Leigh Steinberg says of his battle with alcohol: "I can go to a party… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Leigh Steinberg was once known for his boyish good looks and an elite clientele that included Troy Aikman, Warren Moon and a multitude of other famous names.
Until it all fell apart.
Sipping from a bottle of water, he talks about it in the third person.
"Here's the thing about drunks," Steinberg says.
"They're good at it.
"Here's the thing about really smart drunks.
"They're very good at it."
Now Steinberg is starting over. No clients yet. He has a handful of employees, though. And the new Steinberg Sports and Entertainment has been recertified by the NFLPA.
Steinberg, 64, was once the super agent of all super agents, representing clients such as Aikman, Moon, Steve Bartkowski and 150 other professional baseball, basketball, boxing and Olympic athletes.
He's the father of two sons and a daughter, Katie, who is a freshman at Michigan State. He's also trying to restart his agent business. He got a California license in October.
The new company is being financed by Houston businessmen because in the dark days Steinberg had to declare bankruptcy. He said he would like to represent NBA and Major League Baseball players, launch entertainment projects and most of all find an answer to the concussion problem plaguing the NFL and other sports.
He would like a few clients signed when the NFL holds its draft in April.
That never used to be a problem. At one point Steinberg, a graduate of UCLA and of UC Berkeley's law school, represented $2 billion worth of Hall of Fame clients and a record eight No. 1 NFL picks.
"Life was pretty good," Steinberg said. "I was getting good guys, I was making sure they put money toward a charity of their choice but that their families were taken care of too."
Katie Steinberg says she was never sure when her father had turned to vodka. He preferred vodka because it's clear like water and doesn't smell like alcohol on the breath. Put it in an Evian bottle, take a swig and you're just a California health nut, Steinberg said.
Katie, 18, the youngest of the three children (there are also John, 27, and Matt, 22, who is attending USC's film school), says her father was around more than people think. "He tried hard to be the best dad he can be, he was a fun dad. He took us to Disneyland. We'd always go to the movies."
Katie said the low point in their lives came when she was 6 or 7 and the family took a trip to Boston. It was sold as a family trip with her mother, Lucy, and her brothers, but, she said, "My dad went to rehab.
"He could be the greatest person in the world, but, finally, a few years later I talked to him. I told him, 'You need to figure yourself out.' I told him he was one of the most supportive people in the world, one of the greatest people ever, but honestly, he was hitting rock bottom and he needed to fix it, but to do that he had to want to fix it."
Leigh and Lucy divorced in 2008. Katie stays with her mom when she comes home from school but always spends time with her dad.
"Even at his worst he was a good dad," Katie said. "What he did didn't hurt me, it made me need to be there more for my parents, and in a way made me more mature."
Steinberg is sitting in a small office in a cramped building off Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach talking about the time five years ago when he was living in a halfway house in Orange, his fortune gone, his agency in tatters, his family scattered.
Yes, that Leigh Steinberg, the one who would throw an extravagant Super Bowl party every year where you were nobody if you didn't get an invite to eat steak and lobster and hobnob with stars such as Tom Cruise. Steinberg says Cruise was playing him in the movie about sports agents, "Jerry McGuire."
Steinberg is asked why, when he says he's been sober four years, he would want to reenter the world that seemed to cause him such pain.
"It wasn't the business that made me an alcoholic," Steinberg said. "There were health problems in my family, my immediate family, that I would prefer not to talk about, that originally caused me to drink.
"I can go to a party now, take a glass of water and be happy. I can go to the parties and the dinners and not need alcohol."
Steinberg isn't exactly sure when some of his clients drew closer to other agents in his company and began ignoring him.
Jeff Moorad is one of the high-powered baseball agents who worked with Steinberg and later became part-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He still admires his old boss but remembers when it became clear to everyone but Steinberg that the drinking had become a problem. More and more agents cozied up to clients who a decade earlier would have been glued to the side of Steinberg.
Eventually Steinberg made Moorad and David Dunn partners in a company called SMD. In 1999 the three sold the company for a reported $120 million to a Canadian firm called Assante.