Making the transition from college sports into the ranks of the professionals can be brutal and unforgiving. Just look at the stellar college careers of Ryan Leaf, Greg Oden and JaMarcus Russell, whose professional careers lacked any semblance of the dominance they exhibited at the NCAA level. In cases of some college standouts, their professional careers were even shorter than their time spent in college.
There are several keys to making the successful transition to the pros, but one of the most underrated and important aspects is finding an agency that is aware and conscious of the needs, skills and personal lives of the players.
With a few BYU players emerging as standout stars on the gridiron and the basketball court, it’s time to look back on a few former BYU players who have found success in both the NFL and the NBA and have found successful representation.
Athletes First, a sports representation agency with headquarters in Irvine, Calif., has taken an innovative approach to training its athletes and turning them into first-rate talents at the NFL level.
“We represent about 100 NFL players, coaches and broadcasters,” Justin Schulman, vice president of operations for the agency, said. “We’re one of the only firms that bring the players to our offices to train. The reason we do that is that we’re able to monitor their training, but more importantly, we’re able to build a relationship with them before they head off to wherever they may be.”
One of the players represented by Athletes First is the Baltimore Ravens’ starting tight end and BYU career record holder Dennis Pitta, who flew under the NFL radar, being drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. The transition Pitta and other BYU players have made and will continue to make is different from many other teams, given the near-exclusive Latter-day Saint environment in Provo.
“It’s different going from BYU to the NFL,” Pitta said. “At BYU … most of my teammates are members of the Church and share my principles and morals. It’s not to say the NFL isn’t, but it’s just different. I have nothing but great things to say about Athletes First. When you come out of college and you hear about agents and that whole process, I think agents have a negative connotation. That hasn’t been my experience at all. It is a first-class organization, and I’m lucky to have been able to align myself with them.”
Arguably the most celebrated player to come out of BYU is Wooden Award and Naismith Award winner Jimmer Fredette, who dazzled the nation during the 2010–2011 college basketball season, in which the Cougars were ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation and made the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.
Fredette was drafted 10th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks, with the draft rights going to the Sacramento Kings. Fredette chose Octagon Agency to represent him and has found equally strong representation there.
“The most important thing for me was choosing an agent that I felt most comfortable around,” Fredette said in an email. “I wanted someone I could sit down with and have an easy conversation with, someone I could really talk to. Everyone at Octagon was so helpful and so supportive of everything I was going through. They kept me really positive and encouraged me to just relax and enjoy my time on the floor and really play my game.”
Another tough aspect of making the transition is becoming acclimated to the new surroundings and making the tough transition to either the NFL or the NBA as comfortable and easy as possible.
“It’s a huge transition,” Schulman said. “It’s a new playbook, new coaches, new teammates. We try to help with ancillary events around the player — helping them find an apartment, helping them find a car. It’s almost like a concierge service that we provide that enables us to help them with life off the field so they can focus on life on the field.”
The transition may have been even tougher for Fredette, who enjoyed a phenomenally successful career at BYU but spent the majority of his rookie season on the bench watching his teammates play.
“It’s a higher talent level, all these guys are the best of the best,” Fredette said. “It’s been such a great challenge for me; I try to always rise to the occasion and play as hard as I can and show that I can compete at this level … knowing that I belong on the floor.”
Athletes First represents several players who, like Pitta, escaped a large part of the NFL attention before the draft and now, with help from the agency, have established themselves as first-rate NFL players. These include New England Patriots’ tight end Aaron Hernandez, Denver Broncos’ linebacker Von Miller, Houston Texans’ quarterback Matt Schaub, Kansas City Chiefs’ runningback Jamaal Charles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ runningback Doug Martin. Likewise, Octagon Agency, while smaller, has equally similar representation for up-and-coming players such as Fredette, Memphis Grizzlies’ Rudy Gay and New York Giants’ Justin Tuck.
“The best thing we do is we will prepare (the players) the best for the draft and we give (them) the tools that (they) need to succeed, and it’s on (them) to prepare,” Schulman said. “Guys like Doug (Martin) and Dennis (Pitta) did really well for themselves in the process.”
BYU has a few players with potential to be taken early in the draft, either this coming draft or the following year. These include a walk-on defensive sensation in senior Ziggy Ansah, a second team All-American junior linebacker Kyle Van Noy and junior wide receiver Cody Hoffman. Both Van Noy and Hoffman have stated they will stay at BYU for their senior seasons. Additionally, both senior Brandon Davies and sophomore Tyler Haws have been hailed by opposing coaches as NBA talents. These and other players will face a tough uphill battle that is the nature of professional sports and could be helped by good representation wherever they can find it.
“The most important thing, I’d say, is to treat it like a job interview,” Schulman said. “You’re interviewing with 32 employers for a position in their company. That’s something too many people forget. Players are used to being recruited. They were recruited by colleges and by agencies. The NFL process is not a recruitment. It’s the exact opposite. Treat it like a job interview.”
Pitta equally emphasized the importance of the moment and offered suggestions for players coming out of college on dealing with the tough transition and making every moment count.
“The main difference is the level of caliber players at the NFL level (exhibit),” Pitta said. “The starter to the fourth string guy were all outstanding players in college. The speed and physicality is just increased when you make that transition. It’s a unique process. You don’t really experience it before, and all of the sudden you’re thrown into it. It can be overwhelming and difficult. The best thing I can say is reach out to guys who have gone through it before.”
Fredette also found it important to not change personalities or playing styles in any way.
“I would tell them to be themselves,” Fredette said. “Don’t change the way you play for anyone. Work hard everyday and don’t worry about the negative surrounding you, just focus on being the best you can be. And also make sure you have a life outside your sport.”