February 21, 2008
As soon as his plane hits the Pittsburgh tarmac at 2:20 p.m. on a gray November Monday, Drew Rosenhaus calls to make sure we’re waiting at the Hertz counter. By 2:45 we’re rushing along Highway 279 in a Ford Escape, headed for Heinz Field, where the Steelers will soon take on the Ravens. Rosenhaus, the world’s most notorious sports agent, represents major players on both teams. In the passenger seat, he sends text messages with the dexterity of a 15-year-old girl while talking into the wired headset that dangles from his right ear. These devices ring and vibrate with a persistence matched only by the nasal hammering of his voice.
Rosenhaus never stops talking. During the 30-minute drive, he speaks with at least three clients, leaves two messages for a Dr. Lombardo, closes a two-year contract extension with $10 million in new money for a receiver you’ve never heard of, then calls the receiver to pitch the deal. “We’re not a starter, and we’re not a free agent. Looking at our stats, this deal is a spectacular accomplishment for us.” Pause. “If you get 1,000 yards receiving? Sure, you’ll get a new contract.”
Rosenhaus is on a mission, has been for the past 19 years. Though he is not an NFL player, team owner, or coach, he is well en route to becoming the most powerful agent in the sport. In 1995 he told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that his goal was to represent 100 players so he could “control whether some teams win or lose.” Now, 13 years later, he represents 97 (dozens more than any other agent), including some of the league’s top marketing draws. “In terms of determining who wins or loses,” he says, listing trades and signings that have changed the competitive face of the league, “that’s a reality.”
In other words, when you tune in to the Super Bowl this month, there will be a man behind the scenes who believes he is controlling the game to some degree—like a little kid moving toy players around a make-believe field. This off-season, Rosenhaus’ list of clients will continue to grow, meaning his influence will only rise next year. It also means the questions that have long surrounded him will reach a fever pitch: Is he saving the NFL? Or is he destroying it?
The Hating Game
He is not a beloved figure. A Google search for “Drew Rosenhaus” and “asshole” generates 1,460 hits. “Rosenhaus should do us all a favor and die,” reads one post. On urbandictionary.com, his name is invoked to illustrate the definition of “douchebag.” But no one hates him as much as his peers. Fellow agents have called him a sleazeball and scumbag. “He doesn’t give a crap,” says one rival, who asked not to be named. “He’s flamboyant as hell. He feels he’s Teflon. He feels nobody can touch him.”
Rosenhaus is the first celebrity sports agent, famous enough to star in his own Burger King commercial. In his 19 years in business, the 41-year-old has negotiated more than $1 billion worth of contracts. This coming off-season, he plans to handle another $500 million. Every day, he wakes up alone in the Miami Beach mansion he bought from client Warren Sapp. Outside a 34-foot sport boat sits idle, like the Maserati coupe that languishes in the garage until the next time he needs to impress a woman. “I’m more of a Dodge Ram guy,” he says. “After I’ve gone out with them a couple of times, they get in the truck.” He recently broke up with a 21-year-old cheerleader and law student who tolerated his lifestyle for six months before realizing it would never get better.
Growing up in a country club family in Miami, Rosenhaus had two obsessions: the Dolphins and comic books. His father, Robert, was an entrepreneur who encouraged him and his younger brother, Jason, to play football. But Rosenhaus was more interested in karate and comic books. He still makes frequent references to Batman and Spider-Man.
From 1984 to 1987, Rosenhaus attended the University of Miami, where he tutored football players during the Hurricanes’ heyday. He became a man-groupie to guys like future Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, who led him to his calling. “You’re a smart guy,” Rosenhaus recalls Irvin saying. “I’m not crazy about the agents I’m talking to. I wish you were an agent.” Rosenhaus took Irvin’s advice and hasn’t looked back.
In 1989, during his second year at Duke Law School, Rosenhaus invited ESPN to film contract negotiations for his first client—Robert Massey, a defensive back out of North Carolina Central who went to the Saints in the second round. By 1997, he’d penned an autobiography, A Shark Never Sleeps, in which he boasted of bluffing teams, manipulating the media, and picking fights with rivals. “I drooled at the thought of being able to pummel his face into the frozen dirt,” he wrote of an unnamed competitor, describing a confrontation at the 1995 combine in Indianapolis. “I wanted red snow.”
“That stuff is so outdated,” Rosenhaus says now of his early indiscretions. “When I got started, there was more of a need to distinguish myself from my competitors. That’s all changed. There’s nothing villainous about me.”
Before the Monday night game, we stop at the Omni to see one of Rosenhaus’ players. Gliding into the lobby, the agent is immediately recognized. He stands six feet tall in boots, designer jeans, and a black leather jacket. Outsize pecs poke through his white T-shirt, flanking the S in the Rosenhaus Sports Representation logo, modeled on Superman’s S. Rosenhaus is not exactly hiding his Superidentity.
