In life, we get knocked down. Then the question is, do you get back up? In his life, (Williams) had some reversals and so have I. I think we have a bond in that way. I have admiration for the way he handled his reverse. —Agent Leigh Steinberg, on Jamaal Williams
PROVO — When BYU running back Jamaal Williams withdrew from school just before the start of the 2015 season, his future was uncertain.
Faced with a number of options, Williams decided to return to Provo, and he ended up becoming the Cougars’ all-time leading rusher. He’s expected to be selected somewhere in the middle rounds of this weekend’s National Football League draft.
It’s a story of redemption that Leigh Steinberg relates to.
“I was impressed by the fact that instead of transferring after having the problems with the Honor Code, he stayed at BYU and stuck it out,” Steinberg said. “He didn’t complain. He stayed true to his commitment to the school and finished what he started and graduated.”
That’s one of the reasons why Steinberg decided to represent Williams.
Steinberg, once regarded as one of the most powerful agents in sports, knows all about battling back after hitting rock bottom.
Sports agent Leigh Steinberg, right, is interviewed before the Memphis NFL football pro day Wednesday, April 6, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. | Mark Humphrey, Associated Press
Steinberg has negotiated more than $3 billion in contracts for players like Steve Young (including Young's famous $40 million contract with the USFL’s Los Angeles Express), Warren Moon, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Aikman and Drew Bledsoe. He represented the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft a record eight times.
Steinberg is credited as the real-life inspiration behind the main character played by Tom Cruise in the 1996 blockbuster movie “Jerry Maguire.”
However, Steinberg’s career, and life, unraveled after a string of devastating setbacks as a result of alcoholism, DUI arrests, bankruptcy, divorce and agent decertification.
But after several dark years, in the fall of 2014, Steinberg took a big step in his comeback by being recertified as an agent. Steinberg’s most prominent clients this year are Williams and Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes II. Last year, one of his clients, quarterback Paxton Lynch, was drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos.
Steinberg sees a lot of potential in Williams and not just because of his football talent.
“We’re looking for unique young men who are willing to serve as role models,” Steinberg said of his agency. In Williams, Steinberg sees a young running back with a charismatic personality and someone who knows how to thrive in the face of adversity.
BYU running back Jamaal Williams (21) works out during Pro Day in Provo on Friday, March 24, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
“In life, we get knocked down. Then the question is, do you get back up? In his life, (Williams) had some reversals and so have I,” said Steinberg, 68. “I think we have a bond in that way. I have admiration for the way he handled his reverse. I’m in my eighth year of sobriety. In his case, most young men would have just (left BYU). He stuck it out. He didn’t veer from his course. He was able to learn and mature from it. When one goes to BYU, that happens to be their standards so you know that going in. (Williams has) done things that most college students across the country engage in, but he chose to go to BYU. It’s the same in the NFL. They may have rules that may be arbitrary but he chooses to be an NFL player and it’s part of being an NFL player.”
Williams, meanwhile, admires Steinberg’s perseverance.
“I talked to a lot of agents and when I talked to Leigh, it was a mutual agreement. He had problems and I had my flaws,” he said. “He was just telling me what he went through and the things I went through — we went through the same struggles and the way we came back from them. You come back from your lows and go to back to your highs, but you’ve got to work at it. I like the way Leigh handles his business, his family and everything he cares for. He puts pride into it and he cares a lot. It shows that Leigh is a good person and kind-hearted. I’m grateful to have him as my agent.”
One of the hallmarks of Steinberg’s work has been his commitment to philanthropic causes, including the Boys and Girls Club and Steve Young’s Forever Young Foundation. Once Williams’ football career gets going, Steinberg sees Williams giving back.
“My guess that he’ll do something in his high school community and do something at BYU and it will involve kids somehow,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg loves that Williams has a strong support system, which includes his mother, his sister and his grandmother, as well as uncles and close friends.
Steinberg has had a longstanding relationship with BYU, having represented players like Young, Jason Buck and Shawn Knight. He’s also a friend of athletic director Tom Holmoe.
“I’ve always had a special place in my heart for BYU,” Steinberg said. “I try to follow BYU football.”
During Williams’ career, Steinberg was aware of him. Then he received a phone call from a Williams family friend, Luke Neal, who reached out to Steinberg, gauging his interest in representing Jamaal.
BYU running back Jamaal Williams (21) runs for a big touchdown during the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. BYU won 24-21. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Steinberg attended the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego and watched Williams rush 26 times for 210 yards and a touchdown. The next day, Williams and his extended family arrived at Steinberg’s office in Newport Beach, where Steinberg officially became Williams’ agent.
What kind of future can Williams have in the NFL?
“He has a very good future. He can be an every-down back. Not only can he hit the hole quickly, he’s explosive with some wiggle. He has the capacity to break runs,” Steinberg said. “But he’s also important in the passing game in the way that he blocks and runs routes. It’s not that he catches an amazing number of balls but he plays an important role in the passing game. It’s critical for a back.”
Despite a deep running back class this year, Steinberg is hopeful that Williams will be selected on Day Two of the draft. He notes that the Philadelphia Eagles have shown considerable interest in Williams.
“As you’re watching the draft, you’re looking at Philadelphia, hoping they don’t draft a running back in the first or second round,” Steinberg said. “Hopefully for his draft status, there’s a run on running backs in the first round. That would help him move up.”
For years in the NFL, running backs have been devalued. But that is changing.
“The pendulum has shifted back in favor of drafting running backs,” Steinberg said. “Hopefully that results in (Williams) being taken high.”
Steinberg has been involved in many drafts during his career. He says it’s a perennial highlight.
“The draft is the most exciting, poignant, joyous day of the year,” he said. “You have the hopes and dreams of the player and his extended family encapsulated in this one anxious day that ends with joyous rapture.”
And when Williams is drafted this weekend, it is expected to be a sweet moment for him and for Steinberg, two men who know about getting knocked down and getting back up.