No one knows for sure, and Howard Slusher isn't talking to newspapermen right now, but executives around the National Football League believe Slusher is working as an agent for perhaps 50 players. The Los Angeles attorney represents players on at least 13 of the 28 NFL teams. And some NFL people believe he's a menace to football. "Slusher's Disease," one said, "is getting everybody."
Who is Howard Slusher and why are people saying terrible things about him?
"My problem in talking about Slusher is that I get so off-color you can't print it," said Tim Temerario, the Redskins' director of player personnel.
"He is unreasonable," said Al Ward, general manager of the New York Jets.
"I'm so tired of talking to him. Oh, God, I must have talked to him 80, 90, 100 times," said Don Klosterman, general manager of the Los Angeles Rams. Pain moved along the telephone line as Klosterman, spoke. "Some guys like to see their names in the papers more than other guys, and that's how Slusher massages his ego."
Temerario, Ward and Klosterman all have their war stories about Slusher, and we'll get to them later, but the crisis of the moment belongs to the New England Patriots and none of the bosses there would come to the phone the last couple of days to talk about what Slusher is doing to one of the NFL's best teams.
The only team to defeat Oakland last season, the Patriots could reach the Super Bowl this time. That was their hope, anyway, before two of Slusher's clients, Pro Bowl linemen Leon Gray and John Hannan, walked off the team last week. The very heart of an offensive line that made New England a big winner, tackle Gray and guard Hannah have demanded renegotiation of contracts currently in force. They say they're not being paid as much as other star linemen.
Few things irritate a sports executive more than the mention of renegotiation. The bosses figure a player isn't going to give any of the money back if he doesn't play up to expectations, so why should they give him any more if he does well? A contract is contact and both sides take risks.
So the Patriots have refused to be a test of wills. Terribly disappointed last season, when they felt an uncalled foul helped the Raiders beat them in the conference championship game, will the Patriots lust so for the Super Bowl that they'll yield to the Slusher-Hannah-Gray demands? Or will the players and agent decide that getting paid $100,000 say, is better than getting paid nothing.
Klosterman, the Los Angeles general manager said, "The New England thing is pathetic. It's ludicrous to think a player can walk out of camp when he's under contract. What they're doing is tantamount to blackmail."
One of pro football's best tight ends, Charlie Young, plays for Klosterman's team. A Slusher client, young signed a contract only three weeks ago. "We did not see eye to eye on Young," Klosterman said of summer-long negotiations with Slusher, who was said to be pursuing a four-year deal worth $1 million. "People in the game have to say no to certain proposals that are preposterous."
Klosterman said Slusher "has his own ideas about what professional football should be - he believes everybody ought to be paid over six figures and that the clubs have got plenty of money - and the course he's on is not good for the game."
"It's wrecking it," Temerario said. "The thing Slusher does, even though he's a lawyer, is that he chooses to ignore the law. He thinks contracts aren't worth the paper they're written on - and he's contributed to writing those contracts."
The Redskins have dealt with Slusher on three players, Temarario said: veteran tackle Tim Stokes, who refused to report on time for training camp this summer; this year's seventh-round draft choice, Reggie Haynes, and a forgotten free agent who didn't make the team.
"Slusher's demands are usually outrageous, just outrageous," Temerario said. "I don't want to ever deal with him again."
Temerario has an idea of how that can be arranged. "The only way to stop him is to find out which college players he's signed and not draft them. Just don't sign any of his players."
A tempering word here: no NFL man ever said a kind word about any agent, let alone a Howard Slusher whose reputation as a "tough negotiator" to quote Ward is overshadowed by a belief, to quoter Temerario, that he "tells everything he knows: he just blabs." Which is to say Slusher gets a good contract one place and demands it be matched another place.
The NFL management types also see disaster everywhere, whether it be from the players' union, from agents or from federal judges. In Slusher's control of maybe 50 players, one NFL man saw the possibility that the 5-foot-6, 275-pound lawyer - "about that, anyway, and he ate two hamburgers and two fish sandwiches for lunch with us; for [lunch]" Temerario said - could determine fate. "Hell, in a stroke he could wreck a league," the man said.
Slusher's work at New England certainly is hurting the Patriots. And Baltimore must be steaming. Its marvelous players, Roger Carr and John Dutton, hired Slusher to talk money for them and were training camp holdouts, Dutton reporting only yesterday.
Al Ward, the Jets' general manager, sees a dark pattern to Slusher's dealings in New England. In 1975, Ward said, Slusher represented the Buffalo Bills' first two draft choices. Coming off a good season, as the Patriots are, the Bills hoped for the Super Bowl, too.
"But the two guys didn't sign until the week before the opener and they were not worth a damn all season," Ward said. Buffalo won eight games, lost six that year. No Super Bowl.