SBJ/February 13-19, 2012/Labor and Agents

Small-school agents suddenly have a star

Jack Huntington and Abu Toppin don’t recruit out of the normal, NFL-player-producing colleges and universities that most big-time player agents do.

The two agents, both in their early 40s, started their NFL player rep firm, Reliance Sports Management, in 2005. Since then, they’ve built their client base by recruiting players out of small schools in the Northeast, like the University of Massachusetts and University of Maine, both Division I FCS (former I-AA) schools. One of their clients, Montell Owens, a running back out of Maine, went undrafted in 2006 but has become a Pro Bowler as a Jacksonville Jaguars special teams player. He signed a three-year extension last fall worth a reported maximum of $11.275 million.

Victor Cruz is represented by Jack Huntington and Abu Toppin, who recruit small schools in the Northeast.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Huntington and Toppin are now hoping to sign an extension for another one of their undrafted free agents: New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, who arguably gained as much notoriety in 2011 for his post-touchdown salsa dancing as for those same touchdowns. Cruz finished third in the NFL in receiving yards this past season (1,536) and was the Giants’ team leader with 82 receptions and nine touchdowns.

Cruz made $320,000 as a rookie out of UMass in 2010 and $450,000 this past season. He’s scheduled to make $490,000 in 2012, the third and final year of his contract. But now, after his second year in the league, he’s eligible for an extension, and Huntington and Toppin are ready to do that deal. Absent an extension, Cruz will be a free agent next year.

Giants spokesman Pat Hanlon, when asked about a possible extension for Cruz, said via email: “That is one of the things on [Giants general manager] Jerry Reese’s and his staff’s offseason agenda.”

But Cruz could see new riches come his way even before any new playing contract is signed. IMG announced the day after the Super Bowl that it had signed Cruz for his off-field endeavors. His new marketing agent, IMG Vice President Carlos Fleming, went to work right away.

“We are in discussions right now … and we are reviewing offers as we speak,” Fleming said last week.

Fleming would not name the companies he was talking to but indicated that Cruz could sign with companies in the beverage, electronics and video game categories. He also said that corporations are talking about using Cruz in campaigns in English and Spanish. “If there is a distinguishing factor between Victor and almost every other high-profile athlete in major sports in America, it’s the fact that he speaks English and Spanish fluently,” Fleming said.

Fleming admits it is good business for Cruz to do deals now, right off the Giants’ Super Bowl win, but he is looking at his career long-term as well. That could include a literary deal about his story, Fleming said.

Cruz has a memorabilia deal with Steiner Sports that was negotiated by his publicist and girlfriend, Elaina Watley, but for the most part, he has a clean slate when it comes to categories for sponsors.

As for Huntington and Toppin, they realize that in their business, having a star player means competing agents will increasingly take notice. “We have heard some rumblings of some people coming out of the woodwork who now care about Victor and are trying to get him the best deal he can get,” Toppin said.

Said Huntington, “We have worked hard over the last few years and we would like to hope he is loyal, but we know how this business works and time will tell.”

Meanwhile, as Huntington and Toppin work on their 2012 draft class, one player in their focus is safety Jerron McMillian, who’s been invited to this month’s NFL Combine. McMillian is from the University of Maine.

“I am trying to think back if anyone from Maine has been invited to the combine,” Huntington said. “It’s pretty rare.”
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