“He’s either going to tell me: Hey, let’s start negotiating the contract for Vernon Gholston, the sixth pick, or, Hey, I’m going on vacation, so let’s talk when I get back,” Dogra said. “I’m assuming it’s a reach-out call.”
Dogra, a 43-year-old born in India but raised largely on American football, listened to the message. Tannenbaum vaguely said he wanted to “touch base.”
Dogra was the man both in the middle and on top of it all. He helps oversee the most dominant player-representation agency in football from an office that is 10 stories above St. Louis and overlooks a suburban canopy stretching to the horizon. That is what 3 percent of a player’s contract — the going rate for N.F.L. agents — buys when your agency has more top-end draft picks than anyone.
On his bookshelf was a football painted with the logos of the University of Michigan and the Miami Dolphins. It read, “Game Ball presented to Jake Long, 1st Overall Selection, 2008 N.F.L. Draft, 4/22/08.” The date — four days before the draft — marked the completion of Long’s five-year, $57.5 million contract, of which $30 million is guaranteed.
But most of the office looked like Dogra moved in last week and brought only what fit in his car trunk. It represents his no-pretense, on-the-go nature. There was a television on the floor. Several framed posters leaned against walls. Five cardboard file boxes huddled in a corner. A bobblehead doll of Ravens receiver Mark Clayton was on the desk.
In the doorway appeared Tom Condon, Dogra’s primary partner in the football branch of Creative Artists Agency, a well-known firm in the entertainment industry. He surveyed the room.
“You’ve only been here, what — 12, 13 years?” Condon asked.
Dogra and Condon, along with their associates Jim Steiner and Ken Kremer, represent about 130 N.F.L. players. Among them are 4 of the first 8 picks from April’s draft, and 6 of the top 21. They have represented four of the past five first-overall choices and 48 first-round picks since 2001, far more than any competitors.
They are the current champions in their mysterious corner of professional football.
Dogra and Condon are an unlikely and relatively new combination. Condon, 55, has long been one of the N.F.L.’s power brokers. His clients include Peyton and Eli Manning, Chad Pennington, Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn and LaDainian Tomlinson.
Condon was an N.F.L. guard for 12 seasons and a former president of the N.F.L. Players Association. He has a brain hard-wired in the complexities of contracts, salary caps and collective-bargaining agreements. He has lived through much of the N.F.L.’s growth.
“I was a 10th-round draft choice” from Boston College in 1974, Condon said, “and I didn’t have anybody recruiting me. So, yeah, I negotiated my own $18,000 contract myself.”
Dogra’s background is far different. Dogra moved from New Delhi when he was 6, and his family hopscotched before opening a restaurant in northern Virginia when he was in high school. He did not play sports but wanted an N.F.L. career. Being an agent seemed a reasonable route. After attending George Mason, Dogra chose St. Louis University Law School based on its proximity to two sports agencies, for whom he hoped to work days while studying at night.
“My dad said, ‘Is that the equivalent of going to Los Angeles and being a bartender to become an actor?’ ” Dogra said. “I said, no, because if I don’t become an agent, I’ll be in law school.”
One of the agencies was Steiner’s, which initially rejected Dogra. But he kept returning to plead for work and eventually latched on to the bottom rung, far below the agency’s five agents.
“I literally didn’t talk to Steiner for a year and a half,” Dogra said.
They ultimately became partners. Dogra showed a knack for relating to players and their families. Within a few years, he was competing for some of the most-coveted college players against the biggest-named agents, including Condon and Kremer, an ex-N.F.L. player turned agent.
“We went nine consecutive years where Kenny and I either had the most first-round draft choices or were tied,” Condon said. “And when it was tied, it was Benny who we tied with. And then the 10th year, I thought we were going to get the decade, but he beat us. I realized this guy is formidable, considering he didn’t have the advantages that Kenny and I had.”
When Condon and Kremer switched to Creative Artists from IMG in 2006, they pondered ways to grow. Condon and Dogra had met only a couple of times, but they recognized that their differences complemented the other’s strengths and they decided to join forces.
Condon and Kremer moved last year from Kansas City, Mo., and headed to the St. Louis office, where the halls are lined with jerseys and photographs of clients, hung properly and proudly. There is a staff of 15. Four handle player endorsements, 20 percent of which goes to the agency. Others help handle whatever else comes up.
“We negotiate a contract, like we did for Matt Ryan,” Dogra said, referring to the Boston College quarterback chosen third over all by the Atlanta Falcons. “Six years, $72 million, set the record of $34.75 million guaranteed. So the deal is done? It doesn’t work like that.
“We still have constant contact during that six-year period. Now we’re working on his marketing deals. And if Matt calls and says: ‘Hey, I’m trying to do something special for my mom. Do you have any access in the Bahamas?’ We try to help out with all those things.”
The contracts for Long and Ryan caught the attention of N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell, who said in June that it was “ridiculous” for rookies to receive such sums. Condon and Dogra, negotiating the biggest share of such contracts, shrugged.
“I can’t tell you how many times where I’ve talked to a general manager who said: ‘How far can this go? How much more money can there be?’ ” Condon said.
Dogra picked up the argument.
“They’re not paying out something that they don’t have,” he said. “Where is it coming from? It’s coming from ticket sales, suite sales and broadcasting rights. And if that market were to go down, it would go down proportionately for the players.”
Condon called debates about rookie contracts “a false issue,” partly because they establish a foundation for veteran contracts and partly because rookie contracts tumble steeply after those received by the top players. Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart, a Dogra client, was chosen 13th over all but got a contract worth about a third of Long’s.
“The league is substantially below the salary cap, so it’s not like they’re going to take that money and give it to the veterans,” Condon said. “They have it now, and they’re not giving it to them.”
Eventually, it comes time to joust, as Dogra and the Jets’ Tannenbaum did when they finally connected, one wanting the most for his client, the other wanting to pay the least for his team. They discussed the merits of forging ahead to make Gholston one of the first high picks to reach a deal, or waiting for the draft picks on either side of him to sign, thus setting the parameters. It was clear what Dogra wanted.
“Here’s the deal, Mike,” Dogra said. “If you think we need to wait, and we can’t do a deal by the 15th, that will be absolutely wrong. The question is: How far is our ceiling if we go first? Are we in the first stratosphere? Are we going out to the moon? And where is your floor going to be? Are you on the pavement, or are you six feet under?”
Dogra listened for a minute or two. Tannenbaum was talking about 2007, when the Jets’ first-round pick Darrelle Revis (represented by other agents) missed 21 days of camp in a contract dispute, frustrating the team and Coach Eric Mangini.
“It would be hard for both of us to make our mark on one deal,” Dogra responded. “The only mark we’re going to try to make here is we want the best deal for Gholston, you want a deal that works for the Jets and gets this kid to camp on time, and then I get the game ball from Mangini.”
In the end, Gholston missed a day of camp before signing a five-year contract that has $21 million guaranteed and could escalate to $50 million. It came before the fifth or seventh picks signed.
But on this day, Dogra pondered the bigger picture from high above the middle of the country. Every contract affects subsequent contracts, rippling through the draft class.
“Most teams have one first-rounder,” he said. “But we have six. It means more to us.”