Seven Years Sober: Leigh Steinberg sees himself in Vince Young, comeback clients

By Alex Butler   |   Updated March 22, 2017 at 10:17 AM
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March 21 (UPI) -- Tuesday marked 2,555 days of sobriety for Leigh Steinberg, once known as the biggest agent in the sports world.

The inspiration for the film Jerry Maguire fell hard in 2010. A résumé representing 61 first round NFL Draft selections and eight No. 1 picks could not overcome alcoholism. Steinberg lost the bulk of his business, his marriage, his home, and went bankrupt. But finally admitting that he was no match for his addiction was the first step in his resurgence.

The man who once represented Steve Young, Troy Aikman, and Ben Roethlisberger, has turned to Vince Young, Paxton Lynch, and a cast of stellar prospects, including quarterback Patrick Mahomes, for his second act.

YOUNG'S FULL CIRCLE

Steinberg, 67, was sitting near the end zone at the 2006 Rose Bowl when Young heroically scrambled nine yards for the game-winning score in Texas' National Championship victory over USC.

Now, 11 years later, the duo is meshed as the No. 3 pick in the 2006 NFL Draft attempts to resurrect his fading football career with the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Signed, sealed, and delivered to Riderville. Welcome to the Green & White family, Vince Young!🤘8️⃣ #RiderPride

A post shared by Sask. Roughriders (@sskroughriders) on

Young, 33, hasn't taken an NFL snap since 2011. He owned a 31-19 record as a starter, completing 57.9 percent of his passes for 8,964 yards, 46 touchdowns, and 51 interceptions in six NFL seasons for the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles. The two-time Pro Bowl selection was named the 2006 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, before succumbing to depression and financial woes.

Young reportedly went missing while in possession of a firearm in 2008, causing the Titans to notify police. He was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year in 2009. Then Young was sentenced to 18 months probation after getting arrested in January of this year for drunk driving.

To say things have spiraled back into place for Young would be an understatement. The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner is now part of the University of Texas Longhorn Network, opened a residential real estate brokerage, a steakhouse, a charitable foundation that works with at-risk youth, and has a successful marriage. His family includes wife Candice Johnson and his son Jordan, born in 2010.

All of that had a role in snagging Steinberg to be his comeback compadre.

"He still has the yearning to play football and he's 33, and in some senses that's obviously not like starting as a rookie," Steinberg said. "If a quarterback doesn't have injuries to his legs, they can play for a very long time because the arm strength doesn't diminish rapidly. I've seen Warren Moon throw the ball at 60 with a pretty tight spiral, so he's excited and engaged and is involved in training now in Austin. He is training very akin to what a draftee is doing to get ready for scouting for the draft system."

Young was sitting next to Steinberg last spring in Austin when the duo conversed about his trials. They met again during Super Bowl week in Houston.

"I recall how he was the hottest athlete in America for a period after [the National Championship] but I hadn't really followed his career, other than to know that it started quickly but it didn't seem to end the way he wanted it," Steinberg said. "Here was this bright articulate athlete sitting next to me with a very sharp wife. It didn't totally fit with the mild impression I had from some of the stories I read."

Young earned more than $35.3 million from 2006 through 2012 in the NFL, according to Sportrac. His deal with the Roughriders is for one-year and he'll be competing for a job with 37-year-old Kevin Glenn.

Steinberg was impressed with Young's cast of advisors, including his wife and financial planner. Endorsements from Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams also enhanced the agent's willingness to work with the former Longhorns star.

"So there was fire in his eyes when he talked about playing football," Steinberg said. "I asked him, 'look if the only thing that happens is you have some good years in Saskatchewan, is that enough?' Because obviously at 33, soon to be 34, if your only intention is to go back to the NFL, you aren't going to be able to put the requisite energy into the Saskatchewan experience."

"Basically he wants to play football and they just gave him the opportunity to play. I was impressed by the charitable foundation, of what he has done with his life. Our practice is about role models and athletes giving back. Each of the athletes does a high school scholarship fund. Players like Troy Aikman have endowed scholarships at UCLA and then a charitable foundation at the professional level."

Then Steinberg saw himself in the quarterback.

"Part of my motivation for doing this and having done this for 43 years is to help young people fulfill their dreams," Steinberg said. "So I was heavily involved...and I've gone through my own struggle with alcohol. Tuesday was seven years continuously sober, and rebuilt a practice. So you know I felt a kinship with someone starting a little later in life to continue to stay active and have a second chance."

