While sports agents clamored to sign Jadeveon Clowney ahead of his official declaration for the NFL Draft, Rock Hill native and Liberty University senior Jibrille Fewell went out and found representation on his own.
Clowney opted for veteran agent Bus Cook, whose clientele includes NFL stars Cam Newton, Jay Cutler and Calvin Johnson, over a number of high-profile chasers, including rap star Jay-Z.
But Fewell, a distant cousin and former high school teammate of Clowney’s, reached out to Brian Brundage and Worldwide Career Management, the agency he signed with in December to help him prepare for the NFL Draft. While Clowney was coveted like a rare diamond, Fewell had to seek out what he felt was the best fit.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I was back and forth, back and forth. I just looked at what’s the best fit for me.”
Despite widely differing draft projections, Clowney and Fewell had to navigate the same pitfall-laden maze to select an agent. Only time will tell if they made the right choices. Fewell and his family were just happy to be finished with that part of the process; the standard representation agreement, or SRA, was signed, mailed and delivered.
“It’s exciting and nerve-wracking all at the same time,” Fewell’s mother, Grafonda Ruff, said. “Just the process of it all; talking to agents and getting the legal side, there’s just so many aspects. I had no idea there were so many aspects.”
How it happens
Owing to the cutthroat arena in which they operate, sports agents run the gamut of respectability. Some have paid college players by using what are called “runners,” intermediaries that reach out to players in an effort to win their business before the OK’d time. Paying college players is just one of the NCAA violations that some agents will engage in to win potential clients.
Most agents operate more ethically, going through the schools and the families to contact prospects. Agents certified by the NFL Players’ Association are allowed to contact prospects still in college – as long as the NCAA athletes pay for their own expenses during a meeting – but cannot sign players until after their last college game. Once that happens, the NFLPA’s 44-page contract advisors’ regulations stipulate what can and cannot happen.
Darren Heitner, a Forbes contributor and curator of the Sports Agent Blog, called agents’ recruitment of prospects a “year-round” cycle. Agents use any avenue possible to engage prospects; these days, they often rely on social media to make first contact.
Fewell started seeing messages in his inbox on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in November, and he met a few agents after Liberty football games. An ESPN article written by former NFL agent Andrew Brandt in late 2012 called the period between Thanksgiving and the New Year’s the “go time” for agents. While Clowney was likely inundated by representation proposals, the interest in Fewell was closer to a trickle.
“There was about four or five of them,” he said.
What to look for/pitfalls
Fewell got an early taste of the agent business and how dishonest it can be. Several agents reached out to him with the hopes of inching closer to Clowney.
“I guess from a business perspective, it’s not the worst idea in the world, right?” said Worldwide Career Management’s Brundage, Fewell’s business manager.
It still felt a bit icky for Fewell. But that’s the reality of an industry where all of the participants are essentially paid on commission and will do anything to get ahead.
“There are insider websites that will provide very enhanced information about prospects, down to the point of providing contact information for those players,” said Heitner. “Often times it’s not only about those particular players, but the relationships that those players may have with others. Agents will sign a player who may be a fringe prospect, if that fringe prospect can lead to referrals to more-prized individuals. It’s not only the short-game, but long-term opportunities.”
Brundage maintained he wasn’t aware of any connection between Fewell and his more famous distant cousin.
“We didn’t have an agenda when he started talking to us,” said Brundage. “I didn’t even know until after he signed that he was related to Clowney.”
In some cases, agencies will sign a huge haul of prospects and spend no resources on them with the hopes that one or two land in the NFL. With little to no expenditure, the profits can be huge.
Even over the phone, Ruff – Fewell’s mom – could sniff out the agencies that lacked substance pretty quickly.
“They’re all very nice at first, because they want your business of course,” she said. “But as you start asking questions, asking for credentials and their intent, I wouldn’t name any, but their intent sometimes didn’t seem like their main interest was to ensure that Jibrille was happy.”
The agent game is brutal. Andrew Brandt’s 2013 story for The MMQB, “Agent Zero,” said approximately 800 agents were certified by the NFLPA to represent the 1800 players in the league at that time. Another article by Brandt stated about half of the agents didn’t represent a single player; instead, about 25 percent of the agents represented close to 80 percent of the players.
The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement sets maximum compensation for agents at 3 percent of the money received by the player for the duration of his contract with an NFL team. That percentage has decreased since the 1990s, ramping up competition in the process. Some agents will undercut competitors by agreeing to accept less than 3 percent.
Agents aggressively pursue potential clients at the higher end of the draft board, but Fewell’s case was different. Brundage, owner of Worldwide Career Mangement, or WCM, wasn’t aware of Fewell because he wasn’t on any prospect lists. Fewell had seen how WCM worked with its other clients, some of whom were his friends and former teammates.
“He reached out to our NFL certified agent and then our management team. We kind of did our homework and looked at him from a different perspective, not a draft perspective, just a football player and a person perspective,” said Brundage. “It kind of just felt right. This is a good guy; let’s put our efforts and emphasis behind someone that is a good kid that we believe in, that we think we can help get to the next level.”
The two parties began talking in November. But placing Fewell’s potential livlihood into the hands of a stranger was no easy decision.
