It started as an innocent trip to visit a client. NFL agent Jeff Guerriero traveled from Monroe, Louisiana, to New York to catch up with linebacker IK Enemkpali. Shortly Guerriero arrived, Enemkpali punched teammate Geno Smith in the face. Smith sustained a broken jaw. The Jets released Enemkpali.
"My job in that situation is first to attend to this young man, who was extremely remorseful, and assure him that I was there to help," Guerriero says. "I fielded media calls, helped him get a statement of apology released to the media and started calling teams on his behalf."
The Bills bit, and Enemkpali's former coach, Rex Ryan, signed Enemkpali one day after the Jets waived him. Three days later, Enemkpali was on the field for the Bills' first preseason camp game.
"We were asked to do talk shows, TV shows and appearances by every major media outlet in the country, but declined because this wasn't in our client's best interest," Guerriero says. "Our client's best interest is all that matters."
Such is life in the NFL agent world. Although dollar signs get the publicity, agents spend the majority of their day working hands-on with their clients.
"This isn't what you see in Entourage or Ballers," agent Peter Schaffer says. "Contracts are the last 3 percent of what we do."
Guerriero, Schaffer, Ed Wasielewski and Sunny Shah make up the four-man cast of The Agent, a new documentary TV series on Esquire Network that just finished its 10-episode run. The program follows the daily lives of the agents, and they say it shows the "good side" of agents as the four men fight for the monetary, social and health rights of their players.
Schaffer, a sports agent for 28 years, has represented more than 1,000 players and negotiated over $1 billion in contracts. His highest-profile client was Barry Sanders. In 1997, Schaffer negotiated a contract extension with the Lions that would pay roughly $36 million over six years (five years plus an option) along with an $11 million signing bonus. The deal made Sanders, a Pro Bowler in all eight of his NFL seasons to that point, the highest paid player per year in the NFL.
Two years and two Pro Bowls later, Sanders retired from the NFL just after his 31st birthday. He was 1,457 yards shy of Walter Payton's then-career rushing yards record. Sanders had run for at least 1,491 yards in his previous five seasons. He was still in his prime and appeared ready to make a case for greatest running back of all-time when he walked away.
Why would one of the game's greatest players disappear with fuel in the tank?
"The simple answer is the main reason he retired is because he could," Schaffer says.
The day Sanders retired, Schaffer lost his best client ever. The 53-year-old acknowledges he gets asked about Sanders' retirement almost every day.
"[Sanders] got to the point in his life where he had enough money and he had saved enough money where he could retire," Schaffer says. "That's the goal of everybody, not just in the United States, but in the world, to get to that point where you work only because you want to. The kudos go to him for saving money and putting money away and living a humble lifestyle."
All four agents come from different cities and different backgrounds. They want to prove that (some) agents are actually (some of) the good guys in today's NFL.
"I was reluctant because I didn't want it to be a reality TV show with the housewives, where they're just looking for train wrecks and car crashes," Schaffer says. "They convinced me they really wanted to do a true documentary series on the daily life and grind of a sports agent."
Sunny Shah, 37, was born to first-generation Indian parents and looks half the size of an NFL player. He wears sharp suits and looks like he is on Wall Street. That is where Shah started his career as an investment banker after finishing in the top 2 percent of his class at University of Virginia.
Shah got his break in sports when his college roommate, former NFL running back Thomas Jones, asked him to do entertainment and marketing work for Thomas and his younger brother, running back Julio Jones. One thing led to another, and 12 years ago, Shah decided to leave Wall Street. Money caused Shah to go back and forth between sports and investment banking, but after landing two top 15 NFL picks in 2009 and 2010 (the youngest agent to ever land top 15 picks in back-to-back years), Shah established himself in the agency world.
Shah has a Virginia drawl, and and he uses his own humble beginnings to relate to clients. In one storyline on The Agent, Shah is seen helping client Jeff Luc, an undrafted free agent signed by the Miami Dolphins, move into his new condo.
"You have to be able to strike that cord with a player where he trusts you and respects your judgment," says Shah, founder of 320 Sports. "I find myself using real life examples–things you hear. You try to make sure your clients are educated and don't make the same mistakes."
