton. You don't land a first-round quarterback right off the bat. Or a first-round anything. These things take time.
Right before LB30 takes his turn, the NFL Network cuts to a commercial break. Strongin slaps his hands on his knees in disgust. "They're not gonna show Tyler," he says, rocking his chair back on two legs. "Nobody cares about the small-school guys." Seconds later, his phone buzzes with a text from home base.
Julie: "4.93 isn't good, right?"
Kyle: "Did he run that?"
THREE YEARS AGO, Kyle Strongin was in search of a job. A self-described "good high school football player" from Wellington, Fla., who walked on at Oklahoma but never took the field, he'd found ways to stay in the game he loved for five years after graduating with a degree in marketing in 2005. But he wasn't happy. He spent four years in three different administrations at two big-time college programs (Ole Miss and Tennessee) and he saw how something as simple as a coaching change could cause immediate seismic shifts in and around the chain of command. In between, he worked as a scouting grunt for the 49ers and saw how those above him sacrificed all things personal for a life spent on the road. So at the ripe old age of 29, he decided it was time for a change.
Strongin knew he wanted to stay in football. He also knew he wanted to be the master of his own destiny. Why not try being an agent? he wondered. "If I'm great, I'm compensated for it," he says. "If I suck, it's my fault." He knocked on the doors of all the big agents. He sent out resume after resume, made phone call after phone call. The response was always the same. What's your book of business? the agents would ask. They had no interest in taking on someone who wasn't going to pay immediate dividends. Fifteen seconds into a phone conversation with one of the so-called "super agents," the guy on the other end of the line told Strongin that he had another call coming in. "Gotta go," the agent said. "I'll call ya back." The line went silent, and Strongin never heard from him again.
One guy Strongin did hear from was Alan Bullington. The Nashville-based golf agent had a fledgling company called 1 Degree Management and was looking to start a football division. But, despite the steady stream of resumes that landed on his desk, he hadn't yet found the right guy. One day in early July 2011, Strongin's CV appeared in Bullington's inbox. A couple days later, the two chatted on the phone and hit it off immediately. The following day, Strongin made the three-hour drive west from Knoxville, where he'd spent the previous two years working as Tennessee's coordinator of football operations, to Nashville for a face-to-face meeting with Bullington. That night, Bullington received two phone calls -- one from coaching legend Monte Kiffin, who'd worked with Strongin at Tennessee, and another from former Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron. Both men said the same exact thing: "If you're looking for someone to run your football division, you're not gonna find anyone better." The next day, Bullington hired Strongin to run his football division.
Of the 813 people who are registered as NFL agents, roughly half have zero clients on an NFL roster. So the fact that, in 2012, his first year as an agent, Strongin landed two players who've since stuck in the league -- Raiders running back Jeremy Stewart and Buccaneers defensive lineman Matthew Masifilo -- is remarkable. Last year, he added a third in Rams linebacker Phillip Steward. Granted, all three were undrafted free agents, and all are reserves. But in a league where 25 percent of the agents represent about 80 percent of the players, Strongin has made eye-opening progress in two years.
His philosophy? "Just be normal," says Strongin as he sits in the Crowne Plaza restaurant waiting for Starr, the client who just blew chunks in the 40, whom he'll no doubt have to talk down off the ledge. It's a mantra that Strongin's old 49ers boss Tom Gamble (now an Eagles exec) used to preach, and which Strongin has since adopted as his own credo, both in life and in business. Just be normal. Dressed in a black jacket, white button-down shirt, jeans and brown leather lace-up shoes, he is the epitome of normal. A couple blocks away sits his used black Jeep Grand Cherokee, the one that already had 19,000 miles on it when he bought it. He seems very much like the kind of guy you wouldn't mind grabbing a meal with. And he knows it. In fact, he's banking on it. "If you go out to dinner with a player and he enjoys your company and the conversation's not awkward, then you stand a pretty good chance of signing him." It's the getting the dinner date that's the tricky part.
