Gridiron Guru 

Ken Staninger has helped pro football players on and off the field for nearly 30 years. He’s got bigger goals than Super Bowls.

On Sunday, Feb. 4, Super Bowl XLI will be played in Miami, Fla., in front of 70,000 fans, broadcast to an estimated 141.5 million more, and translated into 32 languages for 232 countries and territories around the world. The two weeks of pre-game buildup, including umpteen press conferences, broadcast analysis, swanky publicity events and celebrity-filled South Beach parties hosted by the likes of Maxim and Playboy, will culminate in a simple football game played by the National Football League’s Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears.

Missoula sports agent Ken Staninger will be there amid all the glitzy mayhem—almost all of which he’ll skip—to focus on only one player: Colts starting offensive guard Jake Scott. At best, Scott will be an anonymous cog in a Colts Super Bowl victory, an uncelebrated grunt whose number never gets called for a penalty and who goes mostly unnoticed by anyone other than friends, family and Staninger. At worst, Scott loses, missing out on a chance to be a part of the most coveted triumph in American sports. Either way, Staninger wants to be there.

“Just got my Super Bowl tickets,” he says after taking a cell phone call in his South Reserve office. “Decided to do it. I hardly ever go, but I thought I would this year for Jake. I’m flying through Houston first to meet with a prospective client [Texas Christian University quarterback Jeff Ballard, who’s eligible for April’s NFL draft] and then to Florida. It’s a business trip.”

Staninger expects to spend most of his time in Florida with family, and being available for Scott. He’s spoken to the third-year player out of Idaho University three straight nights to help prepare him for the biggest game of his career—assisting with family accommodations, keeping his client focused—and he imagines that will continue up through game day. “Jake’s one of those guys who’s extremely, extremely bright, and incredibly organized, so it’s been easy,” he says. But there’s still comfort in Staninger’s presence, and that’s why he’s going to watch a 300-pound lineman work in relative obscurity on football’s largest stage.

“I don’t go for the party,” he says. “I’m not that kind of agent.”

What kind of agent is Staninger? He’s a throwback. He’s straightforward, no-nonsense and blue collar, much like the 14 NFL and five Canadian Football League players on his current client roster. With nearly 30 years in the business, he’s built a solid reputation throughout both leagues and developed relationships with his clients that last long after their playing careers are over. He takes a particular interest in cultivating Montana Grizzlies, but has represented hundreds of athletes with ties throughout the Pacific Northwest. He values character as much as talent, and his typical sales pitch includes his accessibility and hands-on approach. He touts his own longevity and, like any agent, promises to secure his clients the best deal when it comes time to negotiate.

But when Staninger says he’s not “that kind of agent,” he means he’s not flashy, unlike a lot of the current NFL. “I’m not into the gold chains and the limousines,” he says. “A lot of agents try to attach themselves to the celebrity of it all, but that’s not my style.”

Staninger caps his client list at 23 or fewer, depending on the number of free agents he handles, to maintain his personal touch. His clients aren’t on speed dial—he uses a freakish memory for numbers to store each one’s cell, home and office numbers in his head. And he’s more likely to pitch a prospective client while bow hunting or fly-fishing than by club-hopping or staging a media event.

“Kenny took me on a float on the Clark Fork,” remembers Mark Rypien of his first visit with Staninger. Rypien, a 1986 sixth-round draft choice out of Washington State University, went on to win Super Bowl XXVI MVP with the Washington Redskins and is perhaps Staninger’s most famous client, not to mention one of his closest friends. “The thing is, we didn’t catch a single doggone fish. We try not to make that well known because you can’t fish the Clark Fork, especially over a five-hour trip, and not catch a fish. But we did manage to have a good time. That’s what was unique about Kenny. It was a personal relationship as much as a business relationship. We still have that relationship today.”

While the NFL gets increasingly more popular, and thus staggeringly more lucrative—the first Super Bowl, 41 years ago, wasn’t even a sellout—the world of player representation has become a cutthroat game overpopulated with wannabes and hangers-on hopeful of breaking into the field. According to a 2003 study by the NFL Players Association, more than 1,100 sports agents were certified through the NFLPA, but fewer than half actually represented an active player. Even fewer—10 percent—had more than six clients.

