In 1996, “Jerry Maguire” made Leigh Steinberg the most famous sports agent in the country.
A decade later, Steinberg, now 71, was well on his way to losing everything, including his license to serve as a talent representative. Tom Cruise’s famous catchphrase from the Cameron Crowe film — “Show me the money” — took on a cynical dimension after Steinberg was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2012.
His descent was fueled by alcoholism that left him out of control at a time when other aspects of his personal and professional life were under stress. He was arrested twice — once for a DUI, once for public intoxication — and wound up getting help by moving into a sober living home.
Today, Steinberg is back in the agency business and back to representing some of the biggest names in football, notably Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa, the University of Alabama hotshot who signed last year as a quarterback with the Miami Dolphins. Last summer, Mahomes made headlines with a massive $450 million-plus, 10-year contract with the Chiefs described as the richest pact in sports history, expertly crafted by Steinberg.
Steinberg’s rise and fall is a cautionary tale that alcoholism can destroy a person’s life at any age, no matter how much wealth, success or power has been achieved.
“I did not grow up with this problem,” Steinberg says. “It came on late in life in the early 2000s.”
Steinberg notes that his nickname while attending UC Berkeley in the early 1970s was “one-beer Steinberg.” Although his struggle with alcohol was extremely public, he believes his age is a factor in allowing him to be in recovery since 2010.
“I think I was equipped to deal with this because it came on later for me,” Steinberg says. Over the past decade he has spent a lot of time thinking about how his drinking habit “changed from a convivial toast to a compulsion.”
Steinberg points to a perfect storm of personal troubles that began in the late 2000s that included the death of his father, the end of his marriage and problems in his business sparked by unethical actions by one of his partners. As all of this swirled, one of his three adult children faced a serious health crisis. Steinberg even lost one of his homes in Newport Beach, Calif., to invasive mold.
“I felt like Gulliver held down by Lilliputians,” he recalls of that period.
The shame of being arrested gave him a jolt. He felt terrible that his children had to read headlines about their father in such a debilitated state. But he still fell further, binge drinking for days at a time. His rationale was that self-medicating with vodka would help him get through his other difficulties.
“The aspect of addiction that is most confusing is the fact that it’s a disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease,” Steinberg says.
But his sense of denial was “breaking,” he says. The epiphany that led him to sobriety came while he was in his late father’s home. He sat in the bedroom thinking about the values his father instilled in him as a youth — to pursue his personal ambition, to be a good parent and to be a force for good in the wider world. He realized how much he had lost, and at what cost to his family and friends.
“I just thought, ‘What have I allowed to happen?’” he says. “I don’t have cancer. I live in a country with the highest standard of living. I have three wonderful kids. What excuses do I have to sit and wallow in alcoholism?”
Steinberg rebuilt his agency business with the help of a group of investors who put their faith in him despite his well-documented struggles. This time around, Steinberg Sports & Entertainment is taking a boutique approach to representing star athletes. “Instead of trying to dominate the world of sports, it’s enough to represent a talented niche,” he says.
Once he got sober, Steinberg wanted to prove himself by making a comeback in business and returning to the large-scale charitable activities that he was known for in his heyday.
“I never contemplated not coming back,” Steinberg says. “I needed to return to the sense of optimism and care for other people that got lost in a bottle of vodka.”