By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- As the beach behind him disappears into a brilliant blue sea, Josh Stevens can feel the dream of his client Dane Randolph slipping through the speaker of the BlackBerry clutched to his ear. On the other end the phone is ringing. No answer. He paces the porch of this rented walk-up beach apartment and calls again. Voice mail. He taps out a message. No reply.
On the giant flat-screen television inside the apartment, coverage of the NFL draft is ending, football turning to baseball, and it is clear that Randolph, the right tackle from Maryland, will not be chosen. Until now, Stevens did not worry. An hour before, a scout from the Washington Redskins had asked Stevens for his fax number. This is usually a good sign, as it conveys serious interest. A fax often means a contract offer.
Washington would be perfect for Randolph. The Redskins need offensive line depth, which means he might have a good chance to make the team as an undrafted free agent, just as another former Maryland player, Stephon Heyer, did two years before. Stevens calls Randolph to tell him the good news.
But now the Redskins are not calling back. Stevens paces the apartment's porch, which abuts a paved bicycle path. A New Yorker here to spend draft day at his business partner Mike Abadir's home office, he looks lost in this beach paradise in his jeans and collared shirt, Yankees cap turned backwards and loafers on his feet. A woman in a bikini shimmies past on Rollerblades. He does see her. He is nearly toppled over by a family in a bike surrey with fringe on top. He scowls as he types into his BlackBerry.
Finally, the phone rings.
"What's the story here?" he barks into the phone.
The Redskins aren't interested. They've signed all their undrafted free agents. They are sorry.
Stevens slumps. And back home at his mother's townhouse in Owings Mills, Md., Randolph will soon learn another truth of life on the edge of the NFL: Nothing is ever as it appears.
In the weeks before the draft, several teams seemed to show interest in signing Randolph. The offensive line coach from the Jets acted especially impressed. The Dolphins were intrigued. As were the Redskins, Ravens and Giants. One team had him at the top of a list marked "priority free agents." And yet as the draft concludes and Stevens frantically calls team after team, the answer is coldly the same. No.
He sighs. "They get fickle, these teams," the agent says.
He trudges back to the porch to dial again. Finally, some success. The Green Bay Packers will bring Randolph in for a tryout at their rookie minicamp this weekend. Stevens smiles slightly. It's not what he wants, what he came into this draft expecting, but it's better than nothing. He tells the Packers he will take their offer if a contract doesn't come along from someone else.
In the months before the draft, Stevens and Abadir did everything they could to push their fledgling sports agency forward. They found prospective clients by examining scouting lists, trying to determine which players had the best chance of making teams. They interviewed players even as they recruited them, turning down several who might appear to be trouble later on. Then, after the players signed with them in winter, they flew them to Tempe, Ariz., to train with among others, Alex Rodriguez's running coach and Dan O'Brien, the former Olympic gold medal winner.
"We knew we were overspending and going above and beyond," Stevens said Monday afternoon, the day after the draft, as he sat outside a local hotel.
But they did it because they were sure that if their clients could get the right training, the proper coaching and conditioning, they would stand out in tryouts. And then those players might tell their friends and college teammates and the agency would grow.
What they didn't count on was something nobody anticipated until it came clear on Monday: The economy was changing the draft. Scouts were telling the agents that NFL teams aren't signing as many undrafted free agents this year. They think they will keep costs down this way, not handing out any signing bonuses. In the past, most teams signed about 15 players. But by noon on Monday, one club had signed six, another just one. Several were signing just eight and nine.
A coach from the Canadian Football League called Abadir and told him the number of players signed by NFL teams was so low, leaving so many talented prospects unclaimed, he figured to snatch up several bargains. He presumed the other CFL teams were expecting to do the same.
What just days before seemed a certainty -- Randolph signing as a rookie free agent, all but guaranteed a spot in a team's training camp -- had become a question. One that was being asked by agents everywhere.
From the couch in his mother's townhouse, Randolph was trying not to worry about the draft on Sunday. His plan had been to miss it altogether, lounging instead in a restaurant with college teammates, listening for his cellphone yet not anxiously anticipating every ring. But then it turned out that people were going to be out of town or at other people's houses. No group was going to a restaurant, so he sat on the couch and did the one thing he promised himself he wouldn't: He watched the entire draft.
As the rounds wore down he grew more nervous. He ran to a nearby computer whenever the coverage went to commercial to be sure he didn't miss a pick. Names came. Names went. As the final selections counted down he fought the anxiety that grew inside.
Later, as he thought about those final moments, he laughed.
"I'm glad I didn't get too excited," he said.
When the Redskins possibility fell through he was disappointed but figured that since the team had drafted a Maryland teammate, Kevin Barnes, and signed his fellow Maryland offensive linemen Edwin Williams and Scott Burley, there was little chance it would keep four rookies from the same school. Maybe it was better he go somewhere else.
A scouting executive from the Redskins called and apologized for not signing him. The executive said the team liked him but had signed other players instead, yet Randolph was welcome to try out at this weekend's minicamp if he wished. But by then Randolph and Stevens had decided it was better to take the Green Bay offer. Another tryout had been arranged for the following weekend with the Ravens, whose facility is just blocks from Randolph's mother's townhouse. Suddenly he had options. Not the options he hoped for, but options nonetheless.
"I want to have the mentality that this is the last chance," Randolph said of his Green Bay minicamp. "I don't want to take it too lightly at the end knowing I have another one the next week. I want to make them sign me."
Which is the best Stevens and Abadir can hope for now. For hours on Sunday they scrambled around the beach apartment, clutching lists of scouts' and executives' phone numbers hoping to get a live voice and one that could deliver them good news.
Eventually the Arizona Cardinals said they would sign another of their clients, linebacker Chase Bullock, Randolph's teammate from Maryland. And Abadir was able to get Southern Utah wide receiver Nick Miller a contract with the Raiders. Miller whooped into the phone as Abadir delivered the news, then ran into the next room to tell the rest of his family, who screamed with delight. Abadir held the phone away from his ear as their shouts poured from the speaker.
Meanwhile, outside on the porch, Stevens rested a foot on the short wall, holding his BlackBerry in his left hand, clutching his phone lists in his right. The sheets of paper fluttered in the breeze.
"Dane Randolph from Maryland!" he shouted into the phone. "Didn't you see him work out at his pro day?"
A few moments later his shoulders slumped again.
In the distance, halfway across the beach, a man was on his knees, digging into the sand, searching for something, his hands coming back empty each time. And on the day the NFL's teams decided they weren't going to sign as many undrafted free agents as in the past, it must have been how the agents in the apartment by the sand felt as well.