In a cutthroat industry where 25 to 30 agents typically tussle for the right to represent one prospect, separating yourself from the pack is essential. One common tactic is the marketing guarantee. Although the cap on salary commissions is 3 percent, agents are allowed to charge up to 20 percent on endorsement earnings, and it's not uncommon for an agent to entice a client by giving him an advance against future marketing money. But perhaps the most tried-and-true method, especially for a young agent with finite financial resources, is good old-fashioned word of mouth. His first year in the business, Strongin leveraged his Bay Area ties to ink Stanford defensive lineman Matt Masifilo. Two years later, that Cardinal connection helped Strongin land offensive lineman Cameron Fleming. As excited as Strongin is about Fleming's draft stock -- the 6-5, 323-pounder is projected as a mid-round pick come May -- he's even more geeked about the tackle's intangibles. "O-linemen are the salt of the earth," he says. "They're smart and selfless. Best of all, they're loyal."
You can't blame Strongin for placing a premium on loyalty. This year, he decided it was time to make a run at a quarterback. He had no intention of targeting a top-of-the-line guy like Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel; that'd be a complete waste of time and money for a third-year agent who'd never had a drafted client. Instead, he aimed a little lower for a late-round, under-the-radar guy who was on the rise; someone he felt might creep up into the middle rounds by the time May rolled around. A mid-round quarterback -- any draftable quarterback, really -- would be a major coup. After all, it's a typecasting business. Sign one QB, and next thing you know, you're the QB guy and you're making 3 percent on $120 million instead of $1.2 million. Not that being an agent is all about the money, because it's not. But for a young married man like Strongin, whose wife is pregnant with their first child, who's been living with his in-laws for the past six months while his new home is being built, finances are not an inconsequential piece of the puzzle. It's the reason he stays in his Aunt Pam's guest house whenever he's in Northern California on business, and the reason he stays at Fairfield Inns pretty much everywhere else. It's the reason that, on a recent overnight trip to Columbus, Ohio, to meet with a client (Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown), he and Bullington carpooled all the way from Nashville and then crammed into one hotel room with two queen beds. So yeah, money matters. So Strongin made a run at a quarterback.
After an initial cold call that turned warm in a hurry, Strongin broke bread with the kid's parents. He closed down a bar or two with the player and traded texts with the player's mother. He worked his tail off to get the quarterback into an all-star game and to set him up with a top-notch QB coach. All indications pointed to the kid signing with Strongin. Then, at the last minute, in a scene straight out of "Jerry Maguire," the quarterback jumped ship and went with another agent. A bigger, more-experienced agent. "That was my future," says Strongin, his voice choking up. "I've never had a drafted client. I've never had a quarterback. This was gonna be a drafted quarterback. That gets the ball rolling. That creates momentum."
As upset as Strongin was at the time, in retrospect he doesn't blame the quarterback. "I get it," he says. "Do you wanna go with the guy who's been doing it for 20 years, or do you wanna be Kyle's guinea pig?" He trails off for a beat, then takes a swig of water before punctuating the thought. "That's OK. It'll only make the success that much sweeter when it comes." Like the guys he represents, like the former walk-on that he is, Strongin plays with a chip on his shoulder. The super-agent who never called back. The quarterback who fled. They propel him forward.
"My job," says Strongin, "is to take my clients from the beginning of their career to the end and beyond, and into their second career. I want to be with them for as long as they allow me." Officially, he is an agent. The director of football operations for 1 Degree Management, as the business card says. But like any agent worth his salt, he's part scout, part parent. Part salesman, part cheerleader. Part business manager, part psychologist. It varies depending on the time of day. At 4:21 p.m. on the second-to-last day of the NFL scouting combine, he's wearing the shrink hat.
Starr has just entered the restaurant at the Crowne Plaza. "Seventeen days," says Strongin, giving Starr a fist bump as the player takes a seat across from him at the small cylindrical coffee table. Even though he crushed it in the positional drills -- his time of 6.64 seconds in the three-cone drill was the fastest among all linebackers; his 4.15 in the short shuttle was fourth-best -- Starr can't stop himself from obsessing over his awful performance in the 40-yard dash. Only two linebackers ran slower.
Seventeen days from now, on March 13, Starr will run the 40-yard dash again during his pro day in South Dakota. NFL scouts will be there, as they are at pro days all around the country throughout March. It's an opportunity for players who didn't score an Indy invite to get evaluated by pro personnel folks, as well as a chance for those who did to get a second look. For a prospect like Starr, who flamed out in the 40, pro day is a chance for salvation. The only chance.
