25 Years Later, The Agent Who Inspired “Jerry Maguire” Is Still Going Strong

Leigh Steinberg has represented 12 Hall of Famers, but he says nothing raised his profile more than being portrayed by Tom Cruise on the big screen

December 13, 2021 10:05 am
Sports agent Leigh Steinberg sharing a laugh with star client Steve Young in 1996
Sports agent Leigh Steinberg sharing a laugh with star client Steve Young in 1996
Kim Komenich/Getty

Over the course of the last 25 years, it has been a rare occurrence for 72-year-old Leigh Steinberg to go out to dinner, stand in the line at the airport or be in any other public place for very long before someone approaches him with four words on their mind: show me the money.

Sometimes they’ll say them to Steinberg and sometimes they’ll ask him to recite them in the same manner that Cuba Gooding Jr. and Tom Cruise did in Jerry Maguire. Why does that happen to Steinberg? Because he was the inspiration for the namesake of the film, which was released 25 years ago today.

Steinberg isn’t sure where other popular lines in the movie such as “You complete me,” “Help me help you” and “You had me at hello” originated, but he does have a fairly good idea of how Cameron Crowe came up with Jerry Maguire‘s most famous four-word phrase.

As Steinberg tells it, Crowe was shadowing him during the NFL’s league meetings in 1993 in California and ended up going to a hotel room with one of Steinberg’s clients, free-agent safety Tim McDonald, to interview him about the process of meeting with coaches and general managers to inform his decision about where to play next.

Tom Cruise talks on a phone in a scene from the film "Jerry Maguire."
Tom Cruise talks on a phone in a scene from the film “Jerry Maguire.”
Getty Images

With Lou Dobbs hosting Moneyline on CNN providing background noise, Crowe asked McDonald what criteria he was using to pick a new team and what specifically he was looking for in free agency.

“Tim gestured toward the screen and said, ‘I’m looking for a team to show me some respect. I’m looking for a team to show me a big contract. I’m looking for a team.’ And then Cameron wrote, ‘show me the money,’” Steinberg tells InsideHook. “It came out of that interaction. Tim and Cameron have differing viewpoints. Cameron feels like he wrote it. Tim feels like he said it. I’m not getting involved in that, but Cameron believes he wrote it and originated it, so I’ll take his version. Either way, Cameron’s script was brilliant. His characterization is wonderful. His sense of humor is hilarious. His eye for detail is really superb. His phrases have entered the vernacular and become common currency in American culture.”

And due to his association with them, those phrases have also helped Steinberg collect some American currency of his own.

“It’s not a biographical film, but it certainly elevated my profile,” he says. “I’ve represented 64 first-round draft picks and we have 12 players in the Hall of Fame, but nothing elevated my profile like Jerry Maguire. My clients use lines from the movie to tease me all the time. [Miami Dolphins quarterback] Tua Tagovailoa told me that he watched the movie and went home and he said, ‘Well that makes my decision about an agent.’”

Tagovailoa is just one of many star players who’ve decided to sign with Steinberg over the last 25 years in the hopes of forging the type of successful business and personal relationships that existed between Gooding’s Rod Tidwell and Cruise’s Maguire. Although that relationship was fictional, it mirrored the client interactions Crowe saw while he was a fly on the wall with Steinberg in ’93.

Leigh Steinberg and his client Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs
Leigh Steinberg and his client Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Bill McCay/Getty

“Cameron went to the draft, the league meetings, games, the Super Bowl and Super Bowl parties. He got a good sense of the details,” Steinberg says. “He got to watch the interactions I had with players and he realized they were discussions about life, mentoring and true friendship. Warren Moon was my client for 23 years. He played six in Canada and 17 in the NFL. There’s real caring that goes into those types of relationships and how personal they are got conveyed [in the movie]. The best thing about Jerry Maguire is it portrays a different perspective on what a sports agent does. You actually see a real relationship between an agent and all the rest of it too, and realize the poignancy of that. That was positive, because the stereotype was someone with slicked hair in a shiny suit with a pinky ring who was totally obsessed with money. I think it had the effect of humanizing sports agents.”

Though he’s a fan of the film, Steinberg hasn’t sat down and watched it for a long time. But that may change.

“I might rewatch it,” he says. “It’s about to be 25 years and there’s not a day that passes that I don’t have an interaction with somebody that tells me they just watched that movie. They make the connection. You have to be good-natured about these things. They either say those four words or ask me to say, ‘Show me the money.’ That phrase has passed beyond the narrow hardcore genre of sports fans and reached out to a bigger slice of Americana.”

It’s also helped Steinberg become one of the most influential men in the NFL, with the money to show for it.

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