By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Kaben Smallwood was an outstanding basketball player at Hilldale High School – just not enough to extend his career beyond his prep years.
But basketball planted a few seeds that have taken root and bloomed. Smallwood became certified as an NFL agent this past year and he’s going to work for three people he crossed paths with through his playing days.
Tyler Johnson, who played his high school ball at Haskell before going to Oklahoma State for football by way of the Los Angeles Angels minor league baseball system, is Smallwood’s top client, his first at the Division I level. He’s also working to find opportunities for a pair of guys who were once teammates at Muskogee High, wide receivers Trey McVay and Shjuan Richardson.
“I’m starting to live my dream,” he said. “I loved sports and once I realizing my playing days were numbered, I set out to accomplish this. Fortunately, getting my foot in the door in a lot of communities near home, places I played in at one time or another, has helped me get that start.”
Smallwood earned an MBA degree and doctorate in law from Oklahoma City University. The NFL agent exam is the next requirement.
“You have to have a postgraduate degree but they’ll also consider combined years of negotiating experience,” he said. “Obviously early on I have none of that, so in that situation you take the test.”
The test is a 60-question multiple-choice exam that covers the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.
“It’s got a pass rate lower than the California bar exam, which is one of the hardest bar exams in the nation,” he said.
He passed. That’s all he knows.
“You can get the actual results but I was just happy to get the pass letter,” he said.
He’s trying his luck on his own in a jungle full of highly competitive agencies like the one featured in the movie “Jerry McGuire” where the star, Tom Cruise, grows a conscience and steps out on his own, launching his own service with one mid-range NFL client and eventually strikes it rich.
“I’m very lucky I’ve had good family support. I’m starting off slow and small in order to make a name in the industry,” Smallwood said. “I try and rely on communication ability and offer higher level representation than maybe my client is used to.”
None of his three clients are considered top prospects.
Johnson, who moved from linebacker to defensive end this past season at Oklahoma State, was a second-team All-Big 12 selection. His age (28) makes him a late-round prospect.
Smallwood knew him from the days of the two playing basketball in a summer league in Haskell.
“Those baseball years didn’t put football years on that body so he’s basically a 22-year-old physically speaking,” Smallwood said. “He’s got an uncanny ability to get to the ball on defense and force turnovers and speed to cover the flat. He’s also gained more perspective about what being a professional athlete is about from his baseball experience.
“I’ve been through competition those guys haven’t. Baseball doesn’t take a toll on your body. I feel fresh and having the versatility to play either linebacker or defensive end helped me for sure. I think I can fit well in a 4-3 defense.”
Johnson’s got NFL blood in him too. His cousin, LeShon Johnson, played several years in the NFL was a running back with the Arizona Cardinals and the New York Giants.
McVay, who finished his prep career at Fort Gibson before heading to Northeastern State where he set the NCAA record for most receiving yards in a game, recently finished a season in Serbia as one of the league’s top receivers. Richardson is at the NFL Super Regional Combine in Detroit on Sunday, his second trip to that event in as many years.
“Shjuan’s a speed demon,” Smallwood said. “Down in Houston at the regional combine a few weeks back, he ran the fastest 40 of any receiver there, a 4.4, and I’ve seen him dip below that. Trey, he’s a physical specimen. As a receiver he’s comparable to a Steve Smith, the type of receiver who can make the play with the ball or without the ball or can get downfield and set some blocks. His quickness and athletic ability set Trey apart. With Shjuan, it’s just straight downfield and he’s excelled wherever he’s been. That’s an attribute you shouldn’t overlook.”
Both McVay and RIchardson’s biggest drawbacks as NFL prototype receivers is their size. But Smallwood is convinced that those other attributes speak plenty – not to mention the roots that come from knowing them over the long haul.
“There’s a trust that comes from knowing people before they were ever star athletes. That helps me tremendously when I’m talking to people about them,” Smallwood said. “I’m very strict with the character I want in a client. These guys finished their degrees and have done all the respectable things you look for in college athletes and athletes in general.
“We’ve got a no-bull mentality. We’re honest with each other even if that’s not what the other person wants to hear. Everyone’s on the page for one goal, that’s to get an NFL contract for these guys.”