By Childs Walker and Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun
9:00 PM EST, March 2, 2013
Don't look for a $3,000 suit or slicked-back hair. Don't expect to hear empty flattery or bragging about an extensive list of superstar clients. None of that is Joe Linta.
"If you met him and he told you he was a sports agent, you wouldn't believe him," says recently retired Ravens center Matt Birk, a client of Linta's for all 15 of his NFL seasons.
Linta built his Connecticut-based agency around guys like Birk, who were drafted in the later rounds and became excellent players at unglamorous positions. The former Yale defensive lineman pored over game tape and ran potential clients through his own drills — as much a coach as a master negotiator. He became a low-key success but never a star on the level of superagents Drew Rosenhaus or Leigh Steinberg.
All that is changing now because of another low-key Northeasterner named Joe Flacco. A Super Bowl Most Valuable Player at the prime age of 28, Flacco agreed to a six-year, $120.6 million deal Friday with the Ravens, according to team and league sources, which will make him the highest-paid player in NFL history. And Linta is the man who negotiated the contract.
Flacco's pending free agency and the negotiations have brought Linta an unprecedented level of scrutiny and recognition. During the period leading up to the talks, he boldly asserted the strength of his client's position and received some criticism that he was negotiating through the media.
But Linta's no grandstander, says Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien, who was an assistant with the New England Patriots, where Linta was highly respected by the NFL's most decorated coach, Bill Belichick.
"He understands the game, and he wants to do the best for his client," says O'Brien, who hired Linta as his agent based on what he saw with the Patriots. "But he's always going to be fair. He had the respect of the organization because he's honest."
Linta did not respond to interview requests for this article. But a few terms come up over and over from clients and associates who've known Linta for years: honest, straightforward, caring, a football lifer. This is a guy who takes time away from agenting every fall to coach his sons, Nick and T.J., at Connecticut's Hamden Hall Country Day School.
With his mom-and-pop stable of 45 clients, he's a rare breed in an era of conglomerate agencies, says his vice president, Tom Kleine. "Joe's about as un-Ivy a guy as you could possibly find," says Kleine, who has been with him for 11 years. "He can sit and crunch numbers with the numbers guys. But he's equally comfortable sitting and talking football with the football guys."
Linta grew up in Pittsburgh rooting for the great Steelers teams of the 1970s. Though he was no football star at Yale, coach Carmen Cozza says he was a dogged student of the game and a guy who always had some idea to put extra money in his pocket.
"He's a go-getter, a worker who'll dedicate himself to doing the best for Flacco and others," Cozza says. "He's not one of these sharp-dressing guys; I used to tell him, 'Shake the coal dust off yourself and get to work.'"
Classmate Patrick Ruwe, who captained the Yale squad, remembers Linta as a disheveled character who "went his own way a little bit." But he's not surprised that his teammate became an agent.
"He was clearly entrepreneurially aligned," says Ruwe, now the orthopedic surgeon for Yale football. "I think he ran the student refrigerator service, where you could rent a fridge for 50 bucks a year, and he'd be the liaison between the college and students. And he worked nights with a downtown parking service."
Tom Giella, who was a year behind Linta, remembers players calling him "Papa Joe" because he became a de facto coach when a knee injury sidelined him his senior year.
"'Slick' is not an adjective I'd use to describe Joe," Giella says. "He was our colleague and one who looked out for our best interests. He was a casual blue-jeans-and-T-shirt type of guy."
Linta served as an assistant coach at Yale after he graduated and became a certified NFL agent in 1990.
Over the years, his clients included a few first-round picks, such as tight end Kyle Brady out of Penn State and defensive end Kamerion Wimbley out of Florida State, and a likely Hall-of-Famer in Nebraska guard Will Shields.
But players such as Birk, a sixth-round pick out of Harvard, and Steelers guard Willie Colon, a fourth-round pick out of Hofstra, were more his bread and butter. In addition to Flacco, Linta represents Ravens center Gino Gradkowski, a fourth-round pick last year, and guard Antoine McClain, a rookie free agent who was on the practice squad last season.
He experienced a heartbreaking side of his work in December, when Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, another of Linta's proud finds, killed his girlfriend and then fatally shot himself outside the team's practice facility.
Ivy regular guys
Birk says agents weren't exactly flocking to him when he emerged from Harvard. Perhaps that's why he reached to a graduate of archrival Yale for representation.
"It was a charitable thing," Birk says jokingly. "I was trying to help those less fortunate."
Actually, he says, he felt a regular-guy kinship with Linta despite their backgrounds at blue-blood universities. "He's like a Miller Lite kind of guy," Birk says. "He's like me, and that's why we always got along."
Birk told Linta he didn't want a bunch of phone calls reminding him how great he was. He was fine with talking a few times a year, so long as they were straight with each other.
"A lot of agents overemphasize their importance," Birk says. "But Joe didn't oversell himself, and when the time came, he showed he could do the big deal."
In Birk's case, that meant a $31 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings in 2001 and a $12 million contract with the Ravens in 2009.
Those numbers pale in comparison to the $120.6 million deal for Flacco. And Birk says he's happy to see his lunch-pail agent get a shot at such a lucrative negotiation.
"But really, Joe is just servicing his client," Birk says. "Whether that's Joe Flacco or an undrafted free agent, he's going to care about the guy."
Doing his homework
O'Brien, who replaced the legendary Joe Paterno at the head of a Penn State program haunted by scandal, says he sought Linta more than Linta sought him.
"He does his homework," O'Brien says when asked to explain the attraction. "He works at it. He represents what's good in his profession."
Linta has become friendly with O'Brien's wife and kids. Like Birk, the Penn State coach says he loves having a beer with his agent, listening to Linta's dry wit.
"You want to see a guy like that have success," O'Brien says.
Though Flacco plays the game's most glamorous position, he shares many traits with Linta's other clients.
He came from a lower-division program at the University of Delaware and didn't get much NFL attention until late in his college career. He's an understated, family-oriented man.
Kleine says the agency gained an upper hand by identifying Flacco's talent early. "You could not go and watch Joe throw the football without saying, 'Wow,'" he recalls. "But guys still had five, six, seven other quarterbacks going ahead of him in the draft. We really got ahead of the curve and out-scouted the scouts."
The Flaccos saw a kindred spirit in Linta and trusted him to persuade NFL front offices to view their son in the best light.
"If you're a fringe guy, not a guy who's going to be a top pick but someone without high visibility, you need someone like him," Flacco's father, Steve, told the New Haven Register in 2009. "He has a history of helping those kinds of guys get into the league, and the people around the league know that and respect his opinion."
Flacco ultimately took Linta to places he had never been before, such as Disney World for the annual Super Bowl MVP parade and the green room at the "Late Show with David Letterman."
"I had slept like an hour," Linta told the Hartford Courant of those magical 24 hours after the Super Bowl. "But the day was a bucket-list thing. Obviously, it's the highest point in my professional career as an agent."
And then, it was time to negotiate.
Other Linta clients
Matt Birk: recently retired Ravens center, six-time Pro Bowl player
Gino Gradkowski: Ravens center, 2012 fourth-round pick
Antoine McClain: Ravens practice squad player, 2012 rookie free agent
Willie Colon: Pittsburgh Steelers guard, 2006 fourth-round pick
Will Shields: 12-time Pro Bowl guard, 2013 Hall of Fame finalist
Kamerion Wimbley: Tennessee Titans defensive end, 2006 first-round pick
Romeo Crennel: former Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs head coach
Bill O'Brien: Penn State head coach
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