Only one of them is based in Missoula.

“His reputation was on the line”
It’s 10 a.m., time for Staninger’s apple. He devours the mid-morning snack in maybe five bites, discards the core and never stops talking in a voice somewhere between loud and booming. His office is decorated with Montana landscape paintings and autographed memorabilia from clients. A row of pictures hangs behind his desk, mostly action shots of former Griz who made the NFL—offensive lineman Scott Gragg, quarterback Dave Dickenson and safety Tim Hauck—and shots from his clients’ weddings, including one of Staninger arm-in-arm with Rypien. Above his shelves he’s displayed five signed footballs, a mini-helmet and a game-used cleat from former NFL kicker Michael Hollis. He’s got more, but not nearly enough space to display it all.

Staninger’s schedule is pretty light the Friday before the NFL’s conference championship games: he has to call the front offices in Buffalo and Calgary for a couple of players during the work day, which he imagines will take a couple of hours. He’ll work the phones this evening touching base with his three clients playing over the weekend (Scott and two New Orleans Saints, Steve Gleason and Ben Archibald). He’ll field a dozen unexpected calls from friends and contacts (he’s already spoken with Rypien, who’s interested in coaching possibilities now that former teammate Russ Grimm and friend Ken Whisenhunt—also a former Staninger client—have recently been named assistant head coach and head coach, respectively, of the Arizona Cardinals). And in the middle of all of that, he’ll run the real estate business he co-owns, Properties 2000.

“They complement each other well,” Staninger says of his parallel careers. “I work mostly on commercial and recreation facilities and the real estate transactions are busiest in summer and fall, when things aren’t as busy with the agency. Since it’s not residential, I don’t have to worry about open houses or working evenings. I have that time to focus on my clients.”

Staninger’s been balancing real estate and football his entire career. A former quarterback at Colorado State University, he played for two years before a motorcycle accident caused a double-compound fracture of his left leg and ended his playing days. After graduating in 1971 with a degree in business marketing, he moved to Missoula and started working in real estate while also doing on-air analysis as a radio announcer of local high-school sporting events. His announcing work at Loyola and Sentinel eventually led to a stint doing color commentary for University of Montana football in the late 1970s alongside play-by-play man Bill Schwanke. It was in 1978 that Staninger started to flirt with the idea of starting his own sports agency, and he had one player in mind.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be a high-round draft choice, but I had received a letter from an agent in California and a letter from an agent in New York that expressed some interest,” says Guy Bingham, a star offensive lineman for the Griz in the late ’70s. “I remember going to the University—they offered free legal advice on campus—and the folks there saying the contracts looked a little vague or one-sided. So when Ken approached me I was interested. He told me negotiating a football contract was the same as negotiating a real estate deal. That may or may not be true, but I figured it was his reputation on the line.”

Bingham signed with Staninger on what he calls “gut instinct.”

“He’s a very energetic guy,” Bingham says. “He has a lot of confidence and a lot of enthusiasm for business. He likes to do deals.”

Staninger saw an opportunity not only in Bingham, but in the league as a whole. According to him, there were very few agents in the region in the ’70s—“When I started I was the only agent between Seattle and Minnesota,” Staninger says—and even less interest in smaller schools like Montana.

“At the time there were only really two teams scouting on small levels: the Dallas Cowboys and the Denver Broncos,” says Staninger. “I had a degree in marketing and it was easy to see that, you know, these poor kids, they’re not exposed.”

Leading up to the 1980 draft, Bingham started getting tryouts around the league and, two weeks before draft day, was invited to perform a physical with the New York Jets.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s a good sign,” Staninger says.

Bingham was drafted by New York in the 10th round and went on to play 14 years in the league, mostly as a long-snapper and backup offensive lineman. Today he’s a business partner with Staninger in Missoula with Valley Vending and Montana Coffee Express. They still hunt together and sit close by during Griz football and basketball games.

“Needless to say,” Staninger says, “it was a great start.”

“The Stinger”
Staninger’s personality is more character actor than leading man, and even his client list is stacked with players who play supporting roles: offensive linemen, special teams standouts or younger projects who show promise but are not yet household names. One of his highest-profile players, former Griz quarterback Dave Dickenson, is a star in Canada but never made better than backup in the NFL.

