With each passing day, speculation mounted as Jalen Ramsey’s contract situation remained unsettled.
The Rams’ star cornerback had walked out of a virtual news conference at the start of training camp when reporters peppered him with questions. As the season opener approached, Ramsey picked up his cellphone and texted his agent, David Mulugheta.
“‘Look, I just want to let you know that if the deal gets done, if the deal does not get done, I appreciate everything you do,’” Ramsey wrote. “‘You’re still the greatest in my eyes.’”
Mulugheta appreciated the note. The two share a brotherly relationship: Ramsey is the godfather of one of his three sons. Mulugheta worked to secure every penny Ramsey deserved.
Four days before the Rams played the Dallas Cowboys, Ramsey and the Rams agreed to a five-year, $105-million deal, making him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history.
Ramsey’s record-breaking extension came just more than a week after Mulugheta, 38, finalized market-resetting deals for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and Arizona Cardinals safety Budda Baker, who will play against the Rams on Sunday in Glendale, Ariz.
Mulugheta, president of team sports at Athletes First, considers it a point of pride — proof that his immigrant parents raised him and his siblings the right way.
And he hopes it serves as inspiration for other young Black agents to make names for themselves.
“For me,” he said, “being able to reach back in my community and give someone who looks like me an opportunity means everything.”
Black players make up about 70% of NFL rosters.
But there are only five Black head coaches — two of whom are serving in interim roles after firings during this season. Front offices are even less diverse with only two Black general managers.
The majority of agents representing players also are white.
The Ravens-Steelers game is pushed again, this time to Wednesday, as NFL begins to run out of options to play all the games amid pandemic.
Mulugheta has broken through to become one of the industry’s most powerful and influential agents. He represents 38 players, including Chargers safety Derwin James, cornerback Casey Hayward and defensive end Melvin Ingram — and has negotiated contracts totaling $1.5 billion.
“He’s well aware of the clients he represents and what their value is,” Rams general manager Les Snead said, “but he is also realistic and understands a team’s perspective and works to come out to a win-win.”
Mulugheta, the son of Eritrean immigrants, said he’s always felt more pressure to perform as a Black man. Early in his career, he said he heard whispers from others that he didn’t negotiate his own deals. But in recent years, he said his credibility and that of other Black agents has risen.
Mulugheta has represented a first-round pick in each of the last eight drafts. His four first-round picks this year, including Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons, were the most among any agent.
He was not alone.
The 2020 draft marked the first time Black agents secured more first-round picks than white agents.
Mulugheta’s success is another steppingstone for those who look like him.
“A win for myself is a win for other African American agents,” Mulugheta said. “At one point, a lot of families may have felt like, ‘We need the old white guy, gray-haired gentleman doing our contracts.’
“But for me, I think the biggest part of the outward praise is now when another young Black male or female agent sits down in front of families, they won’t automatically assume that this person doesn’t have the qualities that a white agent may have.”
Mulugheta always has been adventurous. At age 3, he jumped from an apartment complex’s second floor, but missed the pool and hit a fence, requiring stitches.
“He still has that gash in his head to this day,” said his older brother, Minab, 42.
The brothers look back on their childhood fondly, crediting their mother and father for providing a stable environment despite difficult circumstances.
Their parents were born in Eritrean villages with no electricity and homes built from clay. The couple met in Rome after fleeing the east African country to escape civil war. Their father migrated to the United States first. Minab, who was 4 years old, and his mother soon followed.
They eventually settled in a one-bedroom apartment near Dallas, where their father worked 16-hour days as a taxi driver and as a clerk at a 7-Eleven store. Minab said his father wore the same shirt and pants every day. His mom worked as a housekeeper.
David was born in Texas, along with his younger brother and sister.
Their parents took their children’s academics seriously. Near the start of grade school, Minab remembers his father giving him a multiplication table worksheet and expected him to learn it in a week.
David excelled in baseball, throwing 70-mph pitches by age 12 and playing in high school, his brother said. But his father still prioritized grades.
“He would always tell us, ‘After you graduate, you can go to college, or you can work at McDonald’s and get out of this house,’” Minab said. “He did not play when it came to the books.”
Their father cried tears of joy when Minab received his acceptance letter from Texas A&M, where he enrolled and studied engineering. The accomplishment set the tone for his younger siblings.
“It became an expectation for me to follow through,” Mulugheta said.
Mulugheta enrolled at the University of Texas in 2001 to pursue a business degree. He became friends with athletes on campus, and devised a plan with local clubs to use those connections and pack the venues for parties as a side hustle.
