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High-stakes hardball

Eugene Parker, the mysterious NFL agent, was an hour into a rare interview when a specific word triggered a pensive tone.

He had been discussing whether contract negotiations were a science or an art.

“When you say leverage, that’s an interesting phenomenon there,” Parker said. “Leverage ...”

Parker’s voice trailed off into a prolonged silence perhaps for dramatic effect, perhaps to contemplate.

The 57-year-old Fort Wayne, Ind., native is one of football’s most influential power brokers. He maintains a dazzling client list and a sterling reputation as a masterful negotiator who doesn’t screw around.

He is a peculiar NFL personality in that his clients love him and executives admire him.

“Eugene Parker,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told The Buffalo News, “is who I would call to represent me right now if I needed an agent.”

Yet many fans loathe Parker for the way he can use leverage and make a team bend to his will. A Google search of his name turns up more message-board venom toward him than links to stories about his remarkable career.

He represented an inductee in each of the past four Pro Football Hall of Fame classes: Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Rod Woodson and Curtis Martin.

Parker crafted the landmark, poison-pill offer sheet that sent Martin from the New England Patriots to the New York Jets and forced the NFL to change its rules.

Among Parker’s active clients are Larry Fitzgerald, Steven Jackson, Richard Seymour, Devin Hester and Dez Bryant. Parker has managed controversial holdouts for Ndamukong Suh and Michael Crabtree.

Buffalo Bills fans know Parker, and bemoan him, more for being the agent for Cornelius Bennett, Jason Peters and Jairus Byrd.

Bennett didn’t report for training camp in 1992, but that helped him become the NFL’s highest-paid defender five days before the regular season began. A contract squabble between Peters and the Bills forced them to trade the Pro Bowl left tackle to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009.

Byrd, a two-time Pro Bowl safety, hasn’t reported for voluntary workouts this spring because he’s unsigned, and a prolonged standoff could be in the offing.

“He’s creative, he’s insightful and he’s a bulldog when it comes to getting what you deserve,” said Martin, the Hall of Fame running back. “There isn’t going to be a dollar that you deserve left on the table.

“Even if the fans don’t respect him, at the end of the day it’s the general managers and the players and the league that need to respect him.”

And that takes us back to how Parker views leverage.

Before he handled all of those careers and dozens of others, he read the best-selling Herb Cohen book “You Can Negotiate Anything,” a how-to guide on methods that can be applied to a hostage crisis, a marriage or a corporate merger.

“Leverage,” Parker continued, “depends not about what you have, but what you’re willing to do.”

The example from Cohen’s book involves a prisoner in solitary confinement. He would appear to have zero leverage.

The guard outside his cell is smoking a Marlboro, and the smell wafts inside the cell. The prisoner pleads for a cigarette. The guard laughs and turns away.

Then the prisoner enters into a negotiation: The guard could continue to refuse the request, but the prisoner warns he will bang his skull on the cement wall until he bleeds all over the place and eventually falls unconscious.

The prisoner adds that once he’s revived he’ll swear the guard waylaid him, causing the turnkey to fill out reams of paperwork and get interrogated by prison officials even if he isn’t fired.

So why not compute the cost analysis of one cigarette and save the trouble?

That’s how leverage can be created when there seemingly is none.

Parker is willing to go to the wall for his clients, and he won’t blow smoke.

“I don’t bluff,” Parker said.

Behind the scenes

The average fan doesn’t know much about Parker or why he’s considered one of the NFL’s most influential people.

He’s a Clint Eastwood character, drifting from deal to deal, doing what needs to be done without seeking fanfare or paying any mind to criticism.

“It’s not about Eugene in any deal,” said Sanders, the legendary cornerback and NFL Network analyst. “It’s about his client.

“A lot of agents get that misconstrued. They think it’s about them, and they’re not only posturing for themselves; they’re posturing for the next meeting with that team on another player.”

Parker said he lays out his core philosophy with every client from the jump:

• “I don’t have a magic wand.”

• “I won’t lie to you or for you.”

• “I don’t trick teams.”

• “You have to do two things as a player. You have to reach your potential on the field, and you’ve got to be a solid citizen off the field. If you’re both those things, then you’re very valuable to your team and to the NFL.”

• “My job is to make sure you maximize your value, and I will.”

Unlike the Leigh Steinbergs or Drew Rosenhauses of the stereotypical agent world, Parker is a borderline recluse. He doesn’t stage news conferences for his clients. He balks at most interview requests if he returns the reporter’s call at all.

At his Relativity Sports offices, he’s known as Charlie, referring to the disembodied boss from the television show “Charlie’s Angels.”

“That’s how he’d prefer it,” Sanders said. “You never see Charlie. Charlie don’t want no accolades. Charlie just does his job. That’s it.”

Parker is known for formulating a stance that’s in his client’s best interests, executing the plan with conviction and articulating to the team what he wants without offending anybody.