"I'm getting a 4.6," Starr says. For the record, there's no earthly way that Starr will run a 4.6 40-yard dash on pro day or any other day in his lifetime. But that's how persuasive and optimistic Strongin is. Earlier, when his wife texted him to ask if a 4.93 wasn't good, he was a couple tears shy of a suicide watch. An hour later, he's all hope and handshakes and has his client convinced that he'll run faster than all but two linebackers did at the combine. "I just tried too hard," Starr tells his agent, still unable to let go. "I was embarrassed. That 40 made me look like I'm a lame-ass athlete, and I'm not. I'm gonna run faster. I swear on my life."
Strongin looks him square in the eye. "I know you will," he says.
SANFORD FIELDHOUSE is as impressive as any training complex in the country. Opened in September 2012, the $9 million, 85,000-square foot facility, with its column-lined front and pale cement exterior, looks like a cross between an opulent Vegas casino and an ancient Greek point of interest. Situated on the northern edge of Sioux Falls, equidistant from South Dakota and South Dakota State, it's the perfect venue for the state's only pro day. And yet last year, only one NFL team saw fit to send a scout -- the neighboring Vikings, who likely did so simply because at least one league representative had to be there to hold the stopwatch. By comparison, the 2014 pro day is a three-ring circus.
By the time the 14 prospects strip down to their skivvies so they can be measured and weighed -- the first of several combine-style events on the docket -- no fewer than eight scouts are in the building. And every one of them is there to see Starr. Also there to watch the USD linebacker is Strongin, halfway through a planes, trains and automobiles tour that has already taken him to Columbus and Manhattan, Kan. After Sioux Falls, he'll make stops in Houston, Palo Alto and finally Knoxville. When it's all said and done, he'll have witnessed all seven of his clients' pro days in person, a rarity for an agent. But he knows that every pro day is another opportunity to connect. Another chance to add to the Rolodex.
"My job is to know people," says Strongin, who spent the previous night sharing drinks with a couple of NFL scouts who'd blown into town, discussing everything from their draft boards to his ideal type of client. ("Character matters," he says.) Standing between two stationary bikes in Sanford Fieldhouse's sleek weight room, the agent watches intently as his client steps up onto the scale, then grimaces when a scout announces the result: 249 pounds. Even though it's only one pound lighter than Starr weighed at the combine, as far as Strongin is concerned, his client might as well have weighed a hundred pounds less. "Every pound counts," says the agent, his arms folded and lips pursed. "It's like a car that costs $19,999 instead of $20,000. It's all about the perception."
Ever since he clocked a 4.93 in Indy (it was later officially changed to 4.95), the perception is that Starr might be a step slow for the next level. Even though Strongin has spent the past 17 days telling anyone who'll listen that the 40 doesn't mean jack for an outside linebacker -- that it's football functional stuff like the three-cone drill that really matters and that his client's three-cone time was nearly three-tenths of a second better than the 6.90 that four-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews recorded back in 2009 -- all eyes at Sanford Fieldhouse are on Starr as he steps to the starting line to run the first of his two 40-yard dashes.
Strongin stands near the finish line, surrounded by a gaggle of scouts, strength coaches and school officials. He's practically the only one without a stopwatch. As Starr sprints through the two blue cones that mark the finish, a timekeeper wearing a red baseball cap whips his head around, then calls out, "4.92." The guy next to him reports a 4.88. Neither number is official -- the four scouts who stand together at the finish line, some 30 feet away from everyone else, will ultimately seal Starr's fate. For now though, the unofficial times are all that Strongin has to go on: 4.92 and 4.88. Faster than Indy, but just barely. "His start looked decent," says Strongin, trying to convince himself. A few heads nod in agreement. "Definitely better than the combine." The agent is encouraged, but he knows that to impress the scouts and improve his draft stock today, his client needs to go quicker in his second heat. The 4.6 that Starr talked about in Indy? A pipe dream. But something in the 4.7-range sure would be nice. Even if it's a 4.79. Because it's all about the perception.
Five minutes later, Starr toes the line again. Strongin creeps a few steps closer to the finish. Starr starts quickly, then blurs through the blue cones. The guy in the red cap whips his head around again. "4.78," he says. Strongin reflexively pumps his fist, then flashes an energetic thumbs-up sign to his client. He's giddy with the sense that, for the first time, he will have a real live NFL draft pick. Someone asks him how he's feeling. "Poppin' bottles good!" he says, in a rare show of emotion. But the joy is short-lived.
