Sitting behind the home bench at a Washington Bullets-Portland Trail Blazers game at the Capital Centre, a father winced as his son peppered the man next to him with questions.
Mike Smith’s 12-year-old son, Drew, was much more impressed with NBA superagent David Falkthan the game. He pumped Falk about his line of work and his clients.
“Drew talked his ear off,” Mike Smith recalled. “He’s here to watch the game and my kid’s bugging the hell out of him. But he was great toward Drew. He told him everything about the business. I apologized to Falk afterwards.”
That night in 1995, Smith decided he would become a sports agent. Seventeen years later, he is living his dream, representing NFL players for Miami-based Goal Line Football while also working as an associate at Tysons Corner-based Protorae Law.
At 29, with 15 NFL players under contract, the Sterling native ranks among the youngest agents with 10 or more active clients.
He has prospered by letting other agents chase stars and training his sights on under-the-radar players such as fullback Darrel Young of the Washington Redskins, fullback Henry Hynoski of the New York Giants and Chicago Bears linebacker Dom DeCicco.
“I wish I could walk up to [Stanford quarterback] Andrew Luck and say: ‘Hi, I’m Drew Smith. Let me represent you,’ ” Smith said laughing. “But you have to have a realistic sense of who you are and what you do. . . . I tell everybody, I try to find ballplayers . . . hard-working, blue-collar-type players. Guys that will fight and work and have the mind-set of: ‘I’m not leaving. I’m going to be here.’ Guys that are going to be viable NFL players for eight to 10 years.”
Generally, Smith earns up to three percent of a client’s pay once he signs with a team. Often, however, Smith has to invest up to $15,000 into a player to cover training, living and travel arrangements to help him before he is drafted or signs a contract.
Growing up, Smith kept his nose in NFL draft preview guides — sometimes in class with a history book over them so his teacher wouldn’t catch him. That love for statistics and scouting reports is one reason why an internship at Goal Line Football Management became a full-time job.
Brian Levy, who founded Goal Line Football in 1990, agreed to bring on Smith, then a first-year law student at the University of Miami — but with reservations.
“A lot of times to give someone an internship, it’s a drag and very draining to train the person,” Levy said. “I had avoided bringing on interns for years. But Drew showed an incredible knowledge of football. He wasn’t an intern sitting there, saying, ‘What do you have for me today?’ He was always proactive, putting together scouting reports, making recommendations on guys we should recruit. . . . He did an incredible job.”
In 2009, Smith landed his first client: Nebraska offensive lineman Lydon Murtha, a seventh-round pick of the Detroit Lions who now plays for the Miami Dolphins and just re-signed for one year and $1.9 million.
Since then, Smith’s clientele has steadily grown. In addition to the 15 players under contract in the NFL, a couple of more are NFL free agents, two play in the Arena Football League and nine more hope to be drafted or signed as rookies this spring.
A testament to the significance of Smith’s early success is the fact that of the roughly 1,000 certified NFL agents, 650 have clients, according to the NFL Players Association. But less than half of those agents represent more than one active player or more.
Smith of course has aspirations to become a high-profile agent and negotiate lucrative deals. But that will come in time, Levy says.
Meanwhile, Smith focuses on growth and his current clients. He exchanges text messages with them each day, and talks to them by phone once or twice a week.
“He answers all of my questions,” Young says. “He makes me feel better about my situation, tells me about my contracts and how it works and is always looking for endorsement deals and other perks. He even reaches out to my family to see if he can do anything for them. I was in a situation two years ago where I’d call the agency, and wouldn’t hear back. . . . But with Drew, he’s always looking out for me.”
Smith often draws on lessons from his father — who works for himself, installing carpets — from Levy, and the example of one of the NFL’s leading sports agents, Drew Rosenhaus.
“My dad’s always working to make his customers happy,” Smith said. “Brian taught me the same thing. And in school, at Miami, Rosenhaus came and spoke to our class one day. He had two phones working. While he’s talking, he’s going back and forth with clients. You’ve got to be there for your guys.
Says Levy: “Players have to know you care about them. To be great, you have to be passionate. To be passionate, you have to really know your client; everything about him, from his family to what he would order on a menu. And you have to go through a lot of ups and downs in this business. Learning how todeal with disappointments is key.”
Smith has experienced some of those highs and lows already. He tells the story of Hynoski, who coming out of Pitt was one of the top fullback prospects, but pulled a hamstring at the NFL combine and went undrafted. But Hynoski got a shot with the Giants, wound up starting at fullback and now has a Super Bowl ring.
“When things are good, he feels it that much more,” Smith’s wife, Caitlin, says. “Like, when [Hynoski] won the Super Bowl, you would’ve thought Drew won. . . . But there are days when he walks through the door and you can just see on his face, something’s terribly wrong. I’ve asked him: ‘What is it? Is your mom okay? Is your dad sick?’ And he’ll explain that he had a player get injured, or cut. He takes it all personally, both the good and bad.”
Says Smith: “I manage lives. . . . So, to sit there and to know that they depend on me to do everything to put them in a good situation, it’s a lot of pressure.”
But Smith wouldn’t trade that pressure.
“I can’t even call it a job,” he says. “I can’t believe I get up every morning and do this.”