It was six years ago, while sitting on his late father’s bed and holding a bottle of vodka, when Leigh Steinberg had the epiphany.
Once the NFL’s most prominent player agent — the man who inspired the movie “Jerry Maguire” — Steinberg had seen his life fall apart. His marriage disintegrated. His business crumbled to the point that he couldn’t show his players the money, because he didn’t have any. He had lost his home. And he had lost hope.
Then it hit him.
“I was staying at home with my mother, and I’m sitting on my father’s bed, and all of a sudden, I had no thought other than to find more alcohol,” Steinberg told Newsday. “Then I had a moment of clarity where I thought to myself, ‘I’m failing both of my father’s admonitions.’ ”
Steinberg thought back to the two “core principles” passed down from his father. “One was to treasure relationships, especially family, and the second was to try to make a meaningful difference, to try to help people help themselves.”
He almost immediately sought treatment and began regaining his footing as a man.
“In those early years, the primary focus was establishing a structure to support sobriety and then dealing with some of the wreckage that had occurred,” he said. “I wasn’t a starving peasant in Darfur, I’m not someone named Steinberg living in Nazi Germany, I don’t have cancer, and I’m not sick in any way other than addiction. I thought, ‘What excuse do I have not to try again?’ At periods, it felt like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, but I got better.”
He eventually returned to his roots as an agent and now, close to the 20-year anniversary of the release of “Jerry Maguire,” Steinberg is back. After dominating the business side of the sport and losing it all, he represents eight players. His first high-profile client is Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, a likely first-round pick Thursday night, possibly by the Jets at No. 20. The Broncos also are being mentioned as a potential suitor.
Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon were Steinberg clients, and he represented eight No. 1 overall picks after becoming an agent in the mid- 1970s. His last first-round QB was Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.
At the age of 67, that’s some comeback, although that’s not quite the way Steinberg sees it.
“The real comeback is the ability to maintain sobriety on into my seventh year, and to have a better relationship with my kids,” said Steinberg, who has three grown children.
His relationship with Lynch started when the quarterback’s father, David Lynch, called Steinberg in 2014. “Paxton comes from a really grounded, loving family, so the family was critically important in this,’’ Steinberg said. “He’s someone for whom loyalty is important, honoring his teammates, relationships. Because they called so early, we had a chance to get to know the family, although I didn’t meet Paxton until sometime last summer.”
Steinberg did not try to hide from his past. “With any of the lingering questions that would be natural from the parents, we found we were able to bond with the family with shared values,” said Steinberg, who detailed his battle with alcoholism in his 2014 autobiography, “The Agent.”
He still goes to meetings to “stay on course” with his sobriety. “I’m very open about my past,’’ he said, “and I prepared myself to deal with every question or doubt that a player or his family might have.”
He is involved in a national anti-bullying campaign and is an activist in dealing with concussions. He was one of the first and loudest voices in the 1990s to draw attention to the issue of brain trauma and the NFL, even though he was largely ignored.
Another positive development: the Rams’ return to Los Angeles, where Steinberg lives. He had been chairman of the “Save the Rams” organization, which had unsuccessfully lobbied the NFL to bring the team back to L.A. NFL owners approved the Rams’ relocation from St. Louis earlier this year. “I fell in love with football back in the 1950s,’’ he said, “with my dad taking me to the Coliseum to watch the Rams.”
Now he’ll get to watch Lynch begin his NFL journey.
He does so with a renewed sense of compassion, born of his own experiences.
“Having gone through a period of struggle, financially and with substance abuse, it gave me a larger perspective and a better ability to understand what many people go through,” he said.
One of those people struggling is another former first-round quarterback, Johnny Manziel. Released by the Browns after two controversy-filled seasons, Manziel underwent in-patient treatment last year for an unspecified problem and has been involved in several off-field incidents. He reportedly has been indicted on a misdemeanor domestic-violence charge in connection with a recent incident involving his former girlfriend.
Steinberg thinks back to his own experience as a way to help Manziel.
“The issue with him is saving his life,” Steinberg said. “Talk about resurrecting his career is secondary to breaking addiction. Obviously, he’s still struggling. If he could break denial, realize that he has a problem, then he could go and address it. But with the pattern of incidents, history will tell you it will recur.
“Until he hits his own personal bottom, until he hits a point where he cannot live that way anymore and desperately seeks help, he won’t get cured. I had to hit a bottom to do it. Until then, until you’re ready to work to make change, it won’t happen. He’s in the grip of that. If he’s in that phase, he’s not thinking rationally. You have to shake yourself away from that.”