Young uses advanced nutrition and is going through strength, weight, and speed training. He will work with quarterback coaches to sharpen mechanics. Jarious Jackson, the former Notre Dame passer, is now the Roughriders' quarterback coach. He is also set to fly down this week for a session with Young.

Steinberg said the "notoriously hardcore" Regina, Saskatchewan sports fans have received his client extremely well.

But Young isn't calling it a comeback.

"I wouldn't say a comeback, I'd say it's an opportunity," Young said in a press conference. "Because the fact is, I love the game of football and it's kind of hard to sit on the couch and see the game and not able to be out there playing."

Evidence of Young's maintained popularity was displayed on Feb. 15, when Steinberg tweeted he was representing Young. The tweet earned more than 500,000 impressions if a few days.

"I would like to thank coach Jones for reaching out and giving me this opportunity," Young said at a Roughriders press conference. "Like he said earlier, I always wanted to play football again but didn't know how it was going to happen. God always works in mysterious ways and went full circle. To you coach and

FROM LYNCH AND MAHOMES TO JOHNNY FOOTBALL

Steinberg is in a unique position as an agent. He has been through the inner battle of alcoholism, something that forced former Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel out of the NFL and into rehab.

But while Young's fellow embattled former Heisman Trophy winner was being ditched by agents, he never reached out to Steinberg. The agent said he doesn't throw his clients away for one incident or mistake. Manziel, 24, rehired agent Erik Brukhardt earlier this month.

"I'm not competing with my younger self," said Steinberg, who also represented Ricky Williams. "There were weekends where I had half the starting quarterbacks. We have nine players in the Hall of Fame. We are still looking for role model players. Patrick Mahomes is exactly the type of player I've represented for 40 years. So is Paxton Lynch. They are the same sort of high character highly talented franchise quarterbacks that I have always represented."

Mahomes is projected to be a first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, while Lynch will again be competing for the Denver Broncos' starting gig.

"Having said that, I think I have special empathy for the fact that we don't throw young people on the trash heap of history for one incident or mistake."

He hints that Manziel needs to deal with his addiction before getting back to the gridiron. The former Texas A&M star hasn't thrown an NFL pass since 2015.

"Here's the key, these issues of alcohol, drugs, and other addictions, the first key is that there has to be a recognition by the person affected that they're powerless when it comes to the substance," Steinberg said. "Denial is very strong in most of these situations. Usually someone has to hit a bottom, whatever they define as that, and be willing to get help. Because otherwise, very few people will do the work it takes to get healthy. Once someone realizes they need help, then there is a pat back. Playing professional sports is probably not in and of itself, the best way to get healthy. There used to be a relief pitcher years ago for the Los Angeles Dodgers that had a cocaine problem. [I can't] think of a more stressful circumstance than coming in every day when the game is on the line. So the point is, there probably needs to be a recovery process. The issue is saving someone's life."

"Dealing with the addiction first and then a playing career."

Becoming a franchise quarterback is similar to succeeding in other forms of life, according to Steinberg.

Happy Easter to all and happy birthday to the 🐐! God Bless everyone!

A post shared by Paxton Lynch (@paxtonlynch) on

"Even if you take the essential part of the athletic experience, what you look for in a franchise quarterback is someone who in adversity can elevate their level of play," Steinberg said. "A player has thrown two or three interceptions, not played particularly well, the crowd is booing, the center is looking at the quarterback like he is on altered substances. The game is starting to get out of hand. Now what does the quarterback do? Is he able to compartmentalize, puts that in the past? Adopt a quiet mind and he can now elevate his level of play to come through. What you saw Deshaun Watson do in the National Championship game. What you saw Jameis Winston do a couple years ago. What you see Aaron Rodgers do all the time."

"So in a way that is a parable for life. I got knocked down, or knocked myself down is probably more proper, and we all do. So the question isn't 'are you going to encounter roadblocks, but do you stay down? Do you learn something from that experience? Do you use it for growth and to be a better person or do you stay wallowing? When you hit bottom, the point is now what do you do? In my own life I made a decision. When I broke denial and realized that alcohol was stronger than I was, that I could be a good father and be sober. After that, I was raised with these core values: No. 1 to treasure relationships, especially family. No. 2, try to make a positive difference in the world and help people who couldn't help themselves."

"That's what it has always been. The reason I have been open about my alcohol experience is the hope that it can help others. That's why when I turned seven years on Tuesday, I posted on social media, because if there is someone else out there that is struggling, hopeless, I want to show them that there are 12 step programs and fellowships that can help. Throw a lifeline out there, because what lifetime would I be waiting for to try to be of service to other people?"

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