In Philadelphia, Ed Wasielewski has "City of Brotherly Love" written all over him. He attended Villanova as an undergrad and Temple for his law degree. He is hard-nosed and to the point, and like Shah, makes connecting with his players a priority.
"I'm still paying off my own student loans," he says with a chuckle.
Wasielewski has actually been with The Agent the longest, discussing the idea with producers three and a half years ago. The original sizzle reel for the series used Wasielewski's EMG Sports as its setting, and the video was called, "Agent Ed."
"I thought it was a way to differentiate myself from other agents," he says of the original idea. "Let's do a documentary show with me and my clients. Let's show what we do. Let's show our players. Let's tell their stories."
The opening scene of the first episode features Schaffer taking phone calls at his son's ice hockey practice in Denver. Shah's first clip shows him taking his wife on a recruiting visit.
"This is not a sexy profession," Wasielewski says. "There are parts to it that are fun and glamorous, but it's a service industry. We are available to our clients on a 24-hour basis. If a text message comes in during dinner, I have to respond to it. The wife looks at me, but I have to take it. This is a lifestyle. There is no timeout."
Guerriero can get away with a lot more of his work at home. His wife, Liz, is his business partner. Guerriero's main shtick is his hometown. Players looking for flash and big city connections may not drift toward Guerriero, who bases Prosource Sports in Monroe.
"Our proximity to these great schools in Louisiana and these athletes helps us because we get to watch these hometown players as they develop from middle school all the way through college," Guerriero says.
Guerriero's small-town style is a breath of fresh air in the big NFL business. Cameras followed him as he and his staff attended Za'darius Smith's son's first birthday, armed with presents and cake.
"When most people think of sports agents, the visual that comes to mind is a guy in an expensive suit, wearing a Rolex, wining and dining with the stars, sitting in beach houses, etc.," he says. "While there may be a time for that, our job is 24/7."
George Young served as general manager of the Giants from 1979-1997, and Schaffer built a connection with him. Schaffer praises Young, who passed away in 2001, to this day, but the two disagreed on the most pressing issue in NFL contracts: Guaranteed money.
— TheAgentESQ (@TheAgentESQ) August 19, 2015
"We'd have these long conversations and I'd ask him, George, why are you against it?" Schaffer says. "He was old school. He said players would get soft. We need these players to go out there like gladiators. If they have guaranteed money, they won't play as hard and the product will go down and the fans won't be out there. That's the mindset of management. Our mindset as agents is to protect our players and make sure they leave the game better than they entered the game. If it was up to management, these guys would all be disposable razors."
Unlike the NBA, NHL and MLB, the NFL does not guarantee contracts to players. For example, if a player signs a five-year contract worth $25 million and he is cut after year one, the last $20 million are off the table. NFL contracts are a framework for what the player will be paid if he keeps his spot on the team throughout the term.
"To me, it's troublesome the NFL athlete does not have a guaranteed contract," Wasielewski says. "It's the most physically punishing of the four major sports by far. There are football players out there who are risking their lives and physical injury every time they go out to practice."
Injuries are the reason the NFL front office steers away from of guaranteed contracts. A lack of guaranteed money allows teams to cycle through players. If one player gets hurt, the injury is unfortunate, and he is cut to give the next man up a shot. The system creates a survival of the fittest format in which the gladiators Young referenced are forced to perform at the highest level possible, risking injury to put the best product out on the field.
Schaffer hangs his head when asked about the possibly of fully guaranteed contracts coming to the NFL soon.
"If you leave it up to Roger Goodell and the management council, cows are going to fly before that happens," he says.
— TheAgentESQ (@TheAgentESQ) August 19, 2015
An unlikely hero arises: the agents. The guys who are supposedly trying to suck every dime out of their clients are the guys who need to protect the livelihood of the players. The next NFL CBA is not until 2020, but agents are already developing their opening statements.
"It's incumbent on all the agents out there and the NFL Players Association to battle for the guaranteed money," Schaffer says. "These guys' careers, they're tenuous, they're day-to-day, they're based upon avoiding injury, knock on wood.
"Anybody playing the sport where people are making money off their sweat, equity and hard work needs to be protected."
The NFLPA is the voice of the players, not their agents. The 2011 CBA took measures to protect players in terms of base salary, safer practice schedules and retirement benefits. But contracts still aren't totally guaranteed. Some stars have seen an increase in their guaranteed money.
