Holding onto the great catch

MIRAMAR, Fla. – Troy Williamson and two of his University of South Carolina teammates are standing in between aisles and aisles of shoes, feverishly making calls to family members to find out what sizes they wear.

Says Williamson to his sister: "Do you want a 6 or a 6½?"

Says Darrell Shropshire: "If you normally get an 8 in women's, you can't be a 9 in men's!"

Minutes later, the three players walk out with bags filled with shoes, all free after their agent David Canter used his connections with Reebok to score the shopping spree.

As the group leaves the store, Marcus Lawrence, a 6-foot-3, 242-pound middle linebacker projected as a middle-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, says to Williamson, the fleet-footed receiver: "Do you think Jason Chayut could have done that?"

The joke's punch line is lost on Canter, an agent with a modest clientele, who is lagging behind the group of players while taking care of more business on his cell phone. Hearing someone mention Chayut, a rival agent who represents one of his clients' former teammates, Dunta Robinson, surely would have raised Canter's eyebrows.

"Any agent is going to think that if they have a good client, some other agent is going to come after them," Williamson says. "We get on him and call out other agents' names to have fun with him."

A 6-foot-2, 210-pound receiver, Williamson could prove to be Canter's best client since he landed University of Florida wide receiver Travis Taylor weeks before the Baltimore Ravens selected him with the 10th pick in the 2000 NFL draft. Assuming Williamson is drafted midway through the first round, as projected, the standard 3 percent cut of Williamson's signing bonus could be worth some $250,000 to his agent.

Lawrence's joke represents the stark reality of the agent business. Players can leave at a moment's notice, and there's no time more vulnerable than in the weeks leading up to the NFL draft. Anyone who watched the mythical Jerry Maguire lose top prospect Frank "Cush" Cushman to rival agent Bob Sugar knows that the agent's payoff for investing months of time and money into inking top players is only realized when the player signs his first contract.

The NFL Players Association allows players to change agents at will. In the past year, superagent Drew Rosenhaus' clientele has grown to more than 90 players by his ability to get players to make the switch. Agent David Joseph lost Eagles receiver Terrell Owens; agent Mike Harrison lost former Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress; and agent Jerome Stanley lost the Bengals' Chad Johnson – all to Rosenhaus.

Williamson wasn't considered a prime prospect when he started his junior year this past season. Although he exhibited breakaway speed (he was a two-time South Carolina state champion in the 100 and 200 meters), he didn't have a high-profile quarterback throwing to him. But with three 100-yard outings in his first four games of 2004, Williamson finally appeared on the radar of agents.

"They were calling my mother and godfather," Williamson says. "But by the time everyone was in the game, I had already decided on Dave."

But just because Canter has Williamson now, it doesn't mean he can relax. Competing agents are constantly trying to sweet-talk players into going with them, and Florida is known as an agent hotbed. Only California has more registered NFL agents – 127 to Florida's 94.

That makes paranoia a natural part of today's agents' business.

When Canter and Williamson step to the cashier at a video-game store to buy games for their portable PlayStations, Canter notices what could be a sign that another agent is trying to get into Williamson's pocket. When Williamson takes out his wallet to pay, Canter sees a new Bank of America card.

"Where'd you get that?" asks Canter, who set up all of Williamson's bank and credit accounts.

Williamson explains that he thought he had lost his card, so he got another card – only to find the original.

To Canter, it's just another false alarm.

A few weeks ago, Lawrence bought a necklace. "As soon as he saw it, he wanted to know where I got it from," Lawrence says.

"I think agents are still coming after me, but I'm comfortable with Dave and I'm not changing anything," says Williamson, who turned pro a year early to help his mother, who raised 11 children as a single parent. "I know the person I've selected is the person I want to be with."

Canter gained the inside track to Gamecocks players with the help of Christina Phillips, a manager for the school's women's basketball team. When Phillips cold-called agents looking for an internship, Canter was the only one to respond. He gave her a job and showed her how the industry worked. In return, she recommended Canter to friends on the football team.

Canter already had helped two former Gamecocks players, Deandre Eiland and Jeremiah Garrison, land spots on the practice squads of NFL teams, even though he had nothing to gain financially by doing it.

"My teammates asked me what kind of guy he was, and I told him he was a hard worker," says Eiland, who was signed by the Colts and Dolphins. "Jeremiah and I weren't exactly first-round picks. Things didn't go the way we wanted them to go. But he put us in a position to get a chance."

