Brian Murphy had one opportunity to land a dream job as the next Jerry Maguire at Steinberg, Moorad and Dunn, a sports agency, and he was going to give it everything he had.
It was spring 1999 and Murphy already had a job at Ropes and Gray in Boston. But ever since he read about legendary sports agent Bob Woolf—who represented players such as Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Bobby Orr—he had a dream to do the same.
After an interview and application process that lasted several months, it was down to Murphy and two other finalists. He needed to do something out-of-the-box if he was going to stand out, he thought.
“This is my one chance. If I didn’t get this chance I would not be a sports agent,” Murphy said from the Laguna Hills office of Athletes First, an agency where he’s president that has now negotiated around nearly $6 billion in NFL player contracts, not including coaches and general managers. “I had to make sure I did everything in my power to try to get the job.”
So Murphy made a fake Sports Illustrated magazine with himself on the cover, dated 2009, 10 years later. The featured article was a mock interview with his older self, now a sports lawyer at the firm.
“Welcome to a day in the life of Brian Murphy, who is well on his way to becoming the latest super agent from Steinberg and Moorad,” said the magazine, which he printed and bound with the help of his younger brother’s college roommate, who worked at the Celtics.
He got the job. And Murphy, 50, is now living the life that he almost spoke into existence nearly 20 years ago.
Even with all the success he’s had as an agent, Murphy has always given back to the community and treated everyone, even his clients, like family. It’s a lesson he learned from his father growing up in the Boston suburbs: Be kind to everyone and treat them with respect.
A Rough Start
After working at Steinberg and Moorad for two years as an agent, he decided to branch out and start his own firm with David Dunn, who eventually became a partner at Steinberg and Moorad, which would go on to become Athlete’s First, in 2001.
What followed was a years-long legal battle with Assante, a large Canadian financial firm that bought Steinberg, Moorad, and Dunn.
Steinberg’s agency won $44 million in damages against Dunn and Athletes First for adding 50 NFL players that used to belong to Dunn’s old employer, sending the newly-established firm into chapter 11 bankruptcy before it got off the ground.
Dunn and Murphy appealed the decision, of course, but they didn’t see an end until five years later in 2007, when they won in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Murphy said the first couple of years of the Athletes First, operating as a business with the possibility of closing its doors at any day, was a defining experience for him and the agency.
“Because of those real dark experiences, we were able to, ironically, achieve our goal of becoming a family because it’s easy to be a happy family and work together during the good times, but how do you react to the bad times? This group of very special people pulled together and became victorious. I’ve never won a championship, but going through that, and being able to overcome that adversity was our personal championship,” Murphy said.
It was also during that dark time and the threat of the agency closing that Athletes First and Murphy began steeping themselves in charity work. The Athlete’s First Classic golf tournament kicked off in 2004, benefiting the Orangewood foundation, which provides services to current and former foster youth in Orange County.
The golf tournament, held at the St. Regis in Dana Point, now a Waldorf Astoria property, continues to this day, and was the first charity event Murphy had ever hosted. He cites it as one of his greatest moments as president of Athletes First.
“Giving back to the community was always a priority for me,” Murphy said, recalling the charity work he did with his best friend growing up, Greg Payne, such as organizing bottle drives and serving the homeless. “Greg is my main influence in wanting to make a difference in the community, and it became part of my fabric.”
Athletes First is focused on relationship building with players and fostering a family atmosphere.
“You need to have that trust and that blind faith in your agent to guide you through life decisions,” Murphy said. “We all trust our family more than we do business acquaintances. So that’s why it’s important for us to be family.”
A Charitable Nature
Murphy says he and the 15 agents at Athletes First develop a deep personal relationship with players. That also includes setting them up with causes and charities they care about.
“They know they’re famous, they know they have a great brand and a good platform. They don’t know how to give back,” Murphy said.
The agency works with Anonymous, which it cofounded and used to own a minority share in, to help match players with causes they are passionate about. Murphy describes the process as allowing players to leverage their notoriety for good.
And when Athletes First was working with the Starkey Foundation, which provides hearing aids to people living in developing nations, players close to the mission of the organization would go to Super Bowl events or overseas and hand out hearing aids person by person.
The spirit of giving back also recently spilled into Murphy’s personal life.
He lost everything he had when his Newport Beach home burned down a couple years ago. But Murphy turned it into a way to give back to the community.
As part of the insurance claim process, Murphy, his wife, and two adult daughters had to take inventory of their clothes to be properly reimbursed. Garments they would have thrown away could have been given to people who needed it most. It led to an annual fundraiser created by Murphy called Light Your Fire, when people clean out their closets, deposit unused apparel in collection centers, and donate it to people who need it most.
There were 17,000 pounds donated in the first year, nearly getting a shout out in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Murphy has become who he wanted to be, both professionally and personally. That’s evidenced by what’s written in the closing paragraphs on the Q&A with his future self.
“I owe it to myself, my family and everyone at Steinberg and Moorad to become the best that there is,” Murphy wrote more than 20 years ago. “I need to give an all-out 100 percent effort every hour of the day. I would not want to approach life any other way.”