Terry Pegula remembers when he learned about Brian Ayrault’s competitive nature.
The year was 1991, and Ayrault was a 12-year-old pitcher for the Padres in the Orchard Park Little League. He was a teammate of Pegula’s oldest son, Michael.
On this particular day, Ayrault was on the mound as Pegula watched from behind the backstop. When the young umpire called a ball on a pitch Ayrault thought should have been a strike, he walked 10 feet off the mound, staring daggers through the umpire. After he got back on the mound, the next pitch sailed over the umpire’s head, clanging off the backstop Pegula was watching behind.
“He was a fiery redhead,” Pegula recalled. “I said, ‘OK, he’s competitive.’ ”
Pegula and Ayrault had no idea that introduction would be the start of a relationship that has lasted more than 25 years. Today, they are two of the biggest power brokers in the National Football League – Pegula as owner of the Buffalo Bills and Ayrault as an agent with Creative Artists Agency, the most dominant firm in professional sports. Included on Ayrault's client list are NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and top-three draft picks Joey and Nick Bosa.
This is how Ayrault rose to the top.
An athletic upbringing
The son of Joe and Marilyn Ayrault, Brian grew up in a sports-crazed family on Quaker Lake Terrace in Orchard Park.
Brian’s older brother, Joe, was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1990, and cracked the big leagues in 1996 when he appeared in seven games for the National League champions. He is now the manager of the Carolina Mudcats, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Class-A Advanced affiliate in the Carolina League.
Brian was a senior in high school at the time, and had pitched four years for the Orchard Park varsity team, graduating in 1997.
“He was awesome,” Pegula recalled of Brian's time on the mound.
Arm trouble, though, meant Ayrault was unable to follow in the footsteps of his older brother or cousin, Bob, who pitched three MLB seasons for the Phillies and Mariners in the early 1990s. Another cousin, Mike Elias, is the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
“I think if you asked the people who played with me growing up, they would probably say that I took things way too seriously as an athlete,” Ayrault said. “Every game was the Super Bowl or the World Series. I definitely had the competitive rage that my clients have – the good ones. I just didn't have quite the talent.”
Kyle Liebler has been Ayrault’s best friend since the sixth grade. Each has served as the other’s best man in his wedding. Liebler, who still lives in Orchard Park, knows Ayrault as well as just about anyone. He couldn’t help but laugh when agreeing about Ayrault’s competitive streak.
“He is correct in saying that,” Liebler said. “We had our battles in the driveway or the backyard over missed calls and stuff like that with some of our other buddies. On the mound when he pitched, it was always funny because he would get really mad if somebody made an error in the field. He'd pace around the mound."
Baseball, though, was never Ayrault’s first love. Growing up in the shadows of Rich Stadium during the Super Bowl glory years, he said he was “as big of a Bills fan as you could ever imagine.”
Ayrault remembers the exact location of his seat among the family's season tickets, which were purchased the year Jim Kelly signed. Section F2, Row 30, Seat 2.
“That was my spot for the whole run,” he said. “I mean, that was everything for me. It was really a magical place and time to grow up. That was really the start (of a love of football) for me, was those teams.”
No matter the season, Ayrault asked for Kelly’s No. 12 or Thurman Thomas’ No. 34. He is far from alone in developing a love for the game during that time. A number of Buffalo-area natives who work in the NFL went through the heartbreak of four consecutive Super Bowl losses during their formative years.
“Every lesson you can learn in life, really, you could learn from those teams,” Ayrault said. “How you bounce back, how you come back from big defeats, how you never give up when you’re behind, all those things.”
Ayrault had a successful high school career as a quarterback – of course wearing No. 12. As a senior in 1996, he led Orchard Park to a 10-0 record and the Section VI title – the first of legendary coach Gene Tundo’s career – before a loss in the Far West Regionals to Rochester’s East High. Ayrault was named the ECIC Division I Offensive Player of the Year.
After he played two seasons of college football, including one as a backup quarterback on a University at Buffalo team that went 0-11 in its first season in the Mid-American Conference in 1999, the arm trouble that had plagued him in high school left him unable to continue his playing career.
Ayrault graduated from UB in December 2001 with a bachelor's degree in political science. He reached out to former UB football coach Jim Hofher about a possible graduate assistant position, but was persuaded to go to law school. He eventually would, but not before a chance meeting on New Year’s Eve 2001 changed his life.
Finding the one
Ayrault, who was already admitted to UB law school, was out on Chippewa Street to ring in the new year when Amy Thomas walked into Soho. The sister of former Buffalo Sabres forward Scott Thomas, Amy was an accomplished athlete herself, playing tennis for the University of Minnesota.
