This story appears in the May 2, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
BROCK WILLIAMS ISN'T HAPPY to hear from me.
I've tracked down the obscure former Patriots cornerback to ask about the Super Bowl XXXVI ring he pawned a decade ago for $2,600. "Ah, man, that was a bad time," he says over the phone, letting the space between his words linger. "I'm just trying to put that all behind me."
Unfortunately for Williams, that's hard to do when America sees your ring every week in the opening montage of the hit TV show Pawn Stars, harder still when celebrity pawnbroker Rick Harrison brags about being the guy who has it. Gold, cars, Rolexes ... yawn. But a Super Bowl ring? "You want the thing a guy worked his whole life to get," says Harrison.
His Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas is a window onto our times, with Harrison the appraiser of our excess. Desperate people populate his tales, many of them jocks. There was the time in 1999, for instance, when IBF super featherweight champ Diego Corrales, who was reckless in the ring and with his money, traded in his title belt. "I think I gave him $1,500 and sold it five months later for $3,000," Harrison says. In another sad case, long jumper Joe Greene ventured into Harrison's store in 2003 with the bronze medal he'd won at the Atlanta Olympics seven years earlier. "I think it's all he had left," says Harrison.
The guy's got a million stories. And he's not the only one. For every champ who needs a quick fix for that untenable monthly nut, there's a pawnbroker ready to make his ring ka-ching. "Athletes are perfect customers because they're collateral rich but cash poor," says Steve Krupnik, a former broker and author of Pawnonomics.
For your basic overextended athlete, pawnshops do what conventional banks won't. Good luck finding a neighborhood loan agent willing to dole out 10 grand for those new rims you can't afford because you fell short of your incentive bonus. Or maybe you need some off-the-radar money for that off-the-radar honey. Whatever. Pawnbrokers don't ask questions. More important, they don't answer to the financial industry. "Pawned loans aren't reported to credit agencies, so they don't affect personal credit ratings," says Krupnik. That matters to an athlete who's a mortgage payment down on his mansion and can't afford another financial red flag.
Williams' mistake wasn't that he off-loaded an iconic object; it's that he did it at the most public pawnshop in America. If he'd gone to the Beverly Loan Company in Beverly Hills, for example, he'd have met Jordan Tabach-Bank standing beside artwork by Picasso and assuring well-heeled customers that he "deals in discretion." Tabach-Bank has seen rings pawned to pay for a kid's private school tuition, for a wife's plastic surgery and for a nursing home for Mom. "I don't ask why people want to pawn things," he says, "but nine times out of 10 they tell me."
Last year, an NFL lineman walked in with a Super Bowl ring and a story that's typical pawn math: bad investments plus impending divorce. "I worked my ass off for this ring," he said to Tabach-Bank. "I don't want to see it go." Recently, though, the lineman stopped making interest payments on the $12,000 loan, putting him in default. Still, Tabach-Bank can't bear to sell the ring. He's keeping it in a vault instead of the showroom. "I can only imagine how many hours of practice it took to get it," he says. "I really want to work with him."
ACCORDING TO an informal survey of pawnbrokers, the overwhelming majority of athletes make their payments and get back their merchandise. But rules are rules, and when a pawnbroker's patience wears out, collateral is converted back to cash. Sometimes items end up on eBay. That's where Krupnik went when a Nebraska football reserve named Joe Horst neglected to reclaim the 1995 national championship ring he pawned for $400 in 2003. A day before the auction ended, Horst showed up at Krupnik's store in South Bend, Ind., begging to buy back the ring. "I said he'd have to win it," Krupnik says. After Horst bid wildly, the pawnbroker revealed a softer side: "At the end of the day, I took what he owed, maybe $600."
Tim Robins, a former TV producer who runs championship-rings.net in Nashville, offers a more intricate cautionary tale. A Giants player recently sold his 2007 Super Bowl ring to a local jeweler, who in turn sold it to a local judge. When the judge called Robins to discern the ring's worth, he was floored by the bargain he'd got, prompting him to sell it to another middleman, who funneled it to an auction house. A Giants executive saw it displayed online, resulting in one red-faced player, but neither Robins nor a team spokesman, who had heard the story, knows what happened to the ring. If the player did buy it back, it cost him upward of $50,000, roughly four times its original price.
Robins isn't a pawnbroker. He just buys from them, then resells the merchandise on his website. Clients: Other middlemen and obsessive fans. Recently, a 10-year-old boy drew national attention for spending $8,500 of his college fund on William Perry's Super Bowl XX ring so he could return it to The Fridge. But most transactions are far less heartwarming. So Robins doesn't even reveal the names etched into the rings he offers, like the 14-karat gold band from Super Bowl XXXII he's selling for $29,995. Only serious, vetted buyers get that information.
