When Kelli Masters attended her first University of Oklahoma football game at age 4, she knew she wanted to be on that Sooners field someday, in the thick of that electric atmosphere. While donning pads seemed like an unrealistic expectation, she turned to competitive baton twirling. (Yes, it's competitive and she suffered a broken arm, multiple stitches and knocked out her two front teeth in the pursuit.)
But how did the former Miss America contestant go from performing at OU's halftime shows to becoming the first woman NFL agent to represent a first-round draft pick -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Gerald McCoy -- six years ago? As she prepares four new players, including Arkansas running back Alex Collins, for the 2016 NFL draft that begins Thursday, Masters gives us an inside look on her journey in a cutthroat business that is still made up of 96 percent men.
When she realized she wanted to become a sports agent
So many of the guys I went to law school with had that goal, but I had never watched "Jerry Maguire" and thought, "Oh, I want to do that." But anything that made me feel good about myself was kind of my sanity while working as a litigator at a firm in Oklahoma City, so I always had an interest in missions and charities. And then a former OU football player contacted me to assist in setting up his foundation. I helped him clean up whatever messes that needed to be cleaned up and that led to working with other athletes.
I then realized there's a whole transition process from student athlete to professional athlete, and there's so much that happens in the individual's life and the lives of his family as well. All of a sudden the athlete has influence and resources and responsibilities and obligations. They need guidance, so I saw a need and felt like I could offer more than what was already out there. And I never thought, "Oh wait, I can't work with NFL players because I'm a woman." That never crossed my mind.
The advice she received before becoming certified in 2005
Actually most agents didn't want to talk to me, but one of my first phone calls was to Kristen Kuliga, who is one of the first women to become an NFL agent and represented Doug Flutie in his move from the Bills to the Chargers in 2001. She was very encouraging, but she did mention that this is one of the toughest careers you can choose as a woman.
Then I also reached out to other women who held positions of leadership and excelled at what they did. I quickly realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life and that it wasn't going to be easy, but also that I would be kind of blazing trails here.
Getting pushback from male agents
At my very first NFL combine 10 years ago, I walked into the agents' seminar and felt like I was the only woman in a roomful of 900 egotistical men. One of the top agents, who I'd prefer not to name, walked up to me. He didn't even introduce himself and said, "What are you doing here and how many clients do you have?" So I replied, "One client." I was like Jerry Maguire with my one client.
And he proceeded to give me a lecture on why I would never make it in this business. And I'm brand new. I'm still learning. I'm still trying to figure it all out. So I listened, and then I said, "Are you done? Because let me tell you why I belong here. I can't speak for any other woman. I honestly don't know why other women would want to be here with someone like you. But let you tell me why I'm here, because you can't make that generalization. You don't even know me. You don't know what I stand for or what my goals are or what I intend to accomplish."
I think that was the moment that I really grew and knew that nothing was going to stop me from what I was intended to do. And no one was going to tell me that I couldn't just because I was a woman. I explained to him that I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could do a better job than anyone else in this room.
I was surprisingly confident for how I was feeling at the time. And at the end of it, he swallowed a laugh and said, "You know what. You're going to be OK. Call me if you need any advice." And he's actually one of my biggest advocates to this day.
Losing clients because of her gender
When I'm recruiting I've had parents -- sometimes even mothers -- say we love everything you stand for, but we just don't think you can handle this because you're a woman. And I just want to say, "Ask the players I represent in the league. Ask the general managers I negotiate with if I can handle this." But that mindset is still present in this day and age. Although now with the addition of women coaches and referees and in NFL front office positions, it's not as prevalent as it was when I began. Thankfully, it's not as much a part of the conversation.
Although I will say that the college coach of player I recently recruited called his parents and said, "I can't believe you let your son sign with a woman. He'll be the laughingstock of the NFL." But people are going to have their opinions, and I just have to respectfully disagree with their conclusions and let's watch and see.
What differentiates her from other agents
There are still the stereotypical agents that dominate the industry who just concentrate on recruiting, negotiating contracts and then moving on to the next recruiting class. But I never wanted my practice to be just about that. I obviously want to work with great players, but I more want to work with great people and to be able to have an influence on their lives.
I don't want to just take them through the draft process, negotiate their rookie contract and then say, "OK, I'll see you in four years when you sign another contract!" I really want it to be a relationship. And I'm in touch with them on almost a daily basis as to what they need to be successful in life since so many NFL careers are incredibly short. It's about setting them up for what's down the line.
So yes, I'm very involved with my players for the NFL logistics, whether it comes to injuries or grievances or fines. But I also do a lot more. I know many agents take care of their players, but I'll literally be negotiating a player's contract one day and helping him plan his wedding the next. Or if it's counseling or having to go to rehab, heaven forbid, I'm there for them during that process and hopefully educating them along the way so that they can look back one day and say, "Thank you. I'm a better person." It's about the bigger picture.
When she knew she had arrived
I still don't feel like I can say I've arrived when there's so much more I want to accomplish. Representing Gerald [McCoy] when he was selected third overall was a huge defining moment, but every year there are highs and lows. Although the funny thing is, even the low moments are fulfilling when you have the strength to power through it. It's just part of the journey. You learn from it.
There have probably been more low moments than highs honestly, but when you've been in the trenches and hit those little high points in life, it makes those touchstones so much better. I think seeing my first client (Texas Tech's Cody Hodges) on an NFL field for the first time was such an impactful moment. I just watched someone's childhood dream come true, and I got to be part of that journey. Now I get to do that again with great players and great individuals like Alex Collins at this year's draft.
The day-to-day logistics during draft season
From January through the draft, it's a lot of information gathering. It's a lot of communicating with teams and coordinating my players' training for the combine. But it's also setting up apartments and shipping cars and getting legal matters squared away. There's a lot of details between finishing a college career and being drafted. And then after the draft is the negotiation process, making sure they finish their studies, that their relocation goes smoothly and getting them established in their communities. And that's when the real fun begins when I start dealing with the teams and coaches and rosters. Every day is different.
Advice she would give to other potential women agents
The agent world can be an extremely ruthless business. I thought I had seen it all as a litigator until I got to the NFL. First of all, be informed. Never stop being a student. I've been doing this for more than a decade, and I still want to get better at what I do. That can never stop. You'll always be learning and you'll always be growing.
I would also say to develop relationships. Sure, it's who you know, but you have to really know the business and be willing to work with people to build bridges. Being a part of LinkedIn isn't networking. It's a vehicle, but it's about really putting yourself in situations where you develop respect. I've been very proactive from the beginning in reaching out and developing those relationships and that only happens when someone respects who you are and your abilities.
And most importantly, have a thick skin and know what you're getting into.