Arizona Wildcat-turned-agent Kenny Zuckerman is the man of reason on NFL's craziest day

Apr 22, 2017 | by Jon Gold, Arizona Daily Star

An NFL agent is part financial adviser and part mouthpiece, part negotiator and part hurdle-jumper.

But on draft day, there may be no bigger role for an agent than psychologist.

Fortunes are made on this day, lives are changed. Children get to buy their parents houses because of this day. Third cousins get new rides. Generations upon generations can be affected.

Kenny Zuckerman remembers seven years ago, when Cal defensive end Tyson Alualu called him in the morning and told him that his family just had a feeling, a sensation, that something big was going to happen that day. They went out looking for land in his hometown of Honolulu, land on which they’d put a house, maybe even a church.

Not a single mock draft in the land had him going in the first round. But Zuckerman was on the phone with the Jacksonville Jaguars all day, and, he says, “The conversations were just … odd.” They told him they were trying to trade down in the draft from pick No. 10, but that they wanted Alualu badly.

When the pick came up and they hadn’t budged, Zuckerman’s heart sank a little. He thought to himself, “Ah, man, they couldn’t trade out of it.”

The seconds ticked by. Would it be versatile running back Ryan Mathews of Fresno State? Punishing safety Earl Thomas of Texas? Or would it be an impact defensive end like Michigan’s Brandon Graham, or South Florida’s Jason Pierre-Paul, or Georgia Tech’s Derrick Morgan? Maybe they’d shore up the offensive line with Rutgers tackle Anthony Davis or Idaho guard Mike Iupati or Florida center Maurkice Pouncey. Or, hey, Tim Tebow was still around, and Jacksonville is in Florida, and those Gators fans are rabid, and ... well, it didn’t look good as the clock dwindled down.

Then Roger Goodell strolled up onto the stage and announced, “With the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars select … Tyson Alualu.”

Back in his office in Sherman Oaks, California, Zuckerman was over the moon.

In an almost three-decade career, this was the one that Zuckerman has singled out.

“I just remember how I felt: It was euphoric,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”

But then there’s the other side of the draft: When dreams don’t come true. At least, not the way they’ve been envisioned.

“IT’S MY JOB
TO BE HONEST”

Zuckerman, a former Arizona Wildcats walk-on wide receiver-turned-scholarship player, counts many NFL standouts among his clients. Atlanta Falcons linebacker Brooks Reed, a former Sabino High School and UA standout, is one of them. 

Zuckerman is representing five players in this week’s NFL draft.

Invariably, some of his clients will be elated and some will be disappointed. One might slide a pick or two. One might drop a round or two. One might fall out of the draft altogether.

If that happens, Zuckerman will be unflappable.

“There are players who are constantly coddled; they don’t even know what’s up and down. My job is to manage my client’s expectations,” he said. “A lot of agents don’t tell their players that. They want to always pat them on the back. Everything’s great! Don’t worry! Then it’s constantly one big fairy tale.

“It’s my job to be honest and give them a realistic snapshot.”

This is not always easy.

You tell a 22-year-old cornerback that he’s not as good as he thinks he is, and sometimes the door hits you on the way out.

That makes it incredibly important to find someone who knows what’s next.

“Listen — the draft is one day that determines how you enter the league,” he said. “It’s just another day. Can someone’s next four years be determined? Yeah. But your first contract is not going to get you rich. Your first contract is really an interview to get to the second contract. Players can’t base their whole career on draft day.”

That frankness, the brass tacks of it, made an imprint on Isaac Asiata.

Utah’s 6-foot-3-inch, 323-pound offensive guard is just days away from his life changing forever. Originally projected anywhere from the sixth round to undrafted, the 2016 Morris Award winner as the Pac-12’s best offensive lineman has crept up in mock drafts. Some experts say he could go as high as the second round.

“Kenny did a good job when I first met him of always being real about everything. He didn’t sugarcoat it,” said Asiata, whose cousin Matt plays running back for the Minnesota Vikings. “I could tell he wasn’t just blowing smoke. A lot of agents were saying we’re going to get you in the first round. I knew, he knew, I wasn’t going in the first round. I have realistic expectations.”

Asiata started 39 straight games for the Utes. This is not a guy with whom you want to trifle. He wasn’t about to fall for some spiel from a guy with diamonds twinkling in his eyes.

“The person sitting in front of me was the guy he is,” Asiata said of his first meeting with Zuckerman. “Everything he told me was honest, up front, and I could tell he was a dude I could trust. A guy who I felt comfortable with, who I could call, who my wife could call. I talked to so many guys who just hate their agent. Sometimes I just hit him up to chat. We talk about things other than the draft, we’ll talk about my wife. We’ll just shoot the ****. I can talk to that guy about anything.”

CUT TEETH AS A CAT
ZUCKERMAN STARTED DOWN THIS PATH IN COLLEGE.

While at the UA, he roomed with Wildcats fullback Charles Webb. Zuckerman remembers taking phone calls on the home phone from prospective agents.