Still, there’s something to be said for the longevity of his players—Bingham played 14 seasons, Tim Hauck 13, Gragg 12, Rypien 11, Kirk Scrafford nine, and Dickenson is still playing after 10 seasons—and Staninger’s ability to discover them in the college ranks.

“By far, it’s the most difficult part of the job,” says Staninger about recruiting new clients. “It’s an ever-changing skill. First, you have to identify the good players. You have to confirm they’re of the caliber to play at the next level. I verify that through scouts and coaches, and then I see if they have the mental integrity. If they can’t deal with the pressure or the money, it doesn’t matter how talented they are.”

Right now Staninger is still chasing two lingering, late-signing prospects for the 2007 draft—Ballard and BYU quarterback John Beck—and vetting a list of players he’s identified for the 2008 draft.

“I typically stay in the Mountain West,” he says. “You don’t have to go very far to find some good players.”

Once he’s confirmed his list of prospects, then comes the difficult task of convincing the player to sign with him, rather than one of the 1,100 or so other certified agents. The NFLPA requires agents to follow a book of regulations totaling 51 pages, but those can be boiled down to one primary restriction included in Section 3(B): “Contract Advisors are prohibited from providing or offering money or any other thing of value to any player or prospective player [or the player’s family] to induce or encourage that player to utilize his/her services.” Staninger works his angle based on reputation, relationships and rapport. He spends almost as much time selling a player’s parents as he does the player.

“I think it’s a family decision,” says former Griz offensive lineman Dylan McFarland, who was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2004 and is currently rehabbing his knee in hopes of playing again in the NFL. “I talked to my parents and my parents have known Ken for a long time, and then you hear from people all around that he has a good reputation. Especially with Montana guys, I think he really takes it to heart. I think for me that was enough.”

“I went on three other trips with reps to see what they had to offer and what sort of people they were,” says Rypien, who met Staninger only after his college coach had screened prospective agents. “Nothing against the other guys, but I liked Ken more. Being from the Northwest and him being a guy from Missoula having the same likes—fishing, golf, outdoors—and him being a former quarterback himself, he was just a guy I trusted to help me.”

And while the personal touch is endearing, Staninger can also point to a proven track record of scoring at the negotiating table. It’s something Rypien talks about at length—he’ll talk at length about almost anything regarding Staninger, and does so regularly as a reference for his friend’s prospective clients—when recounting his career. In 1992, following Rypien’s MVP performance in the Super Bowl, Staninger brokered what was reported as the second-largest contract ever in the NFL at the time, second only to San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana’s. Staninger has a policy about not divulging financial details of his clients’ deals (he receives no more than 3 percent, according to NFLPA restrictions), but media accounts suggested Rypien got paid more than $9 million over three years.

“He told you about ‘The Stinger,’ right?” Rypien asks. “That’s what I called him—The Stinger. He would negotiate a deal and I’d always come away saying, ‘The Stinger has stung!’”

“You be there as a friend”
Staninger’s relationship with Rypien is the best example of the success of his commitment to his players, but it’s also proven to be one of the more emotionally trying.

Rypien was a promising prospect out of college, but as a late-round draft choice of the Washington Redskins he was far from a sure thing. Staninger kept close tabs as Rypien was placed on the injured reserve list his first two seasons, forced to wait his turn while veterans led the team.

“When you’re the backup and not the guy that week, he’s the one who’s always saying your time is going to come, make sure you’re doing the things you need to do, don’t get frustrated because when it is your time you’re gonna have to be ready or else I’m out a client and you’re on the street somewhere,” Rypien says. “It was the little things, the encouragements that he gave every week.”

Following the 1988–1989 season, when Rypien was still a backup and the Redskins won the Super Bowl, Rypien’s father unexpectedly passed away. Rypien was traveling by car from Virginia to Washington state and Staninger had to arrange for the Highway Patrol to locate Rypien so he could break him the news.

“That was difficult because he was close to his father and he died at such a young age,” Staninger says. “You be there as a friend.”