Starr's 4.78 was so good, the scouts say, so fast relative to his combine time and his first pro day heat, that it has to be a mirage. Convinced that he jumped the start, they ask him to run again. A tense conference follows, involving the scouts, Strongin and Starr, as well as several USD officials and strength coaches. The scouts tell Strongin that they need another data point and that if his client doesn't run again, they'll have no choice but to discount the 4.78. Reluctantly, Strongin agrees to send his client back to the starting line. On Starr's third try -- of the 14 prospects on hand, he's the only one who will run more than twice -- he splits the difference. After being informed that his client's official pro day time, the one that will get sent out to all 32 NFL teams, will be a 4.84, Strongin is undeterred. "We'll call it whatever we want," he says, ever the agent. He's a glass-half-full guy. You have to be in his line of work. "We'll find someone who had him at a 4.78."
A couple of hours later, after a grueling battery of agility and positional drills, pro day is finally is over. But the agent's work is not. It never is. Standing at the front desk of Sanford Fieldhouse, Strongin hands Starr a pen, then leans over his shoulder and proceeds to walk him through a W-9 that will allow the player to get paid for a trading card deal. It's hardly big money -- Starr will earn $1,200 for signing 4,000 cards at 30 cents a pop -- so Strongin doesn't bother charging Starr the $240 commission he's entitled to. After all, he's trying to build relationships, not a nickel-and-dime empire.
Before leaving the building, Starr asks Strongin for one last piece of guidance. A linebacker coach from the Colts is coming to town in five days for a private workout, and Starr wants to know how he should prepare. Take days one and three off, Strongin tells him, with light workouts on days two and four. Watch lots of film, he says. Oh, and know what your best three games are, because they'll probably ask. "My job," says Strongin as he walks across the parking lot and toward his rental car, "is to let my clients know what's coming before it comes."
TWO WEEKS AFTER the Sioux Falls pro day, Strongin is back in Nashville. Between the combine and all the ensuing travel, full days in the office have been few and far between. A three-inch high stack of business cards, souvenirs from a month spent mostly apart from his wife, sits on a rectangular glass-top desk. On the opposite end of the table is his bible -- the Collective Bargaining Agreement. A spiral-bound, 301-page book, it contains 12 dividers that Strongin inserted three years ago when he was studying for his certification. Each divider has a different handwritten label -- topics like "Rook Compensation," "Waiver System" and "Second Medical Opinion." On the taupe-colored wall behind him, hanging side by side are two square black frames. In one is a red No. 71 Matt Masifilo Niners jersey; the other, a black No. 32 Jeremy Stewart Raiders jersey. On the opposite wall is a flat screen TV that shows Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay breaking down this year's running back draft class. They're discussing someone named Jerick McKinnon. Strongin is asked who represents McKinnon. "Dunno," he says. "Probably some nobody like me."
The Nashville nobody starts scribbling on a yellow legal pad, like he does first thing every morning. It's his daily to-do list. Among the dozen items for today are: Call a defensive coordinator whom he met at the combine to get his thoughts on how Starr fits his team's scheme. Continue building his 2015 draft board by pouring over websites like National Football Post, Pro Football Focus and Ourlads. Check in with Fleming, the offensive lineman from Stanford, and see how his weekend was. Suddenly, an important email arrives. It's from an AFC team that wants to bring Starr in for an official visit. Strongin claps his hands and sits up a little straighter. He knows this is a positive sign, as each NFL team is only allowed 30 official visits leading up to the draft. If they're willing to fly your guy in for a closer look, like the Rams did last year with his client, Phillip Steward, that's generally a good thing. (Steward wasn't drafted, but he ended up sticking with St. Louis as a free agent.)
Strongin allows himself to daydream for a moment, thinking about what it'll feel like to have one of his guys drafted. About what it'll feel like to sit around the long oval table in the conference room downstairs, just like the folks at 1 Degree did last year and the year before. Only this time, he might actually hear one of his client's names get called. He's asked: How good would that feel?
He smiles. "Poppin' bottles good."
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