Through mutual friends, Mulugheta met Texas running back Jamaal Charles. Mulugheta, bound for law school at the University of Nebraska in 2008, visited California that spring during Charles’ NFL draft preparations and met his agent, Andrew Kessler.
Kessler offered Mulugheta an internship at Athletes First.
“I recognized that he would be uniquely talented in representing players,” Kessler said. “He’s really talented, he’s really motivated and has the ability to connect with all types of players from different backgrounds, different parts of the country and different ages.”
Though the tasks were minimal, such as taking lunch orders, Mulugheta observed agents operating on a daily basis.
“That really opened my eyes,” he said.
Mulugheta graduated from law school in 2010 and joined Athletes First full time in 2011. But he secured his first client — Texas safety Earl Thomas — while interning. The Seahawks selected Thomas with the No. 14 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft.
As his roster of clients has grown, so has the bond they share with Mulugheta and with one another.
“Everybody loves each other, and when you’re doing stuff out of love, you do the best you can,” Ramsey said. “We go out there and we play our butts off and he knows our value and he knows our worth and he fights for us.”
During the 2019 offseason, when then-Jacksonville Jaguars executive Tom Coughlin criticized Ramsey for not attending voluntary workouts, Mulugheta tweeted that Ramsey was spending time with his family in Nashville, Tenn., and that the Jaguars knew beforehand. His other clients chimed in on social media too.
In October, when Washington coach Ron Rivera threatened to bench quarterback Dwayne Haskins, Mulugheta defended his client on Twitter, saying the team’s shortcomings shouldn’t focus solely on Haskins.
“We’re always going to support us,” said Mulugheta, who lives in Austin with his wife and three sons. “We’re never looking to stir anything up, but if you make a public comment toward one of our guys, we’re going to respond accordingly.”
Each offseason, Mulugheta and his clients will work out, watch film and also barbecue with their families. He has attended clients’ weddings, and is also the godfather to some of their children, and vice versa.
He also isn’t afraid to have tough conversations.
“These guys have always been the best since they played in high school and probably had people tell them what they wanted to hear,” Mulugheta said. “But I want them to grow up and handle their responsibilities, and I’m invested in them becoming good adults.
“I think when young guys come in and see that, they want to be a part of it.”
Ramsey and James, former Florida State players, put Seminoles running back Cam Akers on Mulugheta’s radar.
“Everybody under our umbrella is like family,” said Akers, a second-round pick for the Rams, “and he handles business.”
Mulugheta preaches calm and patience to players facing contract deadlines. Last summer, in a span of 16 days, he negotiated contracts for Baker, Watson and Ramsey potentially worth a combined $320 million.
“Dot every ‘I,’ cross every ‘T,’” he said, “and don’t leave any money on the table.”
Mulugheta is looking to the future, not only for his clients but for young Black agents as well.
“A lot of times, these guys don’t get opportunities not because they’re not as qualified but because they’re not running in those circles with the people that are making decisions,” Mulugheta said.
In 2016, he met Trevon Smith, who was in his third year of law school at Georgia. Mulugheta gave Smith an internship at Athletes First, and they kept in touch, Mulugheta telling Smith he’d bring him on full time when he got hiring power.
In 2019, Mulugheta made good on his promise. He also hired Andre Odom, another young Black agent.
“He’s really authentic,” said Odom, 34. “He’s genuine, and I feel like we’re wired the same way.”
With the Chargers’ record at 3-8 and coaching appearing suspect during games, Anthony Lynn’s coaching job is very much in jeopardy.
Smith said Mulugheta has mentored him to understand the business better and encourages him to offer ideas. He was not surprised when Mulugheta negotiated record-breaking deals.
“Sometimes you’re like, ‘Damn, this dude really did it again,’” said Smith, 29. “That’s when he’s at his greatest joy, when he gets to FaceTime these dudes and let them know their lives are changed forever.
“I’m blessed to be behind the scenes with him.”
Even with competitors, Mulugheta is supportive, said Nicole Lynn, an agent at Young Money Sports who in 2019 became the first Black woman to represent a top-five draft pick.
Lynn and Mulugheta became friends at a Senior Bowl, an annual pre-draft event in Alabama. They now frequently talk about their experiences in the business and things that their non-agent family and friends wouldn’t understand. They’re supportive of each other, even if one of them snags a player the other sought.
“I always tell him, ‘I wish you luck and success, except for when I’m recruiting against you,’” Lynn said, chuckling. “‘Then, I hope you crash and burn.’
“But otherwise, I’m his biggest cheerleader.”
Staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this story
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