Rypien became the Redskins’ starting quarterback in 1989, guiding the team to the first of two consecutive 10–6 seasons. Then, in 1991, he dominated, leading the league’s highest-scoring offense to an eventual Super Bowl victory. Staninger was along with Rypien for the ride, speaking with him often and showing up for the championship game—one of only two Super Bowls the agent has attended before this weekend’s game.

“I wanted him there,” Rypien says. “I think it was mutual: the two people who were a big part of my life, Mary [Ken’s wife] and Ken, I wanted them there and they wanted to come and support me. A lot of times an agent has so many players that they can’t always be there, but that was never the case with him.”

Following the Super Bowl and the signing of his lucrative contract, however, Rypien’s career took a downturn. He battled injuries, the Redskins released him, and he bounced from team to team as a backup. Then, in July 1998, he retired upon learning that his wife Annette and 3-year-old son Andrew both had cancer. Annette would recover, but Andrew passed away one month later. Mark and Annette divorced in 2000.

“It’s the sort of thing you can’t even imagine,” says Staninger, who has two grown sons of his own, Brett and Ryan. “Working with Mark is the definition of being at the highest point of your life with him winning the Super Bowl and then getting to the lowest. It was hard. It was hard on everybody.”

“There’s a lot of fog in those years, you know?” Rypien says. “The thing with Kenny is that, most of the times when the times were good, Kenny was there. And most of the times when the times were bad, Kenny was there too. The loss of my father and the loss of my son, Kenny was there. He’s always been a big part of my life.”

In fact, Staninger kept working with Rypien to get him back in the NFL for one more go-around. In 2001, three years removed from his last game, Rypien made the Colts roster as a 38-year-old backup to Peyton Manning.

“My daughters were the ones who really encouraged me since they were so young during a lot of my career,” says Rypien, who now runs a foundation based in Spokane that helps families battling childhood cancer. “But Ken was the one there working the phones. He really stuck with me.”

“All I asked was why”
Dyland McFarland is at a crossroads. The former Griz offensive tackle spent two years with Buffalo before being cut last August before the season. His knee required surgery and, for the first time since he was 15 years old, he wasn’t spending his fall playing football.

“When people go into the NFL, they all think they’re going to play 10 years and go to Super Bowls and make teams and make a lot of money and it’s going to be fun and easy and a great experience,” says McFarland. “The truth is for most people it’s tough. It’s tough to make teams and it’s tough to stay on teams.”

McFarland’s rehabilitation is on schedule and he’s hoping, with the help of Staninger’s connections, to have tryouts with teams over the spring and summer. But he’s also realistic about his chances of a triumphant comeback, especially if he’s not 100-percent healthy. He’s applied to law school at UM.

“Ken will tell you exactly how things are and if it might be time to do something different,” McFarland says. “We talk every couple of weeks and sit down and have lunch and he asks how things are going. He told me straight that if things aren’t better by March, I should probably consider something different…There’s enough waiting around and uncertainty in the NFL business, it’s good to have a guy that’ll tell you exactly what he thinks.”

The idea is that Staninger’s loyalty will pay off with McFarland like it did with Rypien and so many other clients. The reality, however, is that it doesn’t always work out that way.

In 2000, Staninger signed Fresno State quarterback Billy Volek, a marginal NFL prospect at the time because of his weak arm. Volek went undrafted, but was signed as a free agent by the Tennessee Titans, where he mostly served as an inactive emergency backup. In 2003, Volek finally saw playing time and in 2004 he finished the season as the starter due to injury.

During that 2004 off-season, Volek, an unrestricted free agent and considered an emerging NFL quarterback, went shopping with Staninger for the best deal. Following a tour that included Green Bay, Denver and Atlanta, Volek ended up re-signing with Tennessee on a four-year, incentive-laden contract that included a valuable no-trade clause, which provided some stability. “It was a huge contract for a backup, and his dad thanked me for [the no-trade clause],” Staninger says.

Staninger felt he had put his client in the best possible position.

But the next season Volek abruptly dropped Staninger as an agent and chose representation by Drew Rosenhaus, one of the most successful and polarizing agents in football. Rosenhaus is known for his hyper-aggressive, headline-hungry style, best exemplified in a comical 2005 press conference in bombastic wide receiver Terrell Owens’ driveway (Owens had just been suspended), where all Rosenhaus did was repeatedly bark “Next question!” Volek’s decision shocked Staninger.