“He’s a competitor,” former Bills General Manager Bill Polian said. “He wants to win. He drives a hard bargain. He knows what his objectives are. He uses every arrow in his quiver, which is fine.

“But the thing I like best about him is he’s straightforward and honest. He’s not just a lawyer, mouthing stats.”

Some of Parker’s biggest contracts have been brokered with Jones and the Cowboys.

“If you look at his career, you know that the substance you’re dealing with is impressive,” Jones said. “Your negotiation with him deserves that kind of respect.

“You know going in that you can be entirely candid with him and say, ‘We want to get this done. I’m not going to kick with you. Let’s help us get this done and move on with it.’ ”

Polian described how Parker is able to convey a client’s wishes without eliciting ill will, a potentially delicate dance.

Polian explained: “He would say, ‘This is what we feel is appropriate based on all of the data we’ve accumulated. We’re prepared to negotiate, but we’re not prepared to back off what we feel is appropriate value. If we don’t get it, then we’re probably not going to get a deal done, and he won’t be in camp.’

“If the agent is realistic and understands the player’s place in the game, then you have a platform to start negotiations. That’s Eugene to a T.”

Every current or former NFL executive used the adjective “straightforward” to describe Parker.

“He never sacrifices his integrity,” said ESPN business analyst Andrew Brandt, who negotiated Peters’ new contract for the Eagles. “I’ll admit to being frustrated with his positions, but I never felt like he was delusional or unfair in his dealings.

“In some ways, that makes him more professional than other agents. With other agents, you can get upset with their positions based on the way they acted about it. With him, you could not.”

Former head coach and personnel executive Bill Parcells doesn’t have patience for those who fail to suit a team’s best interests. He doesn’t suffer fools or silliness. He has a long memory.

When Parcells gets inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, Parker will be in Canton as his guest.

“He’s a good man, a very good man,” Parcells said from his summer home in Saratoga Springs. “The agents that I think have their clients’ interests as a priority, I generally get along with well.

“But those that are just feathering their own nest, I don’t care much for. I don’t like the crooks, the guys that are taking advantage. I think it’s sad, and I’ve seen a lot of it.

“I have a high regard for Eugene.”

Lifetime leverage

When Parker was born, his mother was 17 years old; his father already had moved away.

His mom, Jessie Parker, raised him, two sisters and her late sister’s two children in inner-city Fort Wayne.

“She was very grounded, taught me right from wrong and how to do the right thing and core values and how to treat people,” Parker said.

Parker’s world opened in the sixth grade, when Fort Wayne began mandatory public-school bussing. His mother instead sent him to a predominantly white private school.

“I started to see a different way of life that we didn’t see in my neighborhood,” Parker said. “I was, like, ‘This is just like on TV!” I would ask questions. ‘What do you have to do to have this kind of lifestyle?’

“Everybody was talking about going to college. I knew that’s what I had to do, and knowing that we couldn’t afford college, I knew I would have to get some kind of scholarship. So I focused on basketball.”

Parker flourished at Concordia Lutheran High. He said the immersion into a different culture taught him how to interact with people despite differing viewpoints and backgrounds.

On the court, Parker led the city in scoring his junior and senior seasons and earned a scholarship from Purdue University. He became a captain, was selected All-Big Ten and finished with 1,430 points.

He spent a year playing basketball for Athletes in Action and married his high-school sweetheart the day before he began law school at Valparaiso University.

“The odds against me ended up being the fuel to give me the determination and focus to make a better life,” Parker said. “Things that I took for granted – drive, discipline, focus – I realized a lot of people didn’t have. That helped me achieve.”

Parker became an NFL agent by happenstance. The Detroit Lions drafted his childhood friend and Purdue hoops teammate Roosevelt Barnes in 1982. Two years later, Parker was helping Barnes for free.

At the time, NFL business was conducted by white men. Art Shell wouldn’t become the first black head coach for another five years. Ozzie Newsome, the NFL’s first black general manager in 2002, still was playing for the Cleveland Browns.

Parker, regardless, established himself as a formidable NFL agent. He and Barnes now are partners at Relativity Sports, an agency still based in Fort Wayne.

“It’s hard for an agent to have that type of big-brother relationship with their player when they didn’t grow up in that same circumstance,” Sanders said, “and Eugene grew up like we grew up. … We understood he went to college as an athlete and he made it with his brain.”

No tricks up his sleeve

Approaching his fourth decade as an NFL agent, teams shouldn’t wonder if Parker means what he’s saying.

“I don’t have some negotiation ploy,” Parker said. “I truly believe in what I’m saying, and I have a basis for it and an understanding of it.

“Now I have experience, and because I’m 100 percent committed I’m not easily shaken.”

Teams, however, will stand up to him.

Parker advised Crabtree, the top receiver of the 2009 draft, not to sign with the San Francisco 49ers because Parker felt their offer was too low. Crabtree missed the first four games before signing a deal believed to be not much better than he could have signed weeks earlier.