“We just prayed a lot,” said Ruff.
Brundage and Fewell still haven’t met face-to-face, but they built a rapport through phone calls and online video chats.
Ruff said Brundage was very out front throughout the process, where other agencies weren’t. Brundage answered questions, returned Ruff’s phone calls and came across as genuine in a field where authenticity is often absent.
“That gave me comfort,” she said.
Two key factors swung Fewell in WCM’s direction. First, Brundage’s agency will provide Fewell with a nutritionist, social media manager, trainer, contract advisor, travel coordinator, and even a website – jibrillefewell.com – all in effort to get him into the NFL. Fewell, who shares a car and a house with three other WCM clients in Buffalo, where he is currently training, is paying for nothing the next few months. Agencies often foot the bill for a player’s travel, training and miscellaneous expenses, all in the hope of a big return one day. For a prospect like Fewell, the chances of a big return are slimmer.
“We treat all of our players the same,” said Brundage. “If Jibrille comes into our family he’s got the resources of those 30-plus employees just the same way the top draft pick does.”
The second factor in picking WCM was that Fewell was impressed by what Brundage achieved for former University of Buffalo teammate Willie Moseley Jr., who was signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season after going undrafted. Moseley was later cut by the Bucs, but many didn’t expect him to even have a shot after a position switch hampered his college production.
“I’ve seen what he done for him,” said Fewell. “Most people thought he wasn’t gonna get a shot but those guys got him a shot to the league. That really opened up my eyes.”
Brundage, whose agency represents three current NFL players and has 12 clients entered in May’s draft, said Moseley had a “super-solid pro day.” A pro day is when a college hosts NFL scouts to examine the school’s draft prospects in workouts and drills. Moseley’s standout pro day at the University of Buffalo led to interest from a number of teams.
“We took the numbers from that, told all the 32 teams, their grandmothers, their grandfathers, basically created an awareness level for him that he maybe wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Brundage. “After the draft, we had about seven teams interested in him. Then it was just a matter of picking where he wanted to go.”
Fewell discussed the decision with a number of people close to him, including a pair of friends already in the NFL, the Buffalo Bills’ Rock Hill-bred duo of Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Meeks.
Meeks, the former Rock Hill High School and Clemson standout, was also given an undrafted free agent grade ahead of last year’s draft, but ended up going to the Bills in the fifth round. He had some particularly sage advice, telling Fewell to ask the agents “to call you at a certain time tomorrow, to let you know what kind of agents they are,” as a test of their sincerity and commitment. “He just told me different ways to test them out,” Fewell said.
Andrew Brandt said the decision for many prospects came down to this: “There is always the push-pull with bigger agencies and smaller agents: Bigger groups sell influence and contacts; smaller agents sell personal attention. Ultimately, a player’s choice comes down to comfort level, gut feel, or the fact that the agent represented a friend or teammate.”
Other agencies wouldn’t commit to continuing to represent Fewell after the draft, whereas Brundage promised to stick with his client even if he wasn’t drafted by an NFL team and decided to pursue Canadian or arena football.
“I think that was the thing that said, ‘OK, I like him,’ ” Ruff said.
Players like Clowney and Gilmore probably didn’t need agents. Their talent and visibility would get them drafted regardless. But Fewell needs Brundage to be a bullhorn for his cause in an arena that’s already filled with other noise.
“Especially when you’re talking about players from small schools, somebody that’s not targeted to be a top-of-the-draft guy, that’s where going with somebody who is, one, willing to put in the time, effort and energy, and, two, has those connections to be a major influence on that player making the next level, is key,” said Heitner, the curator of Sports Agent Blog.
On that criteria, WCM would appear to be the right choice for Fewell. But the coming months will determine if that’s true.
“If I was to rate the decision on a scale of 1 to 10, it’s one of those 10-type of decisions,” Brundage said. “If you have someone that you have hired that isn’t really working 24/7 for you, it’s not going to give you the best opportunity to get to the next level.”
Brundage can only sell a product that’s as good as promised. He’ll do the barking, but it’s up to Fewell to show he has the ability to back it up during upcoming all-star game appearances and college pro days and combines, where NFL scouts gather.
“The biggest thing you have to do is train, work out,” said Vantz Singletary, Fewell’s defensive line coach at Liberty University, and a mentor and family friend. “If you don’t do well on pro day, your agent, a lot of time, he has a hard time getting you a chance.”
It’s a leap of faith for both the prospect, putting his future partly in the hands of someone he might not really know, and for the agent, investing his money, time and energy into someone he doesn’t truly know either.
“It’s your livelihood,” said Fewell. “It’s something you’ve got to just pray and meditate on. That’s what I did and these are the people I need to be around. It’s just the best fit for me.”
Fewell reached out to Brundage, so his company also had a choice in the matter. What made Brundage say yes?
“A very good body and he is probably one of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet,” he said. “If you can take that package, and get it fine-tuned and get it out there, I actually think he’ll get drafted.”
With arguably the hardest decision of his life signed and sealed, Fewell has now narrowed his sights on preparing for the draft, which begins May 8.
Football is the focus from here on.
“Only thing I do is eat, sleep and train,” he said.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T