"I don't think every player benefited from the last CBA," Wasielewski says. "I hope the agents are brought into that process more. Agents work with management and we work with players. We negotiate with players on a regular basis, so we have friends on the management side and we have players that are our clients. I think agents are a bridge, not the bridge, but one bridge between management and the workers -- the laborers."
"Laborers" is one way to describe the majority of professional football players. Casual fans recognize the skill positions–quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers–but most of the NFL is made up of lesser known names fighting for roster spots. The average NFL career lasts 3.3 years. Players come to work to do a job and get a paycheck. They also work in the offseason in their own time.
Going back to George Young's gladiator quote, the other three major sports provide a template for guaranteed money, and although the product is not guaranteed, the sports have not fallen behind.
"Look at these other sports," Shah says. "They have guaranteed contracts and it hasn't diminished their sports."
Even further from guaranteed money are college football players. With the Ed O'Bannon case and the Northwestern University NLRB-unionization case in the past few years, the push for college players' rights is growing. On one side, the NCAA maintains the sanctity of the education-for-play scholarship, while players assert the massive revenue from TV contracts and ticket sales make the tradeoff unfair.
"With the media, with the sponsorships, with the bowl games, and the players that are putting on the show, the college athletes, I think it's long overdue," Wasielewski, who represents former Northwestern safety Ibraheim Campbell, a 2015 fourth round pick by the Browns, says. "I don't know how it's going to look. Maybe it'll be a privatization for football and basketball. But once you start there, where do you end?"
— TheAgentESQ (@TheAgentESQ) August 2, 2015
Wasielewski says he usually finds players "eating McDonald's and Ramen noodles" when he recruits.
"You have a guy like Nick Saban making $7 million a year and these kids are scraping by on $700 a month," Schaffer says. "They go to the facility and their coaches are driving BMWs and Mercedes and these kids are laying it on the line. Coach Saban can work for 30 years and these guys might never make the pros."
College athletes have no representation, although Kain Colter's College Athletes Players Assocation (CAPA) would have been the first organization to represent the collective interests of college players had it not been dismissed by the NLRB in August. Colter's message was to protect college players in the face of injury during and after playing at the NCAA level. At both the NFL and NCAA level, injuries are a focal point. The four agents call the players the "greatest assets" in sports. They also believe the leagues–the NFL and the NCAA–are not doing their best to protect the athletes.
At the collegiate level, until the NCAA makes adjustments, players are going to challenge the rules.
"Cam Newton got paid $200,000, allegedly, to go to Auburn," Schaffer says. "Why'd they pay him that money? Because he was worth it. He won a National Championship and a Heisman Trophy. You know how much Auburn made off that? At some point, if players had representation and had agents, they might get treated fairly. Right now, they're not treated fairly."
The actions of the NFL front office are seen in public (e.g. Tom Brady and Deflategate), but the work of agents is seen behind closed doors.
— TheAgentESQ (@TheAgentESQ) August 12, 2015
When the NFL announces a suspension, the league's side is given, but not always the players and their agents.
"I think that the suspensions Roger Goodell is putting down are ridiculous," Schaffer says. "He doesn't value the greatest asset to the NFL and that's the players. No offense to Jimmy Garoppolo, but people aren't paying to see Jimmy Garoppolo play football.
"A guy like Josh Gordon has issues with marijuana or drinking, but you don’t take away his work and his livelihood and tell him you can't play. At some point, if he's giving away $2 million to smoke marijuana, that's his decision, but until then, let's him help. They're human beings at the end of the day. Very few people in our society suffer the adverse consequences that these guys do."
In The Agent, the producers and cast set out to show this behind-the-scenes face of sports agents. This is the side, where agents claim to be the honest allies to the players. The side where they go to hospitals and birthday parties, and they help move players into new homes. This is the side where the agents work for the players and not for themselves.
"Nothing is more satisfying than to know that I have helped a young man and his family have a successful career," Guerriero says.
For Peter Schaffer, that is what he did with Barry Sanders. As the Hall of Famer's agent, he secured enough protection that Sanders was able to generate an adequate income and retire at a healthy age.
Full episodes can be found at tv.esquire.com.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.