First came the precedent- setting rookie contract, followed by a blockbuster $42-million pact with the New England Patriots -- at the time the largest player contract in National Football League history.
But the relationship between super-agent Leigh Steinberg and Super Bowl quarterback Drew Bledsoe was about more than money. The two became closely identified with each other's success -- so much so that Bledsoe's photograph as he announced that record contract is among the opening scenes of "Jerry Maguire," the 1996 romantic comedy loosely based on Steinberg's life.
With that as a backdrop, Bledsoe's testimony was all the more stinging Tuesday, when the quarterback, who now plays for the Buffalo Bills, took the stand in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles against his former agent.
His voice often dipping into a barely audible mumble, Bledsoe testified that incidents of Steinberg's alleged drunkenness through the years led the quarterback to sever ties and follow Steinberg's former protege, David Dunn, as he set up a rival firm in 2001.
"Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that my association with Leigh could possibly be embarrassing to me," said Bledsoe, who was the Patriot's starting quarterback when the team lost the Super Bowl in 1997 to the Green Bay Packers.
Steinberg's firm filed a $40-million lawsuit against Dunn and his new company, Athletes First, accusing him of stealing more than 50 of its football clients and threatening blackmail if Steinberg retaliated. Dunn countersued.
Attorneys for Steinberg's firm accuse Dunn and other renegade employees of stealing confidential information and conspiring to savage the star agent's reputation. Among other things, Steinberg has been accused in legal papers of binge drinking, taking credit for others' achievements and of engaging in sexual indiscretions, including one alleged incident in which a Las Vegas prostitute stole his wallet.
Steinberg has admitted on the stand he has battled drinking. And his longtime partner Jeffrey Moorad described him to the jury as a "mad genius" replete with eccentricities.
Other testimony by players and former employees has portrayed Steinberg as a disorganized, unkempt "Jekyll and Hyde" personality who messily chewed tobacco and yelled at workers. He allegedly licked the faces of two female employees at golfing tournaments, angrily shook a female assistant by the arms in a crowded hotel lobby and once fell down drunk and told a male employee: "I want to eat your leg."
Adding to that unflattering litany on Tuesday was Bledsoe, the former Washington State star who signed on with Steinberg's agency out of college in 1993 and has been one of its marquee clients. In "Jerry Maguire," Bledsoe has a cameo appearance in which he declines to follow the movie's lead character as he strikes out on his own.
In real life, Bledsoe did just the opposite, and on Tuesday he cited three occasions that prompted him to rethink his association with Steinberg.
The first was at Bledsoe's May 1996 wedding, where he said Steinberg got so drunk that friends and family asked: "Who the hell is that guy?"
Another came at a party Bledsoe gave after the 1996 American Football Conference division playoffs. Bledsoe said Steinberg was inebriated and made a sexual pass at the wife of Robbie Tobeck, now a center with the Seattle Seahawks. Bledsoe said the incident forced him to apologize to Tobeck's wife.
The third came before the 1998 Pro Bowl in Hawaii, when Steinberg visited the mini-bar so many times during a late-night discussion in Bledsoe's room that he "passed out on the deck." The quarterback said he draped a blanket over the agent and went to sleep.
Steinberg's attorneys said he would not be available for comment during the trial.
Bledsoe said his concerns about associating with Steinberg came to a head in January 2001, when he asked to meet with Dunn to discuss, among other things, "my concerns with Leigh's personal behavior and it possibly reflecting on me." The athlete said he then asked Dunn if he ever thought about going out on his own and recommended a Boston-based venture capitalist who might help.
Bledsoe said he first learned about Dunn's departure when he answered several voicemail messages the agent left during Presidents Day weekend last year. "When he told me he had left, I said, 'Great! What do we do next?' " Bledsoe soon fired Steinberg and hired Dunn.
In March 2001, Bledsoe signed the largest contract in NFL history, a 10-year, $103-million pact with the Patriots. Bledsoe testified Tuesday that Steinberg sent him a bill for the 3% commission on his earnings but that he didn't pay it because Dunn handled the contract negotiations. Steinberg has filed grievances with the NFL Players Assn., claiming his firm was owed the fees from Bledsoe and other clients of Dunn because contract negotiations began while Dunn still was part of Steinberg's agency.