“I’m still not completely sure what happened,” Staninger says.

By Staninger’s account, Volek called and told him he wanted a “higher profile, more aggressive agent” because “he was sure he was going to hold out for the starting position.”

“All I asked was why,” says Staninger. “He had incentives built into the contract we’d just negotiated that would pay him when he became the starter. But Drew must have convinced him that he needed some sort of junkyard dog to go in there and handle it for him.”

The situation didn’t exactly work out for Volek. In 2006 he and Rosenhaus publicly requested a trade from Tennessee, which responded by admonishing Volek and Rosenhaus publicly. A war of words ensued and Volek was demoted to third string before finally being sent to San Diego two weeks into the season in exchange for a sixth-round draft choice. He remains a backup in San Diego.

Staninger doesn’t like to dwell on the topic, but he admits he was upset and still sounds like someone who’s been burned. Volek was “a free agent kid I hung with,” he says. The publicity of the breakup leaves Staninger torn between fighting the implication that he’s not big-name enough to handle a starting quarterback in today’s NFL and maintaining his reputation as a straight-shooting veteran who works hard to cultivate strong relationships with project players like Volek.

“If anything happened, Billy took on the personality of his new agent, and I think that hurt him,” he says. “Listen, sometimes personalities don’t match. I’m a pretty laid-back guy to talk with, but I’ll go to war in a negotiation when it comes to it.”

Then he repeats his pitch: “I’m not a gold chains and limousines type guy and I’m not ever going to be like that. I’m not sure what else to say about Billy. He’s still paying me [from that four-year contract signed in 2004], so maybe I should just leave it at that.”

“It’s all part of the game”
For 29 years Staninger Sports Agency has been carried on the backs of Ken and, for the last 25 years, his only employee, full-time assistant Jo Lasich. He’s had offers from other companies to merge and turned them down because it would take away what he enjoys most—the one-on-one interaction with clients. He gets résumés and inquiries from law school students every week seeking internships and apprenticeships, but has turned them all down with polite personal replies. For the first time in his career he’s considering hiring someone new to help him, “a guy in the field” who will travel regularly to weekend games. He has someone in mind, but that’s still a ways off, he says.

“I’d still do all of the negotiating,” he says. “I’d still do the deals.”

He doesn’t sound tired. In fact, he sounds the opposite. You get the impression Staninger sees how things are changing and how he may need to expand to stay competitive. Perhaps someone younger, more in tune with the predilections of a newer generation of NFL prospects.

“I saw Jerry McGuire,” Staninger says in response to a mention of the 1997 film. “I liked it. It was Hollywood, but I could identify with how some of it was done. It’s nasty sometimes and they had some of that. You saw how the big player was stolen the night before the draft? That would never happen like that, but that backstabbing? It’s all part of the game. Especially now.”

The modern NFL is a strange world. This year’s Super Bowl features a halftime show by Prince, the National Anthem sung by Billy Joel and an A-list-filled NFL commercial that made headlines by not including a hopeful Britney Spears. Such a publicity-hungry world creates monsters both on and off the field, changing both how the league operates as a business and how the game itself is played. For every 10 players like the Colts’ Jake Scott there’s a controversial headline-grabber like Terrell Owens, with someone like Drew Rosenhaus beside him. The latter may receive the lion’s share of the attention, but the rest will continue to make a good living by keeping things simple and remembering that all of it revolves around real people playing a game—and that the game will end.

“You see a lot of guys you played with who have great agents when they’re starting, but as soon as they hit second-string or maybe they get a little bit older…it doesn’t last,” Rypien says. “When they’re looking around wondering what happened, that’s when I feel lucky to have known Ken.”

Staninger’s cell phone rings again and he excuses himself. The person on the line is asking about a possible coaching position and wants Staninger’s advice. Staninger’s voice gets loud again and for the next five minutes he listens, namedropping a few people he knows who may be able to help, rattling out numbers off the top of his head.

“I know him real well,” Staninger says into the phone. “Real well. Use my name.”

The person on the other end of the line, Staninger says, is just a friend and not a client.

At least not yet.

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