Don Budd, another keeper of industry secrets, estimates that he has 100 athletes as regular clients at Central Pawn Shop, which he runs out of an old bank building on the Kansas-Missouri border. If one of their rings ends up on the business end of a bad loan, he quietly contacts the team that issued it. "I've called Al Davis, and he's bought back rings for players," says Budd. "It's an emotional thing, so I try to keep it in the family."
Because there's no blue book, valuing rings is more art than science. But there are a few accepted truths. Today's rings are worth more because the diamonds are smoother. A front office exec's scaled-down Super Bowl ring can be worth half as much as a player's. And teams have distinct reputations: the bands of the 1970s A's, for example, aren't highly valued because their penny-pinching owner, Charlie Finley, sanctioned only cheap materials. Anything Patriots, on the other hand, goes up-up-up.
Still, as Budd notes, "It's not what the ring's worth. It's what the player needs. I had a guy who pawned his Super Bowl ring because his old teammates were coming to town and he wanted a couple of grand to show them a good time."
Krupnik remembers a NASCAR champ who walked into his place in Indiana talking about losing his wallet. "He was on his way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he was in a pinch," Krupnik says. "He took off his Winston Cup ring and asked, 'How much can I get for this?' I lent him $4,000; I'd have done more, but it's all he needed. He sent me a check with interest two weeks later, and I sent him back his ring. It happens every day."
Krupnik won't reveal who the star was. The pawnbrokers' code, after all, is, what goes on in the shop stays in the shop. I e-mail NASCAR legend Darryl Waltrip on a lark to see if the story happens to be about him. "I don't remember it," he says. "But don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. Go ahead and use it."
And therein lies a central truth of pawnshops. For some, there's no shame in patronizing a place in which the proprietor sits behind bars to protect himself from the clientele. But say you're a former baseball bad boy who's gone on to a career in finance and you're caught pawning your most cherished mementos? In 2009, a Japanese film crew put a camera in a Beverly Hills pawnshop and recorded Lenny Dykstra pawning the 1986 World Series ring he won with the Mets. "A lot of pawnshops are in neighborhoods celebrities don't want to be seen in," says Todd Hills, the proprietor of internetpawn.com. "We offer the ultimate in discretion."
Hills, who maintains a 2,500-square-foot office near a private airstrip in Denver, has been offered Gulfstream jets and mansions by athletes whose high-flying days are suddenly behind them. He says agents usually initiate the contact, saying, "My client needs $10,000 to $50,000, quickly. How does this work?"
As Hills recently explained to the agent of a 10-year NFL vet who'd landed on the unemployment line, he lends 50 percent of an item's market value and charges 4 percent interest per month. (The industry term is "option charge," and Florida allows the nation's highest, at 25 percent.) In this case, the player mailed Hills a watch he bought for $90,000 and a six-carat princess-cut diamond ring right off his wife's finger. Hills assessed their market value at roughly a third of the cost, $60,000, and the player got a check for half that, with a bill for $1,200 in monthly interest payments.
That's hard-core pawn. And it's not just jocks who grab for their stones when the gravy train crashes; their entourages do too. Recently, several guys clad in hoodies walked into Philly's venerable Carver W. Reed Co. (est. 1860), with enough jewelry to outfit the Oscars: flashy earrings, gold necklaces and a 50-carat diamond cross so big that owner Tod Gordon was thrown. "It was almost too gaudy to sell," he says.
What caught Gordon's eye, though, were the matching tattoos on the men's necks. A lifelong Philly fan, he believed the design matched a tat sported by a local celebrity athlete whose money woes were making news. "I'm pretty sure they were there because it was the end of the line," he says.
Most states require pawnbrokers to file police reports to make sure items haven't been stolen, which is how former Dodger Jim Campanis got back a Rolex swiped from his golf bag last fall. A detective working the case in La Verne, Calif., thumbing through a stack of pawnshop reports, came across a watch that fit the description. It was sold to a broker nearby.
But the happy ending came with a price. After a 90-day police hold on the item, Campanis had to buy back his timepiece. "In cases like this, the pawnshop is a victim, too," says detective Michael Scranton. Campanis, son of the late Dodgers exec Al Campanis, was luckier with the 1988 World Series ring also lifted that day. Scranton recovered it in a search of the thief's home. "Sometimes things work out," he says.
And sometimes they don't. Krupnik, who's now an industry consultant, knows an NFL draft pick who pawned a ring from a big college bowl game because he was injured in the second half. "Take it," the kid said. "It's bad karma for me."
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.