Long before he represented Tom Brady, Bryant Young, Sean Payton and Jimmy Garoppolo, Don Yee considered a career in journalism.
Changing course was the right choice. Yee became one of sports’ most influential agents.
Yee was a producer for a sports radio show in California after high school and covered Magic Johnson’s rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers as a student at UCLA.
He learned plenty about the business in a short time at a young age.
“Those experiences were really valuable for me because I got to experience a little bit trying to cover sports from the side of the media and all the difficulties that entails,” Yee said on the AP Pro Football Podcast.
“It’s really served me well in my career because now, obviously, I deal with the media quite frequently and it’s made me very empathetic also to the pressures that reporters, columnists, editors, producers, everybody in the food chain that works hard to deliver product every day. I’m very sensitive to that.”
Like everyone else, Yee doesn’t know what Brady will decide about his future. The 44-year-old, seven-time Super Bowl champion is contemplating retirement after 22 seasons in the NFL, including the past two with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“He can do it as long as he wants, because his intangibles really are very much off the charts,” Yee said.
Yee discovered Brady, who ended up being drafted with the 199th overall pick in the sixth round of the 2000 draft by the New England Patriots, because his business partner, Steve Dubin, was a Michigan alum. Yee would kid his partner about Michigan’s offense being archaic so he decided to watch all the Wolverines’ games during Brady’s senior season.
“I watched every single game start to finish, and it was just plainly obvious to me that everything you needed to be a successful NFL quarterback was right there in front of my eyes,” Yee said of Brady.
“And since I own my own agency along with my partner, we don’t have any outside investors or anything like that, so we literally put our own resources at risk. I said I’m going to bet on my opinion and let’s pursue this player.”
Yee learned to do his own scouting from his mentor, former Cleveland Indians pitcher and major league baseball manager Bob Lemon. His instincts about Brady were right on, even if every team passed on him until Bill Belichick took him with a late pick.
“He was really the person who advised me to just think for yourself in sports so every year I’m looking at players and kind of doing our own scouting for ourselves,” Yee said of Lemon. “I really don’t take into consideration the opinions of anybody else when I’m personally evaluating players.”
Last year, Yee teamed with former ESPN and NFL Network executive Jamie Hemann to develop HUB Football. Based in Southern California, HUB provides opportunities for college players and street free agents to be seen in action by NFL teams through tryout camps.
A total of 18 players from the HUB Football camps were invited to NFL training camps in the summer and three landed on practice squads: linebacker LB Emmanuel Ellerbee (Atlanta), wide receiver Jordan Veasy (Houston) and tight end Jordan Matthews (San Francisco). Kicker Tristan Vizcaino was signed by the Los Angeles Chargers. Several more players got CFL contracts.
“We’ve had essentially one pathway to the NFL, and that’s been through college football,” Yee said. “And then once players get to the NFL, if they don’t happen to make it and they’re unemployed for a brief period of time, what’s happened for agents and players, generally speaking, is that they just wait for the phone to ring. There’s never been any kind of proactive platform, and there’s a lot of good players out there. Anyone will tell you there are a lot of players that can play the game at the highest level, but they just merely haven’t been seen or seen enough.”
HUB Football is also considering one-day audition camps for college football transfer players that are in the portal to give them more visibility for schools.
“The whole venture is geared toward addressing some of the inefficiencies in the NFL player personnel system,” Yee said. “The relationship (with the league) has been very good in that they’ve cleared the way for NFL personnel to physically attend our events, meaning that our policies are designed so that they comply with all NFL player personnel policies.
"They’re doing the best they can to bridge the development gap and create a better NFL product. But obviously, they’re not in control of the NCAA system, either. But they’ve been very good and having an open dialogue with us and assisting us with thoughts and ideas.”
While Yee won’t get to watch Brady play Sunday in a conference championship game for only the second time in 11 years, Garoppolo tries to lead San Francisco to the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons when the 49ers visit the Los Angeles Rams.
Garoppolo watched the Niners trade up to draft his replacement, Trey Lance, with the third pick in the draft, held onto his starting job and has helped San Francisco reach this point.
“He’s done an unbelievable job this year,” Yee said. “He’s a mentally tough person, and he also knows this is the NFL and nothing is promised to you. You’re only as good as your last performance, generally speaking. And so he has a very realistic view of the business side of football.”
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