But many of his clients’ holdouts have worked.

“I don’t bluff because that’s just not me,” Parker said. “In this business, if you bluff and somebody calls it, in my mind you’ve lost all credibility forever.”

Suh’s holdout with Detroit in 2010 led to a colossal contract with $40 million in guarantees.

Peters got the dollars he wanted when it was made clear he wouldn’t report to the Bills until he got a new deal. The Bills weren’t willing to renegotiate a contract that already had been redone multiple times. They traded him to the Eagles.

“The teams that aren’t going to like me the most are teams that are trying to force a player to take less than what he’s worth,” Parker said. “They’re going to have a challenge with me. Teams that are willing to pay a player what he’s worth aren’t going to have a problem with me.

“Teams that deal with me know I’m tough on the money, but I’m pretty soft on everything else. I’m hard on the money because the player is a big piece of this NFL enterprise pie. He’s got to get his fair share, and that’s my job when the player produces.”

Jones insisted Parker has been nothing but fair over the years.

“He really does have a grasp of what’s in the best interests of the player,” Jones said. “You can depend on that prevailing if you go down that road. If you move away from something that may be questionable as to the interest of the player, with Eugene, you know you’re not going to get very far.”

But there’s an NFL owner who didn’t appreciate one of Parker’s most infamous maneuvers.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft suggested Parker was unscrupulous when composing the offer sheet that sent Martin to the Jets in 1998. The Jets’ offer sheet included a so-called poison pill for the Patriots.

Martin had the option to void the Jets’ five-year, $28 million contract after one season and could not receive the franchise tag, making him an unrestricted free agent. The Patriots knew he’d be gone after a year if they matched.

“That was what I call borderline attorney ... you know, ambulance-chaser, attorney kind of stuff,” Kraft told last year. “It was something where they took advantage.

“It was not the intent of the deal. It was clever lawyer stuff. It’s not in the spirit of what the whole agreement was, and that loophole was plugged.”

Parcells, the Jets’ GM at the time, and Martin scoffed at the idea Parker exploited a loophole.

“The only time I had to talk about my contract with the Jets,” Martin said, “was when Parcells told me, ‘I don’t know what kind of magic this guy Parker is doing, but, son, we’re going to make you the highest-paid running back in the NFL. Is that OK?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’

“Eugene was just clever. I told him, ‘I trust you. You just tell me what to do.’”

Byrd stalemate?

Bills fans should brace for similar faith and conviction from Byrd.

Perhaps the Bills are, too, although President and CEO Russ Brandon claimed they didn’t draft safeties Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks this year to prepare for the possibility of a lengthy Byrd holdout.

Byrd wanted to test the open market as an unrestricted free agent in March. He didn’t want the Bills to use their franchise tag on him. But they did, guaranteeing him a one-year contract worth $6.916 million.

Byrd and the Bills both want a long-term contract, but finding his price point has proven dicey.

Free-agent safety Dashon Goldson signed a four-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers worth a reported $41.25 million with $22 million in guarantees. But that might not even be a measuring stick.

Who’s to say Goldson’s agent obtained the right value for Goldson? And how much better or worse than Goldson is Byrd? Goldson is two years older. Goldson has four fewer interceptions and four fewer forced fumbles than Byrd in 19 more games.

“Under the system, the Bills were allowed to pay Jairus substantially less than a Pro Bowl player at his position makes for four years,” Parker said. “The Bills, under the CBA, have the ability to restrict his free agency by making him a one-year offer, which we can accept or not accept.

“He’s fulfilled every clause of his contract, and he’s played at 15 to 20 percent of what his market value is for a player at his position, and he did it for four years with no complaints.

“Now, it’s time. We’ve got to figure something out.”

The Bills met with Parker in February at the NFL scouting combine, where each side made its position clear. Brandon said Friday the Bills “have made offers to his camp that are very competitive in the marketplace.”

Byrd has not reported for any of the Bills’ voluntary workouts this spring. He won’t show up for mandatory minicamp nine days from now minus a signed contract. Speculation about whether Byrd will report for training camp at St. John Fisher College almost certainly will intensify.

Byrd would forfeit weekly paychecks once the regular season begins. Franchise players who remain unsigned after Week 10 of the regular season become ineligible to play for the rest of the season and their teams can franchise them again for 2014.

“We’re going to continue to do everything we can to get this done,” Brandon said. “That’s the ultimate goal. It’s never an easy process, but the franchise tag is an asset that’s collectively bargained and that we’re provided, and he has what’s available to him by not being here until when he feels he should be.”

That time probably will come when Parker obtains the financial commitment from Buffalo he has determined Byrd deserves.

“I understand the business of football,” Parker said. “I realize teams have choices and options, and players have choices and options. And the better the player, the better options that player has.

“If a deal doesn’t work for the player or team, then it doesn’t work. We can agree to disagree. That doesn’t make the team bad, or me bad or the player bad.”