Steinberg ready to get back in business after beating booze
SAN DIEGO — It's been three years since Leigh Steinberg had his last drink of vodka, the personal demon that sent his personal and professional lives crashing out of control.
It was on March 20, 2010, when Steinberg was standing in the doorway of a treatment center for indigent alcoholics — the last place anyone would expect to find the super agent who was the inspiration for Tom Cruise's character in “Jerry Maguire.” There wasn't a bed available, so his brother drove him to a residential rehab center where he spent the next 10 months.
Thursday is his third sober birthday. It's a big milestone for Steinberg, who plans to relaunch his sports and entertainment agency this year as well as work on numerous other projects, including an autobiography and his continuing crusade to raise awareness of the damaging effects of concussions.
“I wanted to focus on sobriety first so I absolutely could make sure I had an intelligent plan to deal with it,” Steinberg said in a phone interview from his office in Newport Beach.
“I continue to be a work in progress. You don't get cured from alcoholism. It's a lifelong condition, but with diligence, you can stop from drinking. Once it's in your brain, it's not like, ‘OK, I've been sober for three years, I can start drinking again.' ”
On Saturday, friend and business partner Richard Gillam will throw a party to celebrate Steinberg's three years of sobriety and his real birthday, which is next Wednesday.
“I get to repeat the Beatles lyrics, “Will you still need me ... ,” Steinberg said, quoting from “When I'm Sixty-Four.”
Digging out from the wreckage caused by the fog of alcoholism has included settling a personal bankruptcy case and repaying a loan to former NFL player Chad Morton in a tangled case that badly damaged Steinberg's career.
He's working to put together the financing to relaunch his sports agency. Later this year he'll take the test required to regain his certification from the NFL Players Association, which he let lapse during his battle with booze.
“I will prepare thoroughly,” said Steinberg, who then will begin recruiting clients. Within a year, he hopes to be certified in all major sports.
His only current client is SMU coach June Jones, who's been with Steinberg since his NFL days.
Steinberg, who always had a squeaky clean image, envisions a company that would assemble superstar talent in football, baseball, basketball, hockey, boxing, MMA, action sports, golf and tennis.
Earlier this week, he took to Twitter to solicit suggestions for the title of his autobiography, which will be published sometime between the end of the year and the Super Bowl, appropriate timing considering the number of title-winning quarterbacks and Hall of Famers he used to represent.
He said there's interest in a movie based on the book. And no, Cruise won't star in it.
Steinberg said he's been asked why he doesn't just retire from being a sports agent. He said he can make enough money from speaking engagements, his book, writing for Forbes.com and other outlets, and teaching sports and entertainment law classes at local colleges.
It turns out he's still idealistic.
“I still get fulfillment and gratitude in helping young men realize their dreams,” said Steinberg, who represented players such as Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Warren Moon, Bruce Smith, Howie Long, Derrick Thomas and Ben Roethlisberger. “I think the concept of role-modeling and a focus on second careers never goes out of style. And I haven't noticed the field of representation is greatly improved.”
Steinberg said he remains “hard-wired to be of service.” Over the decades, he said, his many clients have raised an estimated $760 million in various charitable endeavors. His late father, who was a high school principal in Los Angeles, admonished him to treasure relationships, especially with family, to make a difference and help people who can't help themselves.
“Look, the way I've made it through all of this is by perspective,” he said. “I'm not a starving peasant in Darfur. I don't have the name Steinberg in Nazi Germany. I don't have cancer. I don't live in a repressive country. I was born an American in the most democratic and economically rich country in the world and I didn't fight in a war to preserve that. The least I can do is try to extend that to people and try to make a difference.”
Steinberg has blamed only himself for his debts and drinking, which he said stemmed from a series of personal and business setbacks over several years.
“No question he has done a 180-degree turnaround,” Gillam said. “It's one thing to get to a year. Three full years, I think this is something we can comfortably say is his new state. He is clean and sober. I think what anybody can say about Leigh, even people who have found themselves on the opposite side of the fence, is he's a man we need back in the game.”
Steinberg is on the board of directors and a shareholder in Gillam's company, DeskSite, which has developed an app that allows fans to download customized, HD video of their favorite NFL teams to computers, rather than smart phones, with advertising targeted to the age and gender of the user.
“He's turning 64 but it seems more like he's 44. There's a gleam in his eye. ... I think this is going to be the year of Leigh Steinberg,” Gillam said.
Hall of Famers Moon and Smith — two examples of former Steinberg clients with successful second careers — are pulling for their former agent in his comeback.
“I think being sober for three years is something he's proud of and I'm definitely proud of him for,” said Moon, who lives in Seattle and runs a sports and entertainment marketing company in Irvine. “It took him a long time to get over that. He battled for a while. He tried everything over and over to make that happen and he finally got to the point where he conquered it.”
Smith is now a real estate developer in Virginia.
“Leigh was once a brilliant sports agent and it would be nice to see him return back to the prominence that he once had,” Smith said.
While he has interest in new technologies and environmental causes, Steinberg is most fervent about crusading for raising awareness of concussions and advocating safety changes. He's been concerned since the early 1990s because whenever his clients — particularly quarterbacks — sustained a concussion, doctors couldn't answer basic questions such as how many were too many and what were the long-term effects.
“It got to the point where I can no longer represent players and claim to be looking out for their best interests if I don't spend time trying to raise awareness in suggesting changes to make the game safer,” said Steinberg, who hosted concussion seminars and issued white papers. “I felt like an enabler where I was facilitating athletes to do an act that was hazardous to their health. At least they needed to be aware.”
Steinberg said he's concerned because players are bigger, stronger and faster, and they absorb thousands of sub-concussive hits during their careers.
“We've long known that because of damages to the body that occur in football that a 40-year-old player might have pain leaning over to pick up his child. It's another thing not to be able to recognize the child,” Steinberg said.
“That's why I call it a ticking time bomb and undiagnosed health epidemic. There will be massive amounts of damage in years to come that we haven't even experienced before.”
While Steinberg credits NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for doing more than all of his predecessors combined on concussions, the agent fears football could suffer in the future due to insurance liability and parents not letting their kids play.
Among his many pursuits, Steinberg said he's working with a physician to produce a sports drink that includes an antioxidant, nutraceutical compound geared to roll back the chemical reaction in cells that occurs in a concussion
Once he relaunches his agency, Steinberg said it's not necessarily important to return to the top of the business.
“No, what's important is to represent impactful athletes who make a difference,” said Steinberg, who plans to mentor young agents. “But that was always my approach. That's why I was so quarterback-heavy. They're the central players. I can't replicate the statistical success of the past. I don't think anybody ever will. I mean, God bless them if they do.”