As parents, we like to think we can predict what our children will grow up to be based on what captures their attention as kids. Then they return to the nest as young adults and we realize how far wrong we were.
The best swimmer among my children's friends did not become a Michael Phelps. He's an engineer — who deals with water. The boy who loved dolphins and frogs did not become a marine biologist. He became a Marine helicopter pilot.
We got a couple right. The little girl who would organize her Barbies into a classroom became a teacher. And the one who loved to dress her Barbies for fashion shows became a fashion plate.
But I never saw this one coming. Sam Renaut, who played soccer and tennis in high school, returned to Annapolis — as a National Football League player agent.
Sure, Sam was a sports junkie from his earliest days, and after graduating from Annapolis High School he worked in the sports information department while studying at Virginia Tech. He got a part-time job covering high school sports after college, but when the job started to look like a dead end, he did what a lot of kids do. He went to law school.
But Sam had a plan.
"I wanted to be a sports agent before I even knew what it meant."
He chose Arizona State University law school because every major sport has a franchise in the state, and it is a popular off-season destination for athletes. The minute he landed, he started angling for a special program for sports and entertainment law.
"The first meeting, five people came," said Sam, 29. "And we'd ordered 10 pizzas."
He put together a student sports law association and a sports law journal; he arranged for clinics and conferences and externships, and recruited sports attorneys as adjunct professors. He went to a sports lawyers convention that happened to be in Phoenix, and he monopolized one of the break-out sessions with his questions.
Ken Sarnoff, a sports lawyer and agent, tapped him on the shoulder and hired him on the spot as an intern.
"It was one of the biggest moments of my life."
He did the jobs nobody wants to do — researching salaries and arranging marketing appearances for clients — but he also listened in as Mr. Sarnoff negotiated with teams.
His mentor took Sam with him when he went to work for PlayersRep Sports Management, and when Sam passed his certification exam in the fall, he became the company's man in Arizona and California.
"It isn't a great business model," Sam said of the agent's life. "There are 900 certified agents, and 32 teams with 53 active players. That's not enough to go around."
The recruiting — not just of the player but of his parents — can take years, and if another agent is chosen instead, "It is like breaking up with a whole family," Sam said.
Agents invest a minimum of $15,000 and sometimes much more to place their athletes at a training facility and put them in an apartment and get them a car while they train for the NFL Scouting Combine, where the teams weigh, measure, time and test potential draft choices to within an inch of their Spandex.
Agents usually earn 3 percent of the player's contract dollars. Where he goes in the draft — top five or fifth round — has a direct effect on how much an agent makes. After that, the agent hustles up marketing opportunities for 20 percent of the fee.
And there are other duties.
Sam once spent several days researching finger monkeys for a client. Yes, finger monkeys. What they eat, do they require a permit or shots, do they bite. When he called to say he had his PowerPoint presentation on finger monkeys ready, the client had already moved on.
Sometimes he has to tell an ambitious college player to stay in school another year to improve his prospects. Sometimes a player's father will introduce him to another father — of a hidden gem who will suddenly shoot to the top of draft talk. Sometimes, a mother will call and sound so earnest and sincere that Sam will vote to take a chance on her son, sight unseen.
"It is one of the most competitive industries out there," he says of being an agent. "You work with special people who can do amazing things. You help kids who never had a chance succeed at something. You spent your time around athletes at amazing places.
"I am vicariously living out my own athletic dreams," Sam said, laughing.
It is the result of one of those teammate-of-a-teammate, fathers-are-friends-in-the-stands kind of connections that Mr. Sarnoff and Sam are now working for University of Oklahoma left tackle Lane Johnson, a salt-of-the-Earth kind of young man they like to represent.
A scouting combine sensation, the 6-foot-6, 308-pound Mr. Johnson has a standing vertical jump of 34 inches and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.72 seconds. He is projected to be among the first 10 players drafted, if not the first five.
"Nobody is supposed to be that big and that fast," said Sam, who rented a truck for the big lineman to drive during the run-up to the combine because it is the only vehicle with a cab large enough for him.
Of course, in Sam's business there are also the liars and the cheaters. The sports landscape is littered with them. Sam knows secrets, and he knows gossip. Cross a line, and everybody will know.
"No amount of talent justifies a scandal. We've turned down players. There is a saying, 'Sometimes the best player you get is the one you didn't get.'"
Sam, lifelong sports junkie, watches games differently now.
"When you are a fan and a guy gets injured, you just hope the guy they send in for him is good enough to help your team win. But when one of your guys gets injured, you feel so much pain for them. Real pain. Like the 10-year veteran who breaks his leg in week eight of the season, and you and he both know he might not be back. Like the rookie who misses half of his first season with an injury. Now that I am in it, I know how hard it is for these guys."
An NFL agent. What a card to play in your hometown. The problem? Sam's old soccer pals want a tryout at placekicker for their favorite teams.
"They want to know if they should dust off their old cleats."