John Thornton circa 2008
INDIANAPOLIS — John Thornton, who went to his first NFL Scouting Combine near the turn of the century as a prospect and went to the most recent ones as a member of the media, comes to another one this week in his third different role.
Player agent. Of Jock Biz Sports.
"My first one on the dark side, as they like to say," Thornton said with a laugh earlier in the week before he made the trek from Cincinnati. "It's been an exciting couple of months. This is a relationship business and this is the week where everyone sits down and gets to know each other … players, agents, teams. … It's the one time everyone is in the same small city."
Thornton has been managing a handful of players off the field since he retired from the Bengals after the 2008 season, but he didn't take the plunge until this past July when he took the agent test. Certified in the fall, he has picked a heck of a week for his debut at Friday's annual meeting of the NFL Players Association-certified agents, a gathering that more than a few have compared to feeding time in the shark tank of your friendly neighborhood zoo. He enters the waters as co-representative of one of the NFL's biggest potential free agents on the market, Michael Johnson, one of Thornton's replacements on the Bengals defensive line where he plied his trade for six of his 10 NFL seasons.
Thornton made his name as a highly-competent tackle with steel-belted reliability and a reputation as a generous mentor, qualities he'd like to find in his clients. When Marvin Lewis got the Bengals head coaching job in 2003, he asked Thornton to come with him and help change the culture in the Paul Brown Stadium Spa and Country Club.
(He was the No. 97 before two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins.)
The agent seed may have been planted by a coach who told Thornton he had helped save the career of Frostee Rucker, the Bengals 2006 third-rounder that emerged in Thornton's final seasons. That's the mindset Thornton is taking into the agent room.
"I think players need more help in the middle of their careers, the middle of their contracts," Thornton said. "Everybody pays attention to them when they come out of college. I want to help guys with life skills after they get into the league. Steer them on the right path. I'm not looking to sign a guy and then leave him and go recruit. I like to hang out with my guys."
He's already taking a page from one of his own mentors. Rick Smith, the Chicago-based agent of Priority Sports with whom Thornton says he co-represents Johnson, has taught Thornton the value of silence during the Johnson negotiations with Bengals vice president Katie Blackburn.
Thornton goes as far to say that he thinks there's a possibility Johnson can return even though the Bengals aren't going to give him a franchise tag for a second straight year and he's staring at unfettered free agency at age 27 as a highly-regarded three-down right end averaging more than 90 percent of the snaps the past few seasons with 26.5 career sacks.
"I would say so," Thornton said when asked if there's a shot Johnson could re-sign. "I know a lot things have been said out there that there's not a chance. But that's not the case. That just shows people don't know about the situation. They don't know what happened last summer. They don't know what is happening now. The good thing about Rick, Katie, Mike, myself is that we're not public people that want everything out there. I think it's still a possibility. I think everybody really wants it to happen, so we'll see."
We'll see … Thornton has learned well from the under-the-radar Smith.
"I learn something from him every time we talk," Thornton said. "Great mentor. One of the best in the business."
Thornton should know. He had four agents during his 10 seasons in the league, but true to form he learned while not burning any bridges. The estimable Ray Anderson, a future NFL vice president and current athletic director at Arizona State, signed him out of West Virginia but when the agent that recruited him left Anderson, so did Thornton after his rookie year. Thornton gravitated to another well-respected member of the agent community, Ralph Cindrich, a street-smart NFL linebacker from Pittsburgh who played for three teams in four seasons in the '70s before securing some of the biggest deals of the '80s and '90s, among them a $12.4 million extension for Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake after 13 NFL starts.
Thornton left Cindrich after three years and neither man can quite remember why, although Thornton admits he was getting antsy about his impending free agency.
Cindrich: "We left as buds. If he asks for some direction and guidance, I'll give him some direction and guidance."
Thornton: "Ralph's a Pittsburgh guy. He's got that tough mentality. He didn't try to buy me ... he never convinced me to come with him. I always felt good being there. I also knew he had a lot of respect around the league. There was no acrimony. There may have been a little lack of communication at the end and any time that happens anything can happen."
When Thornton hit free agency after his fourth season, he signed up with Harold Lewis and ended up seeing every penny of the six-year, $30 million deal he signed with the Bengals. Two years after he got to Cincy he told Lewis he was going to go it alone since he was already dabbling in business and running his own charity.
When he neared the end of his career Thornton hooked on with David Dunn and Joby Branion of the high-powered West Coast firm Athletes First that secured the biggest NFL deal ever at the time the Bengals inked Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer to what amounted to a nine-year extension. The agents ended up getting Thornton a job in Detroit, but he decided to retire.
"The Bengals were losing. The Lions were losing. That '08 season really took it out of me. I didn't want to lose anymore," Thornton said. "They did a good job finding me something. Dave's one of the best in the business.
"It turned out Harold was a good guy to have. He's an aggressive guy and I was an underrated player and he got me a good deal in Cincinnati. When I fired them a few years later they said, 'What did we do?' and I told them, 'Nothing.' But I wanted to get out on my own and do some things."
Cindrich comes out of those old-school-hard-knuckled but upfront negotiations where he'd take a plane flight to merely cuss back at a GM, fly back home, and then do a deal with the guy days later. There were the no-holds-barred holdouts back in the '90s, when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had to get in between Cindrich and his coach, Jimmy Johnson, at a Senior Bowl when tempers flared over Cowboys free-agent center Mark Stepnoski.
Cindrich has used that player perspective to his advantage and it's probably why he can be found hanging in hotel lobbies at combines and league meetings with Frank Bauer, another old school agent. A former college coach who also saw it from the other side, Bauer has parlayed it into more than 30 years in the business repping both players and coaches. Cindrich thinks Thornton can have the same kind of success. Especially now with the rookie slotting system.
"For rookies, he should be a no-brainer," Cindrich said. "What you need is football guidance. (The contract) is slotted. You've got to get the guidance from the NFL people. John is that kind of guy. When he goes to the combine he knows everybody. He can get any kind of information he needs or wants in many ways. There are not a lot of other agents that can do that."
Thornton has no problem partnering with other agents. He works with Smith for Johnson and former Bengals tackle Pat Sims. He works with Roc Nation in the representation of Jets quarterback Geno Smith. He is helping represent Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. He enjoys helping players plot out their off-field regimen, from offseason workouts to community endeavors. Thornton was prepared to do that with Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, but the week they were supposed to meet in 2009, Henry suffered a season-ending broken arm and he died in a traffic accident a few weeks later.
The 2011 collective bargaining agreement made it tougher on partnerships and when other agents Thornton respected began telling him he might as well get certified because he was already doing the work of an agent, he decided to enter the field officially.
But he's going slowly. Thornton only represents one college prospect this season, a non-combine invitee. He's concentrating on meeting and greeting this week and helping get a deal for Johnson.
"I'm coming at it differently than most guys," Thornton said. "I had a career where I was financially stable. I can pick and choose who I work with and I can have a nice group of players. You've got to surround yourself with good people and so far I have. I don't have to come in and grab 20, 30 guys right away. Right now I'm trying to do best for the players I have now. The best thing to do is to do a good job for them and get recommendations by word of mouth."
When it comes down to it, this week isn't going to be all that different than the other combines.
"I'm going to low-key it,'' he said. "There are all kinds of guys in that room. Guys with big egos who have a lot of players and don't mind letting you know. And there are low-key guys. I'm going to do what I did as a player and just listen and take notes and learn what my clients have to know. And do what I did when I was up there with the media and writing down what everyone said so I could talk about it on the radio."
Another combine. Another side.