It was 5 a.m. in a New Jersey diner when an unsure running back prospect out of Georgia secured his presenter for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Terrell Davis didn’t know if he would make it in the NFL, and the Hall of Fame had never been a thought until this guy he barely knew brought it up. But in the wee hours of a December morning in 1994, Neil Schwartz became the man who would 23 years later assume the task of formally introducing Davis to the elite NFL club in Canton, Ohio.
“Well, there’s a story behind it before I was even drafted,’’ Davis said Friday from Lake Tahoe, Nevada, as he just finished his first round of 79 at the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament. “It was actually before I signed with him.’’
Davis’ decision to have his agent present him with a 4-minute pre-taped introduction is uncommon, if not unprecedented. Schwartz is the fifth agent to receive the honor of Hall of Fame presenter, following Rod Arceneaux (Marshall Faulk); Leigh Steinberg (Warren Moon); Eugene Parker (Deion Sanders); and the late Robert Fraley, who was represented by his wife Dixie at Cortez Kennedy’s induction ceremony.
“Three years ago, when he finally got into the (voting) room (as a Hall of Fame finalist), he called me and says, “You know if I get selected, you’re presenting me,’’’ Schwartz said. “In my mind, I was like, “Wow, you remembered.’ I told my wife, TD remembered that moment in the diner 20, 21 years ago.
“The fact he remembered and had given me the honor, emotionally, words can’t describe it. At the same time, I could understand if he wanted to give it to his mom, coach Shanahan, or (running backs coach) Bobby Turner, (Pop Warner mentor) Frank White, John Elway. I could understand.’’
Davis had just come off a disappointing, injury-plagued senior season at Georgia. Hampered by a chronic hamstring pull that turned out to be a tear, Davis rushed for just 445 yards (albeit for 4.6 yards per carry) as the Bulldogs went 6-4-1 that was not good enough for a bowl game.
His strange, meandering college career had ended and Davis' search for an NFL agent had brought him to Schwartz in New York City. Schwartz’s recruiting pitch began with a tour of Manhattan. The Empire State Building. Times Square. Central Park. Rockefeller Center.
It was 10 p.m. when Schwartz drove Davis out of the city, across the Hudson River on the George Washington Bridge, to a diner in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Schwartz and his family lived in Fort Lee. The place was called the Plaza Diner.
“We talked for hours,’’ Davis said.
Talked about football, life, current events. After just spending an afternoon and evening together touring New York City, Schwartz and Davis spent another six or seven hours together at the diner.
“Here’s the way I looked at life: You can’t be great one day and bad the next,’’ Schwartz said. “Here’s the guy who was the heir apparent to Herschel Walker and Garrison Hearst at Georgia. Before his senior season began, I was told by two (NFL) general managers that he had a first-round grade. So there had to be a narrative as to why he was great yesterday and supposedly not great today.’’
The hamstring was an issue. And NFL coaches and executives were wondering about Davis’ passion for football. Somebody at Georgia must have expressed concern.
Davis is an introspective sort. An intelligent thinker. Football coaches may never admit it, but they don’t really like players who analyze. Trevor Pryce was like that. Broncos coaches were always questioning his commitment. The defensive tackle wound up having a 14-year NFL career.
“You spend the amount time with a person as we did that day and your instincts kick in,’’ Schwartz said of his day-into-morning meeting with Davis. “And you know that was the furthest thing from the truth.’’
Finally, it was time to get some sleep.
“When we were leaving, he stopped me and said, ‘Hey, I want you to promise me one thing, when you make it to the Hall of Fame, you promise me I can be your presenter,’’ Davis said. “And that stuck with me that whole time. And so, when it happened, just automatically I said Neil is going to be my presenter. And he and I, we have a story, a relationship, and he’s been there for me as a friend, not only an agent. So, it was a perfect for me to have Neil be my presenter.’’
Here’s the kicker: After all that time in Manhattan and the New Jersey diner, Davis didn’t pick Schwartz to be his agent. Not at first, he didn’t. Davis fell to the sixth round of the 1995 NFL Draft before the Broncos made a typical, late-round flyer on a prospect who had talent but red flags.
Another agent negotiated Davis’ first contract, a three-year deal that paid him a $38,000 signing bonus and a rookie salary of $119,000.
It was before that fabled 1995 preseason trip to Tokyo, and Davis’ blast of San Francisco returner Tyronne Drakeford, that Schwartz was asked “if he wanted to get married?’’
Schwartz had himself a new client. A couple days before the American Bowl in Tokyo, Davis thought about quitting. A couple days after the preseason game, Davis was the Broncos’ starting running back. He rushed for 1,117 yards as a rookie.
After which, Schwartz got the Broncos to rip up Davis’ rookie deal and the team’s ever generous owner Pat Bowlen and coach Mike Shanahan agreed to a new five-year, $6.8 million contract that included a $1 million signing bonus in 1996.
After Davis compiled two more seasons of 1,538 and 1,750 yards, 28 combined touchdowns, and the Super Bowl XXXII MVP award, Schwartz and the Broncos’ team of Bowlen-Shanahan reworked his contract again, this time winding up with a historic 9-year contract that included an $11 million signing bonus with a total value of $51.9 million.
But after 2,008 yards and another Super Bowl ring in 1998, Davis’ sensational ride came to a sudden halt with a devastating knee injury early in the 1999 season. He was never the same, and it was during this difficult time that Schwartz became more friend than agent to Davis.
For the Sept. 10, 2001 opener of the Broncos’ new stadium, Schwartz was Davis’ house guest. After the Broncos’ defeated the New York Giants, Schwartz and Davis watched together the next morning as America was under attack. Schwartz grew up in New York City and one of his good friends was a fireman who lost his life while trying to rescue people from the Towers.
Schwartz and no one else was able to travel for a week. He stayed with Davis as Schwartz’ family was home outside New York City.
“It was a role reversal,’’ Schwartz said. “This time it was his shoulder getting leaned on.’’
Besides Davis, Schwartz has represented the likes of Darrelle Revis, Roddy White and former Widefield High School and University of Northern Colorado star Vincent Jackson. He is still representing Janoris Jenkins, Logan Ryan, Tom Savage, Larry Warford III and Alex Boone, among others.
Schwartz now lives in Florida and on Friday, NFL Films came down to tape his presentation. It will be shown before Davis steps up to deliver his speech at the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton on Saturday, Aug. 5 – less than three weeks from now.
It was a moment scheduled nearly 23 years earlier, at 5 in the morning at a New Jersey diner.
“We talked about everything and anything under the sun,’’ Schwartz said. “I looked at him at the end, and I just said to him, when you go to the Hall of Fame, I would love to present you.
“I had never asked a player before that and never asked a player subsequent to that. We just hit it off so well.’’