First published in The Record, Sept. 13, 2018
Beast!! Inside the world of a Top NFL agent
The night before the most important football game of his life, J.C. Jackson sat at a corner booth in the darkened lobby of the Renaissance Hotel in Elizabeth, eating hot wings. Across the table sat his agent, Jonathan Perzley, of Hackensack.
Perzley slumped in his chair, looking relaxed. Behind him, players on the New England Patriots shuffled toward the hotel’s restaurant.
Perzley ignored them. He kept his eyes trained on his client, who was feeling jangly.
In 24 hours Jackson would start his first NFL game, facing the New York Giants in a preseason matchup at MetLife Stadium as an undrafted rookie for the Patriots.
If he played well, blocking passes and generally making life difficult for Kyle Lauletta, the Giants’ third-string quarterback, Jackson might win a job that would make him a millionaire.
“I want an Audi,” he said. “Yeah, the big one, the A7.”
Then his mood shifted. As a cornerback, Jackson's job depends on youth and speed. If he failed in Thursday’s game, getting into the league would become more difficult.
Perzley projected confidence.
“You know what you’ve done in training camp. You’ve crushed it,” said Perzley, 34. “Nobody has more picks in the preseason than you do,” he said, using the insider's term for an interception.
Jackson felt uneasy. He started playing competitive football at age 5. Now he is 22. Growing up in Florida he never held a job, never considered another path.
“I just played football,” Jackson said after eating his last wing. “That’s what I’ve been thinking about all week. Am I gonna be on the team or not?”
Jon Perzley is one of the most successful agents in professional football, one of few careers even more competitive than playing in the league itself. Currently 2,016 men play in the NFL. They are represented by about 830 agents certified by the NFL Players Association.
But three-quarters of all players are represented by just 17 percent of qualified agents, according to the players association. Hundreds of agents have no clients at all.
Perzley represents about 40 players. His clients include David Johnson, who became one of the highest paid running backs in the league recently by signing a three-year contract extension worth up to $45 million with the Arizona Cardinals, and also grinders like Avery Moss, a linebacker on the Giants practice squad who will earn $129,000 this year.
“There’s only a handful of people who represent more players than me,” Perzley said one day recently as he sat in his glass-walled office at Sportstars, an agency based in Midtown Manhattan.
Last year the company earned $23.6 million in commissions, making it the world’s 28th largest sports agency and third largest focused exclusively on football, according to Forbes magazine.
“It is the most competitive, cutthroat industry I can imagine,” Perzley said.
Perzley stays near the top of his profession the same way his clients do, by going all out. Every moment a player is on the field, in practice and in games, he must play to his limits, risking physical pain and career-ending injury for the chance at big paychecks and football glory.
Perzley wants the money and glory, too. So he goes all out, six or seven days a week, 11 months a year, working a grueling schedule to keep in constant contact with every one of his clients, from the $45-million running back to the linebacker on the practice squad earning $7,600 a week.
“Listen, even if you have a four-year career and you never really made any money, you put your faith in me,” Perzley said. “So I’m going to give you 100 percent of my effort regardless, even if it’s not a huge moneymaker.”
Perzley grew up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey His father is an attorney, his mother manages nursing facilities, and Perzley spent his childhood playing competitive tennis.
“Tennis is a very country club, yuppie sport,” he said.
Perzley became a nationally ranked player. But he always felt like a bad boy in a nice guy’s sport. At age 15, he got his first tattoo.
“I was a completely different breed,” he said.
After high school, Perzley chose the University of Florida for its strong academics, huge parties and great football team. He became friendly with top Gators players.
As they were recruited by NFL teams, they asked Perzley for advice.
“I was always known as the smart guy,” he said. “But I didn’t know anything about this. So I wanted to find an internship that could help me understand what’s going on.”
Perzley landed an internship at Sportstars when he was 21. He never left.
Some agents simply negotiate contracts. They never attend NFL games, rarely meet players and ignore their lower-paid clients.
“If you’re not a big-name guy, they come to you when it’s beneficial to them,” Moss, the Giants linebacker, said of other agents.
Some agents also bend the rules to win clients, Perzley and players said. They undercut rivals, charging fees below the 1.5 percent minimum set by the players association. Some offer kickbacks.
“There were so many people who wanted to throw money at me to try to get me to sign” with an agent, Moss said of his participation in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Perzley operates differently. He charges players 3 percent of their contract value, the maximum allowed by the players association. In return his clients receive access to Sportstars' marketing department, an in-house lawyer and a 24-hour concierge.
“My main goal is to alleviate the player from any kind of off the field responsibilities,” Perzley said.
Some contracts require Perzley to take financial risks. Agents often pay trainers between $30,000 to $50,000 to help players prepare for the NFL Scouting Combine, Perzley said. This year Perzley covered the bill for Nick Gates, a linebacker from the University of Nebraska.
While Gates was training in San Diego, Perzley flew to California and helped Gates relax by taking him out for dinner and a trip to a casino.
In May, Gates signed a three-year deal with the Giants worth up to $1.6 million. If Gates — who started the regular season on injured reserve — meets all his contract’s goals, and if he agreed to pay Sportstars’ 3 percent fee, the deal might net Perzley up to $49,500, leaving the agent little to no profit.
“He’s just a down to earth guy,” Gates said of Perzley. “He’s your buddy, too.”
And then there is the schedule. Perzley occasionally attends three NFL games in a weekend. He flies 14 times a week to spend time with players.
Once he flew to Georgia and helped a player’s grandmother move her furniture into a new apartment, he said.
“A lot of my trips are just going to spend time with my guys,” he said. “I don’t even have anything to talk about. It’s just getting that face time.”
Supporting his players sometimes requires Perzley to hold back. As the Patriots' J.C. Jackson was preparing to start his first NFL game, his grandmother died. With his big game so close, Jackson’s parents wanted to make sure everything was in place before informing him.
The day of her death, Perzley learned the news. Jackson found out two days later.
“For real?” said Jackson, sitting in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel, surprised his parents had told the agent first.
“Yeah, your dad called me,” Perzley said. “That’s why I didn’t tell you. I didn’t want to mess you up.”
The evening was dry and hot when J.C. Jackson took his place at the 48-yard line, smack in the middle of MetLife Stadium. Giants quarterbackKyle Lauletta took the ball, danced backward, planted his feet, and heaved it.
Jackson allowed Giants receiver Kalif Raymond to pass him on the outside. By the time the NBC camera operator caught up, Raymond was two strides ahead, sprinting toward a catch and an easy touchdown.
Jackson ran faster. He closed the gap. He stretched his right arm —and swatted the ball away. By the end of the game, Jackson had two interceptions.
I watched the game from Miller’s Ale House in Paramus. I knew Jon Perzley is always awake, always keeping tabs on his guys. So I sent him a text to say congratulations.
He texted back in seconds.
“He’s amazing. I told you lol,” Perzley said of Jackson. “Beast!!”
Within days, Jackson signed a three-year contract with the Patriots worth up to $1.72 million.
He still wants an Audi A7, Perzley said.
For now, Jackson remains without a car.