They were at Orchard Park High at the same time, but didn't know each other. They hit it off that night, however, and Ayrault soon decided he wanted to attend law school in Minnesota, so that he could be closer to her. He chose William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
About a year into law school, though, Ayrault realized he didn’t want to be a lawyer. Working 80 hours a week in a job he wasn’t passionate about just wasn’t appealing.
A career in football was still his goal, so in 2003, he sent his résumé to every top sports agency and NFL team. He got a response from Pittsburgh-based agent Ralph Cindrich, who had a lengthy client list of NFL players.
Ayrault started an unpaid internship with Cindrich’s firm in May 2004. That meant moving to Pennsylvania with Amy, his fiancee at the time. The “unpaid” part of the internship, however, proved problematic. The couple was going deep into debt.
Needing a place to stay, Thomas reached out to an old friend, Laura Pegula, Terry's oldest daughter and a former tennis teammate. The Pegula family had moved from Buffalo to Pittsburgh as Terry built his company, East Resources, but then moved again to South Carolina. That meant they had an empty house in Pittsburgh.
The Pegulas graciously offered up their residence, rent free, meaning the couple could afford the move.
Ayrault was one of five summer interns. He exhaustively studied the ins and outs of the business before starting, examining what made the top agents successful. His first week of the job, he sized up the other four interns as his competition. Ayrault completed every task given to him, while at the same time taking it upon himself to call college football players and set up meetings with as many top prospects as possible. Within a couple of weeks, he had a job offer waiting for him upon finishing law school.
The year before Ayrault started working full time, the firm had signed one draft pick. The next year, it signed five.
Ayrault, now 40, and Thomas got married on New Year’s Eve 2004. The couple has two kids – a daughter, Hannah, 8, and a son, John, 6.
After finishing law school in the spring of 2005, they moved back into Pegula’s house outside Pittsburgh and Ayrault went to work at Cindrich’s firm. A few months later, Pegula offered a proposal: financial backing if Ayrault wanted to start his own company.
“I'd say two things stuck out: competitive and smart,” Pegula said of what he saw in Ayrault. “I would try to help him out with the business side of things.”
Ayrault, however, turned down Pegula’s offer and continued working with Cindrich. He didn’t feel like he knew enough about the business to start his own company yet. After a few more months, though, Ayrault kept coming back to Pegula’s offer.
“I kept thinking about it, and I kept thinking about Terry and Kim, what type of people they were, and that he believed in me,” he said. “I trusted them, so I said ‘Let's do it.’ ”
Operating out of the Pegulas’ basement, Ayrault Sports Agency opened in August 2006, with exactly zero clients. A year later, Ayrault and his wife relocated from Pittsburgh to Charlotte to be in the talent-rich southeast part of the country. Ayrault hit the recruiting trail, putting 52,000 miles on his used Mercedes in one year. His first big signing was Georgia receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, a second-round pick of the Browns in 2009.
Player by player, Ayrault slowly built his client base, but the one thing that was missing was a first-round pick. As a young agent who had never represented a first-round pick, it was difficult for Ayrault to convince those types of players to give him a chance.
In 2010, East Resources struck a deal for most of its assets with Royal Dutch Shell, making Pegula a billionaire four times over. He continued his financial backing of Ayrault Sports, and in October 2011, summoned Brian to Florida for a meeting about the future of the firm.
Ayrault’s plan to take the agency to the next level was to partner with an established, successful company. The one he had in mind was Todd France’s AllPro Athlete Management. By December 2011, a deal was struck for Pegula to take over ownership of the merged companies. Ayrault moved from Charlotte to Atlanta in March 2012 to work with France and his team on a daily basis.
With France’s guidance, Ayrault’s career skyrocketed. Among the roughly 25 NFL players he actively represents today are Donald, the Rams' Pro Bowl defensive tackle, the Bosa brothers and Bears linebacker Roquan Smith, who was drafted eighth overall in 2018.
When he acquired the Bills in 2014, Pegula was forced to give up his ownership stake in the agency. Ayrault, though, has never forgotten what Pegula did for him.
“After my wife and my parents, he’s one of the most important people in my life, for sure. I owe them a ton,” he said. “They set me up, and it's not just me they've taken care of. They've helped a lot of people, and they don't ever publicize it.”
What possessed Pegula to lend Ayrault a helping hand?
“When I was growing up, obviously we didn't have much when I was younger," the Bills' owner said. "I've run into a few people in my life who have guided me and helped me out. I think that's what makes our country great, being able to help younger people, help them grow and mature and be successful.
“He had some lessons to learn about managing people and things like that. We all do. But he's obviously doing a good job with it.”