“Remember, we didn’t have cellphones then, so I’d talk to these guys, and a lot of them didn’t know anything about football,” said Zuckerman, who played for Arizona from 1982-86. “Charles was sort of having me handle the process. Do you think he’s an I-back, a 1-back, a fullback? These guys would come up in limos, suits, jewelry, one of them owned a bar in Tucson and was sort of funneling free drinks to players, which I didn’t realize until end of my career.”

Zuckerman was no NFL prospect himself. That he even landed at Arizona is a surprise, as, he says, he graduated Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, California, at roughly 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds. But he had the heart.

After a year in law school, Zuckerman landed an internship in Chicago for no pay. That turned into $1,000 a month, then $2,000, then $3,000. He learned the ropes and built a reputation.

“I learned the business, and I was just a football junkie,” he said. “I was a walk-on but ended up lettering senior year, played in some games, and football was my life. There was no bigger student of the game than myself. I knew the scouting report for every team, every week. I figured if I can approach business like this, I’ll be successful.”

And he has been, with almost three decades in what is entirely a cutthroat business.

“I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done,” he said, though he acknowledges that his ethics have perhaps resulted in money being left on the table. “The one thing I had that allowed me to get into the business and get into college football as a 150-pound kid out of high school was passion.”

A testament to his perspective: He’s been with the same partners at Priority Sports & Entertainment for nearly two decades, and, he says, “We treat our clients like we’re a Fortune 500 company.”

He sees the flash-in-the-pan agents who have become so commonplace in today’s world and he scoffs. He wonders to himself, how can a player risk his livelihood on a non-entity?

“How do you get advice from a doctor who’s never done surgery?” he asks. “At least a doctor went to medical school and operated on a cadaver. Here you can hang up a plaque and say I’m an agent. I always cringe when a player says, ‘I’m going with this guy, and I’ll be his only client.’ You’re his only client for a reason.”

He sounds disappointed.

“There are a lot of charlatans in this business,” he continues. “They’ll move on to the next one. They don’t care about careers. If there is one thing I look back at with Charles, it was remembering how important it was to him to have someone. These kids have a problem trusting people. You’re not hiring a friend. You’re hiring a business partner. Find the best business partner for the job. That’s where a lot of kids drop the ball. They’re swayed by inconsequential things.”

“FOOTBALL IS REALLY AN INEXACT SCIENCE”

Zuckerman will spend draft weekend in his office, manning the phones, wheeling and dealing and trying to sneak every one of his players up the board.

He has cultivated relationships with the biggest movers and shakers in the NFL.

He spent part of Wednesday on the phone with an NFL general manager who called to inquire about a player. Zuckerman told the GM that the player should go somewhere between picks No. 30 and No. 45, and the GM sneered. They made a dinner bet, and then the GM started prying

“Well, why do you think so?”

Zuckerman starts listing the mechanics of the thing. “These teams are at 41 and 42, and he’s not gonna get past them,” he said. “This team said unless something changes, they want him here. …”

“And the GM says, ‘Wow, that really makes a lot of sense.’ I’m having this conversation, and it doesn’t go in one ear and out the other. That team is only talking to themselves and I’m talking to multiple teams, and it’s that experience and relationships that are important to these kids.”

It was to Asiata.

“It was big for me to see his track record,” he said. “He did a good job with a lot of guys I knew, and they vouched for him. Other agents I asked about, and they said they were a joke. It was refreshing to hear that what he told me was true — it wasn’t like he had a script for me. He was being honest, and that set him apart.”

Asiata and his wife, Angel, did extensive research trying to find the best fit .

They know what this one day can mean.

“He’s sensitive to that,” Asiata said. “I know draft day is going to be emotional. It could be bad emotions, and it could be good emotions. I’ve had guys tell me their agent tells them one thing just to not **** them off. It’s every football player’s dream to get drafted. That’s like the ultimate goal. That’s like an exclamation point on everything I’ve done. That’s how I’ve looked at it. ”

Zuckerman will be by his phone, ready to celebrate or soften the blow.

He’s begun to give back to football in other ways, too, starting a 501(c)3 youth football program in Los Angeles five years ago to help usher in the next generation of players.

On Wednesday, he posted an article for parents about the recruiting practices of Kansas State Wildcats coach Bill Snyder.

“This is one the best articles you can read as a youth football parent,” he wrote in the post on the Los Angeles City Ducks Youth Football page. “Don’t get caught up in the hoopla. Keep your kid grounded and focus on the task at hand. No college can measure what’s in a child’s heart and his head. Those two things are probably the most important aspects of finding solid football players.”

For now, he hopes to help some of his players get into college ball. Maybe some day, he hopes, he’ll be able to represent one who came up through the ranks.

And on draft day, he’ll be there for them.

“Football is really an inexact science,” he said. “Where you’re drafted, more than ever, is no precursor to the career you’ll have. The two things you have to measure is what is in the heart and what is in the head, and they haven’t found a tool to measure that yet.”