This year's crop of prospects from the University of South Carolina respected that, including Lawrence, who went to high school with Williamson in Aiken, S.C. When Lawrence signed with Canter, Williamson followed.

"Other agents would call me when I played a good game and then I wouldn't hear from them for weeks," Williamson says. "I heard from Dave all the time, and that's one of the things that made me comfortable with him."

Canter is banking that Williamson's allegiance is strong, especially since his NFL combine workout put him in the top 10 of some mock drafts. His best unofficial time in the 40-yard dash was 4.38 seconds, one of the fastest seen at the event.

"There were a lot of agents trying to holler at Troy during the combine," Lawrence says. "They wanted him badly."

Canter knows plenty about the fleeting nature of the business he has been in since a chance meeting with Miami Dolphins wide receiver Lamar Thomas at a gas station 10 years ago. Canter and Thomas had a 30-minute conversation that ultimately led Canter to handle some marketing deals for Thomas.

In Canter's home office are signed pictures of players he used to represent. Mike Anderson wrote, "To The Greatest Agent." Mike Peterson wrote the same thing. As did Taylor.

At the height of his business in 2001, Canter shared 70 clients with partner Steve Weinberg. When Weinberg was sanctioned by the NFLPA that year, Canter claims that Weinberg smeared his name with clients, many of whom left him for other agents. Over the next three years, Canter built his agency back up.

He now works with about 25 players, including Carolina Panthers running back Stephen Davis, so it's not as if Williamson is his Rod Tidwell, Jerry Maguire's lone client. Still, 32-year-old Canter handles all the contract negotiations, marketing and public relations work himself, outsourcing only the financial and legal advising.

So if you're an agent with a small firm, how do you make sure a prime prospect such as Williamson is on board through contract time? Canter starts by keeping a close eye on him.

After signing the junior wide receiver, Canter set up Williamson, Lawrence and Shropshire in a rented $500,000 home five minutes from his own house and an 11-minute drive from their trainer, Pete Bommarito. He established their bank accounts, secured loans for their cars – from Cadillac EXTs to Lincoln Navigators – and gave them cell phones with text messaging so they can communicate better.

"Not only do we talk to each other several times a day, but these guys are in my house," Canter says. "They know the names of my dogs, my girlfriend, and they've been to the Bahamas where my dad lives."

This closeness is Canter's greatest strength.

Not many agents know the lyrics to their client's favorite song. Canter does. When Williamson puts on his favorite, TI's "The Greatest," Williamson doesn't flinch when Canter bursts into song with "I gotta Magnum with a magnum in it, PlayStation with a plasma in it."

"I can relate to a 20-year-old because our generations are really identical," Canter says. "I grew up in a hip-hop world, but instead of Eminem and 50 Cent, it was LL Cool J and Run DMC."

He also knows his video games.

When Williamson is ready to settle for a 256-megabyte memory card for his PlayStation, Canter tells him to wait until he can find the card with a gigabyte of memory. But buy the Tiger Woods video game, Canter advises, "so I can whup your ass."

Despite the fact that Canter is the employee and Williamson the employer, the agent isn't scared to dish out advice. After Williamson worked out for NFL scouts in Columbia, S.C., he was spending his time with friends, meeting with teams and organizing a party. Canter told him he should be careful not to overexert himself. Williamson at first didn't want to hear it and walked away from Canter. Two hours later, Canter received a text message: "I'm sorry. I love you."

Canter hasn't made money off his devotion to Williamson so far, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been paid back. After Williamson won two plasma televisions in a skills competition, he gave one to his sister as a wedding present and one to Canter to put in his bedroom.

"I feel comfortable calling Dave and talking to him about anything," Williamson says. "I know a lot of players that can't do that with their agent. He knows when to do his job, but he's also somebody I can chill and relax with."

Every day, Canter works hard to make sure he's not vulnerable to the other agents that would surely love to have a client of Williamson's caliber.

At a local Chili's, he sits down with Williamson and goes through Troy's travel schedule to various cities where team officials will interview him. Canter has made a binder for Williamson that not only includes his itinerary but also contains the bios of the people he will be meeting and the questions they likely will ask him.

Canter knows he's working hard, but experience has taught him that sometimes that's not good enough. A decade in this business has made him vigilant – always on the watch for signs of defection.

The players have taken notice.

Every once in a while, they won't answer their phones just to make Canter worried.

Says Shropshire: "Then we'll text-message him. 'We're just playing with you.'"

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.