As a team owner, Pegula made it clear that his history with Ayrault and France does not extend to anything more than a friendship.
“I keep the distance. I don't want people to think there is something personal I have between Brian or Todd. I make sure I draw the line with that,” Pegula said. “I'll talk to them socially, but I do not cross that line on the business and ask him for input, secrets, anything like that. I won't do that.”
Ayrault was one of seven employees of Five Star Athlete Management who joined CAA in 2015 after Pegula’s sale closed.
Ayrault works side by side with some of the titans of the industry in France, Tom Condon and Jimmy Sexton, representing a who’s who of NFL stars in everything from endorsements, speaking engagements, philanthropy and contract negotiations.
“We are, as a company, the most dominant agency in all of sports,” Ayrault said. “It's not just the best football agency, it's the best agency in every sport, by every measure. We’ve got a great team of agents here, and it’s been especially rewarding to work with Todd France and Rich Hurtado. They’ve helped me to develop as an agent and a negotiator. They are great guys and terrific agents.”
Fighting for his guys
The agent business is one that can sometimes be thought of as, well, a little dirty. Ayrault, though, has always been above those tactics.
“One thing I learned from a long time ago is that you do anything the wrong way in this business, and you're done,” he said. “I always had a good moral compass. It was instilled in me by my parents and by Terry: Treat people the right way and do things the right way, and you'll go a heck of a lot farther in life than if you cut corners and you cheat and you do things the wrong way. That's been the guiding light for me.”
When he was coming out of Pitt for the 2014 NFL Draft, Donald and his family interviewed Ayrault and France. The defensive tackle vividly recalls Ayrault being able to recite every one of his college stats.
“A lot of guys, they hear about you, but for him to actually do his homework and really understand the player you're trying to be – that was really what stood out to me,” Donald said. “He always felt like I was the best before the world knew. He's a guy who is going to work his butt off for you, and make sure you get everything you deserve and more.
“In this part of your life, this stage of your career, it's hard to trust people, man. I've got a guy like Brian that I can trust. He's going to make sure it's done the right way for me and my family. It just makes my job easier. All I've got to do is worry about football, and he's got me taken care of on the back end with the business.”
The story of how Ayrault landed the Bosa brothers as clients culminates at Big City Tavern in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It was there that John and Cheryl Bosa conducted interviews with eight agencies that wanted to represent their sons.
A first-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins in 1987, John Bosa made a promise to his sons that he would always surround them with the best possible people. As a player, he was represented by Condon. John Bosa told his wife that CAA should go last so that it did not sway their meetings.
When it was CAA’s turn, Condon was there, along with France. But Ayrault stole the show.
"He was incredibly prepared, and just a personable, smart guy, which is kind of a unique combination," John Bosa said. "He's such a likable guy, and when he digs into things, the attention to detail is just incredible. Out of all the people we spoke to, he was clearly the most impressive guy.”
After the meeting, the Bosas stood up to leave, but before they could get out the front door, Cheryl stopped John.
“They’re the ones,” she told her husband, “and it’s because of Brian.”
The couple turned around, went to the back of the restaurant and told the CAA contingent that they had a new client.
“The team is wonderful," John Bosa said, "but Brian is really the one who we fell in love with.”
When Nick Bosa needed representation entering this year’s draft, there was no need for a drawn-out interview process.
“There was absolutely no question we were going with Brian,” John Bosa said.
Donald and Joey Bosa have lived up to their contracts. The former is a repeat winner of the NFL Defensive Player of the Year honor, while the latter won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2016.
“To see your guys succeed is the best thing in this business,” Ayrault said. “It's not all about money and all those things. It's about the game. I didn't get into this business to make as much money as I could. I got into the business because I loved the sport, I was passionate about football and I wanted to make it my life's work. That's what anybody should do. Find a passion, something that gets you going every morning, and work hard at it.”
Ayrault has signed 18 first-round picks, including six in the top 10.
“If you would have told me that my last year of law school … I would have laughed at you,” Ayrault said. “I mean, I'm so grateful for everything that's happened.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been tough times. Donald and Joey Bosa have gone through contract holdouts in recent years – a difficult process for a player, who is getting pressure from fans, and maybe even his teammates, to sign.
“It was real tough,” Donald said. “Brian was one of the main people who kept my head straight, kept me calm and kept me from losing my mind. Him just talking to me, breaking things down for me made me understand the whole process. He said, 'We'll handle everything off the football field.' ”
Ayrault delivered on his promise, and Donald agreed to a six-year contract worth up to $135 million, a record for a defensive player.
