About a million people descended on San Francisco over the weekend to take part in the festivities surrounding Super Bowl 50. And on Saturday afternoon, downtown positively thrummed with bodies and life. Football fans advertised their allegiance with head-to-toe merchandising and spilled out of BART stations headed to Super Bowl City.
In front of the Metreon, buskers beat on drums and plastic buckets, while upstairs in the City View event center, celebrities mingled with sports power brokers sipping cocktails and nibbling sushi and sliders. At the heart of this celebration of American culture: Leigh Steinberg.
“I had no breakfast. I’ll have no lunch. I have no dinner. I have no life,” he said. It was his party, after all, and it didn’t look like he wanted it any other way.
Once a sports agent to top all sports agents, Steinberg represented a roster full of superstars, like former 49ers quarterback Steve Young and champion boxer Oscar De La Hoya.
At Steinberg’s 29th Super Bowl Party, former players like Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart and 49ers and Raiders defensive back Ronnie Lott chatted with Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio and Giants CEO Larry Baer. And former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight titleholder Chuck Liddell, sporting his trademark mohawk, hung out on the balcony near a table offering sliders.
Just a few years ago, the scene would have been nearly impossible. In 2012, the former boy wonder — the model for Tom Cruise’s character in “Jerry Maguire” — filed for bankruptcy. After a 10-year battle with alcoholism and a messy divorce, his life was in a shambles.
Everyone loves a comeback, but to Steinberg the event on Saturday was also a return.
“Well, I’ve lived here half my life, so it’s a homecoming,” said Steinberg, a UC Berkeley and Boalt Hall grad. “It’s a unique opportunity to put together family friends. And I love the Bay Area — it’s got a special magic to it and I think it’s hosting the Super Bowl beautifully.”
To make the circle complete, the agent who has specialized in quarterbacks over his 40-year career has got a new client — Paxton Lynch, the University of Memphis signal caller who’s now a top prospect in the NFL draft.
“Paxton Lynch is 6-feet-7,” Steinberg said. “His hands are almost a foot long. He’s got an incredible ability to escape the pocket. So he’s in the new vogue of robo-quarterbacks.”
The event was a chance for celebrities to schmooze and mingle, but for Steinberg it was also about highlighting causes he cares about, chief among them athletic concussions.
“I had a crisis of conscience back in the 1980s,” he said. “Because I’m representing half the starting quarterbacks in the NFL, and they keep getting hit in the head. And we were going to doctors and asking them, ‘How many are too many?’ and they had no answers.”
So he started holding conferences to find out the answer to that question. In 1994, a white paper was issued that recommended the NFL change its rules to disallow tackling with the head and neck and called for more research into preventing concussions.
But Steinberg said the NFL was slow to respond. In 2007 he held another conference to highlight the science showing that three or more concussions result in “an exponentially higher rate of Alzheimer’s, ALS, premature senility, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and depression.”
Steinberg said the NFL needs to do more to prevent the “ticking time bomb” of concussions. Better helmets and keeping kids from playing too young are key, he said, but the real leap needs to come from recognizing the trauma caused by sub-concussive hits — repeated blows to the head that don’t cause concussions.
To Steinberg, causes are now the point. He can’t compete with his former self. So, he said he’s looking to just work with a few clients and help them become role models.
And while that’s commendable, players might be coming to him to get a deal like the one he struck for Steve Young back in 1984.
At the time, the owner of the U.S. Football League’s Los Angeles Express, Bill Oldenburg, was trying to sign players who could help make the fledgling league a viable competitor to the NFL. Young was a player who fit the bill, being highly sought by teams in both leagues after starring at Brigham Young University.
Steinberg says the deal wasn’t going through quickly enough for Oldenburg.
“He [Oldenburg] got so angry he went up to Steve and said, ‘I don’t know if you’re man enough for this team.’ And he had us escorted unceremoniously out of the building, and we sat on California Street at 3:30 in the morning. That was a deal that did not seem likely to come back together,” Steinberg said, smiling.
The deal that eventually came together was the largest contract in football history up to that time: $40 million.
Now time will tell what Steinberg’s second act will bring. But as the party swirled to a close, he gave his parting thought: “I think all of us in our lives can envision a world that we would like to have, and then realize it’s better to light candles than curse the darkness.”