Humboldt Beacon (http://www.humboldtbeacon.com)

How childhood poverty prepared her for life as an NFL agent


By Matt Schneidman, Bay Area News Group

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Nicole Lynn knows she probably shouldn’t be here.
Here is a place of dreams turning to reality, Lynn an NFL agent on the rise — one who just happens to be both female and African-American. There? That would’ve been a much different place, entrenched in the life of poverty and misfortune that engulfed others close to her.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Lynn grew up below the poverty line — and not just by a little. The surrounding neighborhood threatened to lure you to the streets. Lynn and family bounced from home to home, juggling eviction notices, living in a car, wondering when utilities would work, where the next meal would come from.
Her father wasn’t in the picture, her mother not prepared to be a parent. "I didn’t have a dime," Lynn’s mother, Rachel, says bluntly now. " … I didn’t know how to be a parent. I really had no clue at all." So Lynn, now 29, took on the role of mom for her younger brother and others as barely a teenager.
If her upbringing is any indication, Lynn shouldn’t be anywhere near an NFL contract negotiation these days. Nowhere near field level of an NFL stadium, either, if alive at all. Her father brought three children from his first wife to the marriage with Lynn’s mother. One died with Lynn too young to remember, one drowned when Lynn was 11 and one was murdered five years ago at 21 years old in gang-related gun violence.
"That was extremely traumatic," Lynn said. "It was a couple weeks after my first law school final. That was a difficult, very difficult situation.
"He grew up the same life I did but took a different path, the path I probably could’ve taken. I should’ve been a statistic and I wasn’t, so it could’ve gone one of two ways. Luckily it went the latter."
The latter has included stops on Wall Street, law school, the NFLPA and now an agency owned by one of the most famous rappers of all time. Lil Wayne’s Young Money APAA Sports & Entertainment recently acquired PlayersRep, the agency Lynn joined in 2015. She represents Raiders wide receiver Seth Roberts and special teamer Erik Harris, among several other NFL players on Denver, Cincinnati and Washington.
Of around 900 certified NFL agents, Lynn is one of fewer than 50 women. Of that group, she says, she’s one of less than 10 women that carry multiple clients and have handled actual contract negotiations.
The life she escaped still surrounds some she’s close to. She’s balanced her new life with still helping those who couldn’t make the same strides, leaning on her past to fuel a career that once seemed impossible.
Rachel cried many tears on many nights, wondering if she and her kids would make it out.
Multiple times over the phone, she says her daughter will be embarrassed by what she’s sharing. She repeatedly giggles, as if to mask her own embarrassment. Yet this is the past that makes what Lynn has accomplished that much more impressive, and her mother isn’t shy in sharing because of it.
Rachel worked three jobs, but that still wasn’t enough. The family showered at a local gym when their water wasn’t on. Lynn cooked because her mother confesses she didn’t know how. Lynn applied on her own for high school and college, for which Rachel admits she couldn’t contribute to financially.
"The only thing that I could do to really provide for them, only thing that I had, was things that were intangible," Rachel said, "which was the spiritual side."
That’s how they kept faith, maintaining any sliver of hope that their situation would improve. Rachel couldn’t always provide water or food or electricity, but she instilled in her daughter a belief in God that in some ways meant more. Lynn describes her relationship with her mother as one between sisters, which led to to a strange family dynamic. Yet Rachel never gave up on her two kids despite her shortcomings, only moving them to different homes because she wanted them to have the tangibles she couldn’t provide.
"I can imagine Nicole being so afraid, wondering what’s gonna happen to us," she said. "The fear and the – oh man, it was horrible."
Lynn started working at 13 and raised her brother, three years younger (she still financially helps her mother and brother today). When she started at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, a magnet school, peers asked how she got into a school requiring an application. She earned 21 college credits in high school, her mother said, and was accepted to Oklahoma University.
Finally, Lynn was accomplishing what she set out for all along. She wanted to show that, against the odds, it was possible to make it out. Not only that, she wanted to use her story to help others who had been through the same.
"I always had this drive of, ‘How do I get out of this vicious cycle of poverty,’" Lynn said. "All of it just trickled down from my upbringing. I didn’t have much, and so I didn’t have any other option but to work hard."
***
Roberts was in the midst of his rookie season with the Raiders when a number he didn’t recognize blew up his phone.
He was an undrafted rookie out of West Alabama without an agent, a combination lending itself to little exposure and nobody to truly promote him.