Upstairs, Ravens running back Willis McGahee greets Rosenhaus with a thug-hug, then pokes his pecs and makes a face. Rosenhaus starts to make excuses but McGahee laughs it off. (Every summer Rosenhaus holds workouts with his clients where they lift weights and run wind sprints.) McGahee was a potential number-one overall pick coming out of Miami until he suffered a catastrophic knee injury in 2003, which could have pushed him into the third round. While he rehabbed, Rosenhaus ran a publicity campaign claiming his client would be ready to practice that fall. Then, at the draft, he phoned McGahee—who was sitting next to him—to create the illusion teams were calling. The Buffalo Bills picked him 23rd overall, and he was on the field before the end of the year.
Scooting away from a stack of cash on the table, I ask McGahee to explain his choice in agents. He speaks calmly while dressing, clearly a man used to being questioned in his underwear. “Drew was like a little kid,” he says, grinning. “He was like one of us, always working out, playing video games. I liked being around him and his brother. They made me laugh.”
Every one of Rosenhaus’ players said the same thing: Their agent gets a bad rap. “People stereotype agents as money-grubbing guys,” says Lawrence Timmons, a rookie linebacker with the Steelers. “But when you see the guy for yourself, you see how he is.” Why wouldn’t his clients love him? He pumps muscle into their paychecks. As for Rosenhaus, there’s an element of hero-worship in play. The kid playing with toys is now surrounded by flesh-and-bone star athletes. As Rosenhaus juggles his phone, we hear him reinforce Kellen Winslow’s ego after the Browns tight end caught 11 balls with a dislocated shoulder. He reminds Panthers center Justin Hartwig that playing through a broken thumb will improve his negotiating leverage. He seems to need the players as much as they need him. “These are my brothers. It’s no longer just Batman,” he says, referring to himself. “It’s Batman, Robin, Nighthawk, and Batgirl.”
Rosenhaus’ rivals see another side. They claim he pilfers clients, an act punishable by the NFL Players Association. Last October, for example, Chicago Bears receiver Bernard Berrian heard a rumor that his agent was to be suspended, so he switched to Rosenhaus—but it turned out the rumor was false. Rosenhaus denied involvement, but Berrian didn’t go back, so suspicious types put two and two together. Excuses, says Rosenhaus. “When you lose players, it’s because you’re not doing a good enough job.”
Fans are more concerned with Rosenhaus’ reputation for engineering holdouts, cemented when eight of his biggest clients threatened to skip minicamp as leverage for new contracts in 2005. In Green Bay, Brett Favre publicly called on receiver Javon Walker to get a new agent. In Philadelphia, Terrell Owens reported for camp only to take verbal jabs at owners and teammates. After a fight with retired Eagle Hugh Douglas, Owens was effectively fired by the team. Rosenhaus backed him in an emotional rant at the now-infamous “next question” press conference (YouTube it). “It was a circus act,” says Mark Lepselter, who once lost a client to Rosenhaus. “Send in the clowns. The whole thing was pathetic.”
As for Rosenhaus’ ability to control games, his top 53 players could probably crush the Patriots. He represents Bears linebacker Lance Briggs—about to become a free agent—and Berrian, Winslow, and Cowboys running back Marion Barber. He’s also got Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson, rumored to be mulling a trade request to a team in a larger market. Rosenhaus can influence to a large degree which player goes to which team. Thus, he can tip the balance of power from one team to another.
Team executives understand his clout. “If the agent represents multiple players on the team, you want to make sure you’re not burning any bridges for the next negotiations,” says Cliff Stein, lead negotiator for the Chicago Bears. Another agent puts it more bluntly: “You’re never going to get a club to say the truth about Drew Rosenhaus, because they’re going to have to deal with him at some time. They’ll tell me he’s an ass, then next time they see him they’re buddying up to him.”
“As far as the weeping competitors that I consistently knock the crap out of,” Rosenhaus says, “it only motivates me more when they whine and make excuses. It’s so cowardly to take these shots. They never say anything to my face. It doesn’t make any sense. I’m one of the guys who has done the most for the profession over the past 20 years.” Asked how he has changed his industry, Rosenhaus settles on the obvious: “I’m not sure there was a face to the business before me. Whether people think it’s good or bad, now there is.”
Now picture Rosenhaus as he stalks the Pittsburgh sideline before kickoff, peering over the security guard standing between him and the Steelers bench. From the line of Steelers jogging onto the field, cornerback Bryant McFadden calls Rosenhaus’ name, forcing the guard to step aside, demoralized. Player and agent embrace, shouting in each other’s ears. As McFadden trots off, Rosenhaus beams. “By far the coolest thing for a guy like me is to be down on the field before the games,” he says. “I adore the athletes. They remind me of superheroes: the size, the strength, the explosiveness. I do find myself wanting to be like them.”
The players love their agent. Everyone else hates him. Who is the real Drew Rosenhaus? Let us clear this up: He’s actually an overgrown nerd. He’s really Batman and Robin and Nighthawk (and even Batgirl), a fearless crusader aiming to line his Superclients’ pockets with Superdollars. He’s a brilliant businessman and a kid who never grew up, and he’s a pro at using the media, from a cameo in Jerry Maguire to the article in your hand. While he may have Superpower-like influence in the NFL, we can’t vouch that he’s not deeply in touch with the dark side.
Nothing evil about him? We don’t buy it.