Greetings are exchanged. Then Lewis and Dominik talk Black’s future with Tampa Bay.
Lewis takes in Dominik’s offer and scribbles figures on a Post-it note. The numbers for the four-year veteran don’t please Lewis. He wants Dominik to show more.
“I’m worried about the real dollars,” Lewis says to Dominik. “What is it over the first three years of the deal? What are the guarantees? How much is he getting up front?
“I mean, Dom, honestly, can you somehow find a pencil sharpener in that drawer of yours and sharpen it up a little bit and see what you can do?”
Lewis and other NFL agents are in the middle of a free-agency frenzy after the lockout ended Monday. On Tuesday, teams were allowed to sign rookies and undrafted free agents and negotiate with veteran free agents. On Friday, teams can sign those veteran free agents.
The schedule change has forced Lewis and his colleagues to compress three-to-five months of work into five days.
To Lewis, the rush is thrilling. If you can’t stand the heat, he says, you’re in the wrong profession.
On Tuesday afternoon, Lewis tries to put heat on Dominik. He tells the general manager a player with experience in Tampa Bay’s system like Black is worth more than a possible replacement, because Black won’t have a learning curve. Experience is valuable.
“No offense, my violin is not coming out for Tampa,” Lewis says to Dominik. “What do you got? Forty-something million dollars you can play with?”
Lewis stumbled into the industry by accident. In 1980, he moved to the St. Louis area to work in photography.
Two years later, he began throwing pitches during St. Louis Cardinals batting practice at Busch Stadium for $50 a game. The job allowed him to mingle with players for the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals. Soon he began representing friends such as running back Stump Mitchell and cornerback Carl Allen as a favor.
Lewis’ break came after he devised a plan to gain Mitchell leverage. Mitchell played behind starter Ottis Anderson, but Lewis had rushed for a career-high 1,006 yards in 1985.
After that season, Lewis demanded Mitchell’s contract be worth more than Anderson’s. The Cardinals thought Lewis was crazy. So Lewis called Bill Tatham, Jr., then-owner of the United States Football League’s Arizona Outlaws.
“How would you like to get great publicity nationwide?” Lewis recalls saying. “How would you like to sign Stump Mitchell?”
“Hell,” Lewis recalls Tatham telling him, “I’ve got no money.”
“I didn’t ask you about money.” Lewis recalls saying. “I asked you, ‘How would you like to get great publicity?'”
The Outlaws held a press conference announcing Mitchell’s move. The scene included a giant check placed on an easel for a $1 million signing bonus.
But, unknown to Mitchell, there was no deal struck between Lewis and the Outlaws. The press conference was a ploy to make the Cardinals meet Lewis’ demands.
Moments before the press conference was scheduled to begin, Lewis received a call from the Cardinals. They wanted to make a deal, and they were willing to pay. Lewis canceled the event in Arizona. The agent and his player flew back to St. Louis to sign a new contract.
Word spread among players about Lewis’ skills. His clientele grew. Six players became eight. Eight became 10. Ten became 12. A lifestyle began.
“I don’t think I would want to ever do anything but this,” Lewis says. “People always ask me, ‘Who are you friends?’ Besides my family, I would guess it would be my players. It’s not a 9-5 job where you get off of work, and you leave your work.
“My job is 24/7. I’m always on call.”
Early Tuesday afternoon, Lewis stands in the kitchen in a black collared shirt and khaki shorts and speaks about strategy. Kevin Omell, National Sports Agency’s vice president and general counsel, types on a laptop at one of two white foldout tables nearby.
Lewis waves his arms. He understands what this week means.
“The sense of urgency is greater on both sides,” he says. “We have to separate the pretenders from the contenders.
“When you separate the 32 teams, you may only find three contenders really coming up with the bucks. Then the player has to determine, ‘Do I want to live here? What’s the most conducive to my play? Do I want to raise a family here?'”
The lockout changed everything for Lewis’ agency. In a normal year, Lewis and his three staff members work to finalize deals for their top-tier players, like New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott, as soon as possible after free agency opens in late February. Contracts for second-tier players usually are finished by April’s draft. Third-tier players fall into place sometime right before or after training camps start in late July.
But the work stoppage produced a scramble that is seen throughout Tuesday afternoon in the agency’s offices at the mansion. Staffers carry on conversations with clients traveling to team facilities.
In a room downstairs, the agency’s marketing director Dan Saffron speaks on his cell phone with Josh Harrison. The undrafted offensive tackle from South Carolina State signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Tuesday.
“Hey, got your bags packed?” Saffron says to Harrison. “Congratulations, buddy. … That excitement you’re feeling today is what you would have felt after the draft in a normal year.”
Saffron’s words are a welcome sign of the new era.
Lewis’ low moment during the lockout happened March 11, when players walked away from negotiations. That day, he called Kevin Carter, one of his clients who had ties to the NFLPA executive committee.
“Don’t let this thing walk away,” Lewis recalls saying.
A day later, the lockout began.
“I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t frustrated, probably like every agent and every player,” Lewis says. “I was really frustrated, because I felt in the beginning this deal should have been negotiated and not litigated.”
Lewis spent the summer talking to his players about issues he could control. He and his staff tried to keep clients informed. They checked in to make sure players kept in shape. Communication between the agency and its players was more frequent this offseason compared to recent years because of the uncertainty.
“It made me realize how much I love the game, and it made me appreciate the people I am around on a daily basis,” says Marc Lillibridge, the agency’s vice president of personnel. “I will say this – it gave me a lot more time with my kids.”
Still, the experience was odd.
Over the years, Lewis has become addicted to his fast-paced lifestyle. For him, the hardest part since mid-March was a forced slowdown. He likes to say he grows older as an agent, but he never grows up. Football keeps him young.
The silence between teams and agents upset him. The lockout made him question how people retire. He says he would go out of his mind.
Finally, on Sunday, Lewis received the news that he had waited for: the work stoppage would end Monday. Phones started ringing. Business was back.
“It has been a long road,” Lewis says while sitting at the kitchen table, his team busy in their offices. “I can’t tell you how happy I am and the players are.”
Lewis’ talk with Dominik continues.
The give-and-take between the two men about Black on Tuesday afternoon is part of the most anticipated NFL free agency period in league history. Business is happening fast, and Lewis is in the middle of the conversation.
Across the country, a similar dialogue is taking place. The uncertainty, the negotiations, the silence between agents and team officials is over.
Football will return soon, and people such as Lewis and Dominik have resumed their roles within the game.
“I’m talking taking care of the core players you guys drafted,” Lewis says to Dominik. “That’s what I always read about with (Tampa Bay coach) Raheem (Morris) is that he wants to take care of his players before he goes out there.
“Regardless, you’re going to have to sign three linebackers out there that are going to start. We hope Quincy is one of those three.”
Lewis doesn’t have to hope for the lockout’s end any longer.
His rush has returned, and it feels good to be back.