The messages stressed his need for an advocate, a voice beyond his own to grow his brand. "Just giving me facts man, facts," Roberts said Monday. "I was kinda like, ‘Yo, I’m kinda not interested because I’m trying to finish the season, just stay focused in the season and that didn’t work, man.’"
It didn’t work because the same number persisted the next day with more of the same. Roberts had found his agent.
"I’m like, ‘Listen, you’ve got all these NFLPA benefits you should be tapping into, we need to make sure you have insurance," Lynn said. "Just all this stuff that he hadn’t even thought about."
Coming out of Oklahoma, Lynn wanted to work with athletes. She saw ones from a similar background as her go from rags to riches to rags. She wanted to be the one who kept them afloat rather than watch them sink.
She first moved to New York City, working for Morgan Stanley on Wall Street. Within two weeks, she switched course. She craved day-to-day personal interactions, improving athletes’ lives in part by guiding those from rocky upbringings based on her own, not just managing a portfolio. She graduated from law school six months early, in two and a half years.
Lynn called Ken Sarnoff, then an agent with PlayersRep, since she knew he had clients from Oklahoma. Lynn knew them as friends from college, so Sarnoff rung them to see if she was for real. They all vouched for her. That, in short, was the start of Lynn’s career as an NFL agent.
"If you inherently feel like someone is gonna be successful, you give them a shot," said Andy Simms, who founded PlayersRep in 1997 and hired Lynn as his first female agent. "Obviously our decision turned out to be a good one."
That success hasn’t come without speed bumps, however. Lynn admits there are "huge challenges" with being a young, black female in the industry. She doesn’t want players to think of her as a peer. She doesn’t want to look too good, in fear of making a player’s wife or girlfriend uncomfortable. The intricate decisions made to ensure she earns credibility among players, coaches, scouts and general managers?
"There’s so much strategy, which you will never be able to relate to as a man," she says lightheartedly.
Lipstick or no lipstick? How high of a heel? Tennis shoes and a polo to a game or a wedge instead? Those are all factors Lynn weighs heavily as she works to grow her reputation in the league, continuing to show that teenager caring for her whole family really could go on to bigger and better things even with others around her staying in Tulsa.
Still, not everyone has believed she’s legit. Security has kicked her out of rooms at the NFL Combine because they thought she was a player’s girlfriend trying to sneak in. When re-negotiating Roberts’ deal this offseason, security at the Raiders’ team hotel thought she was trying to sneak in, too. She told them she had a meeting with general manager Reggie McKenzie.
They thought she was joking.
***
Roberts hears about his agent around the Raiders facility quite often – in the steam room, in the locker room, among coaches.
Some think she’s "cool" because she actively uses Twitter, Roberts said, and Lynn’s Twitter and Instagram following has risen as she gains recognition.
While her profile grows across the league, Lynn holds close that slice of home that molded her. Her mother occasionally asks for advice and money since she doesn’t make much as a receptionist at a health clinic for low-income patients. "I love her to death and she’s come a long way," Lynn said. "She still lives in that life, so it’s difficult." Lynn works as a full-time NFL agent and a full-time attorney at an international law firm, keeping both jobs to support her family.
That past is still very much ingrained in her, whether it be through interactions with loved ones today or the stories she draws from when working with colleagues and clients. "The conversations that we have, I can tell we kinda have some of the similar instincts from growing up," Roberts said. Sarnoff said his daughter gained a new appreciation for school lunches she doesn’t find appetizing upon learning Lynn sometimes relied on those lunches for the day’s food.
And that girl who sometimes needed those lunches to fill her up for the day? Her boss is technically Lil Wayne now. She’s the first female agent for his agency in its nearly four-year history.
Cortez Bryant, who represents Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj, among others, has expressed confidence in Lynn despite barely knowing her. PlayersRep joined forces with Young Money to expand their marketing abilities for athletes, just as Lynn keeps expanding her own brand.
So where does she go from here?
For one, Lynn wants to represent a first-round pick. She secured an interview with the 2017 draft’s No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett last year, but wasn’t chosen as his agent. She has a couple free-agent deals to negotiate with her Broncos clients this offseason, and wants those to proceed smoothly. And some time in the near future, she wants to serve as a guest analyst several times a year for networks covering the draft so she can give her expertise on the collective bargaining agreement, contract language or other aspects of the business side of football.
Those goals aren’t quite the same as making it out of Tulsa, staying put in one home, having running water and heat and food.
Just look at what she wants in her future now compared to then, and you see how far she’s come.