Bosa’s holdout was different. As a rookie, his wage was slotted by draft position, but language in the contract dictates how that guaranteed money is paid. While those details were being ironed out, Bosa became the last rookie from the 2016 draft class to sign his first professional contract.
“That's part of where the trust comes in, the trust in that Brian's doing what's best for you for your long-term career,” John Bosa said. “You don't hire brilliant people and then not listen to them. ... He’s going to do what's right for the player, and that's all I care about. I want what’s best for my sons. He's an agent and a business guy for us, but he's also part of the family.”
In the course of representing players, Ayrault has naturally branched out to representing executives and coaches. Included on his client list are Texans head coach Bill O’Brien and three NFL general managers – Green Bay’s Brian Gutekunst, Tennessee’s Jon Robinson and Jacksonville’s Dave Caldwell, a fellow Western New Yorker.
“It's a very difficult process to pick a representative, because it really involves your family,” O’Brien said. “I think the No. 1 thing is that Brian is a very close friend of our family. He really understands our family dynamic.”
O’Brien met Ayrault through Robinson, who before taking the Tennessee job had started his career as a scout with the Patriots and worked his way up to the director of college scouting. In their respective roles, the two would frequently cross paths, and Robinson was impressed with Ayrault’s football knowledge and passion.
“I trust his opinion on players when he would tell me about them,” Robinson said. “The relationship just grew from there. He became a guy that I thought that I could trust if and when that time ever came that I needed to get someone to represent me.”
Robinson also had an appreciation for how Ayrault built his business from the ground up. When he first started, he didn’t have the big-name clients that he now represents.
“He was hungry,” Robinson said. “He wanted to grow in the business. He wanted to grow as an agent. He worked to develop relationships. … I'm proud of what he's been able to accomplish, and he's never changed."
During a breakfast meeting last month with The Buffalo News, Ayrault excused himself just once, to answer a call from his wife. Bizarro Ari Gold, the cantankerous sports agent from the HBO series "Entourage," if you will.
"You would never know when he comes into town that he's this big-shot NFL agent," said Liebler, his longtime friend who works as a math teacher at Frontier High School. “Nothing has gone to his head. He's as down to earth as they come. When we get together with all of our other friends, it's like we're back in high school."
Caldwell met Ayrault before the 2008 NFL Draft, when he was representing Georgia linebacker Marcus Howard. Caldwell was a scout for the Indianapolis Colts at the time, and was in charge of putting Howard through a predraft workout. Ayrault assisted in any way he could, and the Colts ended up drafting Howard. When Caldwell found out Ayrault was from Orchard Park, the pair immediately hit it off.
“They say that like-minded people kind of gravitate toward each other,” Caldwell said. “He's a hard worker, started his business from the ground up, which I really appreciated.”
By coincidence, Ayrault ended up in Caldwell’s neighborhood in Atlanta when the agent relocated from Charlotte. Caldwell spent five years with the Falcons after leaving the Colts. A professional relationship then developed.
“You saw how he treated his clients,” Caldwell said. “When he wanted to get into representing executives and coaches, I thought, ‘If he's going to treat me like he treats his clients – be honest, hard-working and no nonsense – well that's the type of guy I can relate to.’
"I call it that Buffalo loyalty. He’s a guy who is going to fight tooth and nail for his clients.”
Representing players and executives sets up the potential for some uncomfortable situations if Ayrault represents both sides.
“You have to always act in the best interests of every client, no matter what relationship you have,” he said. “I represent guys on the team side, and they know when I'm negotiating their contract with the owner or the team president, that I'm going to advocate as hard as I can for them and try and get them the best deal. With a player, whether I know the GM and have a great relationship with that team or not, we're going to push the envelope for the player as hard as we can."
You won’t find much online about Ayrault – which is exactly how he likes it. He is more than happy to stay behind the scenes. O’Brien joked that a reporter probably wouldn’t get much quotable material from him.
“I've never been one to self-promote,” Ayrault said. “When you brought this idea to me, I thought about my parents. They took me to every Bills game, showed up at every sporting event, and created this love of sports. I wanted to thank them for it.”
That’s why Ayrault had one request about this story – that his parents not be contacted. That way, it could serve as a surprise when they open the Sunday newspaper.
“He's a smart, tough, dependable guy. That's what he is,” O’Brien said. “He grew up in Buffalo. He knows what it means to work hard and be loyal and really have a passion for what he's doing. That's probably the reason why it took you a couple years to even get this story going, because I don't think he really is looking for that type of attention.
“But to me, a guy like that should get some attention sometimes. In today's world, the guys who are really true, loyal, tough, smart guys that represent you in a fair and honest way, I think guys like that should get publicity.”