Life will knock us all back, but the question is can we stay in the present moment? Can we summon up the strength and energy to perform with excellence in those trying moments?
If you’ve ever seen Tom Cruise as a driven sports agent in the award-winning film Jerry Maguire (1996), then you know more about super-agent Leigh Steinberg than you realize. Based on his life experiences, the film’s storyline ended before Leigh Steinberg experienced the worst travails of his life. During his career, Steinberg has represented over 300 professional athletes in football, baseball, basketball, boxing, and Olympic sports, including the number one overall pick in the NFL draft a record eight times.
Despite his success, Steinberg met his match when it came to alcohol. In 2015, he described his challenging journey into sobriety in his memoir. Today, Steinberg reveals his inspirational journey in an interview with The Fix.
The Fix: As a young man, your first client Steve Bartkowski became the No. 1 overall pick in the 1975 NFL draft, catapulting you into the upper echelons. When you look back on the sudden rise of those early days, do you ever feel like it all happened way too fast? Was it challenging to deal with the mighty rush of early success?
Leigh Steinberg: I had had the wonderful experience of being student body president at Cal (University of California, Berkeley) in the tumultuous days of the Sixties. At that point, Berkeley was the vortex of student life. From demonstrations and rock music to alternative lifestyles, the school was at the center of the national story. Such an experience really prepared me for the national profile that came with the Bartkowski signing. I never confused newspaper clippings, awards, or external praise for the substance of being a good person and being grounded.
From Warren Moon to Oscar De La Hoya, you desired your top clients to be preeminent roles models in their sports. Do you perceive yourself as a role model? How did the process of recovery illuminate this perception?
We are all role models to someone. Younger people look up to you, older people will mentor you, and you will find people who will be the models for your future behavior. I had a father who raised us with two core values: The first was to treasure relationships, especially family, and the second was to do your best to make a meaningful difference in the world. It is part of your responsibility to help people who cannot help themselves. The whole nexus of my practice was trying to stimulate the best in young men.
When it comes to making a meaningful experience in the world, I learned a lot from my struggles with alcoholism. Being in my twelfth year of recovery, I feel like I have been given the opportunity to help people who are struggling with the same challenges that I faced. It is a real positive that comes out of the experience. If you are reading this right now and you feel hopeless and overwhelmed by your experiences with substance abuse and addictions, I want you to know that there is hope and a light at the end of the tunnel. I have been where you are now, and it does get better.
What did you learn from the success of your clients? What did you learn from their failures?
For me, the critical key has always been how someone responds to adversity. If we take a quarterback who has thrown a couple of interceptions so the game is getting out of hand and the crowd is starting to boo, what happens next? Can that person summon up the internal focus to tune out extraneous distractions and elevate their level of play in critical situations? Life will knock us all back, but the question is can we stay in the present moment? Can we summon up the strength and energy to perform with excellence in those trying moments? What I saw them do in success is stay grounded and stay hungry. As opposed to bragging about a past achievement or becoming self-absorbed, they were able to stay in process and do the things that created their success in the first place.
An old Irish saying goes, “A man takes a drink, the drink takes a drink, the drink takes the man.” How would you say this saying applies to your life experience?
When it comes to alcohol, it snuck up slowly on me. I didn’t drink for most of my life and most of my career. However, when I started drinking, it suddenly stopped becoming a decision and a matter of volition of whether or not to drink. With what seems like little or no warning, it becomes a craving and compulsion. I did not realize until later in my life that I am allergic to alcohol. At this point, the first drink would be a disaster. Knowing the metamorphosis in my brain when I take the first drink gives me no other choice but to stay vigilant.
You write in your book, “Consuming alcohol became a form of Russian roulette for me.” It’s truly a powerful image. Can you explain it further?
The first drink was Russian Roulette. After I took the first drink, it wasn’t clear what would be the eventual outcome. It could be anything from a blackout where I did not remember what had happened to just falling asleep to something unexpected. It was unclear how an evening would end, and it wasn’t going to be positive (laughing). After taking the first drink, I was no longer in control of my own life. It wasn’t positive. Depending on how my body was metabolizing alcohol and how much I was drinking, it could lead to many self-destructive behaviors, including drunk driving, hurting other people’s feelings, and complete self-absorption. It could lead to a place where I was no longer aware of the choices I was making.
Can you describe your “moment of clarity”? What realization led to the start of what is now your long-term recovery?
It was a sense of proportionality. I was sitting in my father’s room at our family house after closing my office and home. I am at my parent’s house in West Los Angeles, and all I have is the next drink. At that moment of despair, there was an epiphany where I gained a sense of proportion. I realized I wasn’t a starving peasant in Sudan, I didn’t have the last name Steinberg in Nazi Germany, and I didn’t have cancer or anything fundamentally wrong with my body. Thus, what excuse did I have not to live up to my dad’s admonitions and be a good father? How could I not follow his guidance and try to be helpful to other people? It was a moment of clarity that I needed to overcome the denial that I had a problem. I realized I had to turn my life over to a process that would hopefully lead to a better tomorrow.
You believe the success of rookie prospects in the NFL is helped by being drafted by the right teams where successful cultures of strategy and support allow them to grow into professional players. You use the experience of Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City as the ideal example. Do you think that a person’s success in recovery might be similar as well?
The key to winning in sports is the quality of the organization: Enlightened and stable ownership, a front office that excels at drafting and roster composition, and the quality of a coach who knows how to communicate with his players. All of that is important. Likewise, when it comes to recovery, having the right sponsor, being in the right sober living house, and surrounding yourself with other people who are serious about their recoveries and working the 12 steps is critical. I know it has been critical for me. Going to the right meetings helps you find the people with long-term sobriety who can become your role models. Overall, the concept of being in a healthy environment leading to success is critical in both environments.
Can you talk about the role of steroids in professional sports? As an agent who cared about his clients, you write that you gained insight into the danger of steroids early on. Do you think performance-enhancing drugs will always be a part of professional sports?
I don’t think they have to be, and I hope they won’t be. Steroids themselves are a real health danger on both a physical and a mental level. People taking steroids experience such emotional extremes, going from ‘roid rage to breaking down in tears in an instant. Steroids play havoc with a person’s emotional stability.
Today, there are many promising therapies and techniques for training the human body, like nutrition, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and stem cell therapies. There are so many breakthroughs about enhancing performance and stamina in a natural way. It really shouldn’t be necessary to use destructive substances to perform well. One of the major threats in professional sports has been opiates to deal with pain. In a football game, it’s like a traffic accident on every play. Since pain is ever-present, it’s essential to find alternatives to becoming dependent and ultimately addicted to opioids is critical.
Any last words? Any message you want to leave us with today?
I have found that the most important life skill is listening. If you can cut below the surface with another human being and listen carefully to their greatest anxieties and fears and their greatest hopes and dreams, you can help them. If you can put yourself in their shoes and connect with their hearts and minds, then it’s possible to navigate yourself through life with grace and integrity. Indeed, from the beginning, it was at the heart of my father’s message to me.
Lastly, I believe one of the keys is to try to live in this moment without being lost in the past or fearful of the future. We don’t always have to answer the cell phone that’s ringing. You can put focus and energy into the present to derive maximum satisfaction and be a happy person.