The saga of the Crabtree holdout

Their million-dollar smiles are frozen on a stage in New York City, awash in San Francisco 49ers gear. There's little brother Cornelius, sheepishly grinning in a red-and-black cap. Cornelius is the young man who -- in the frenzy after the greatest catch of the 2008 college football season -- Michael Crabtree grabbed and hugged while the citizens of Lubbock, Texas, danced and celebrated. There's his dad, Michael Sr., grinning and looking proud on draft day. Heck, even Michael is smiling. He's about to become a multi-millionaire, about to take the first step toward doing what he confided only to the closest of his friends: that someday, he wants to be the Michael Jordan of football.

The picture doesn't tell everything, that Crabtree is none too pleased about being the second receiver picked. He holds up his 49ers jersey and mugs for the cameras. And the summer of discontent begins.

The first thing to know about holdout negotiations is that it's generally taboo to say anything. Agents go underground, mothers and cousins and childhood chums rehearse their "no comments," and the two sides hunker down because one little slip of the tongue could be interpreted as a sign of one camp's flinching.

So for the better part of 57 days since Crabtree's holdout began, one of the NFL's biggest mystery men has remained unknown. Maybe Crabtree prefers it this way, because he never quite got used to all the attention and the way it happened so fast. Maybe he's blocked out all the critics who have called him a diva and are dumbfounded by his refusal to take the $20 million on the table.

But Dennis Simmons can't keep quiet anymore. He's on the phone in the football offices at Texas Tech, angry about a reputation gone sour. The receivers coach wants to tell a story. It's about Crabtree's freshman year, and the young receiver was so smooth, so perfect, that the Red Raiders drew up plans for him to figure heavily in their offense. Simmons called Crabtree into his office one day with some bad news: A transcript glitch meant he'd have to sit out the season. Crabtree broke down and cried.

He wants to be out there today, Simmons says, just like that freshman year. He's no doubt watching every minute of the 49ers' surprise 2-0 start.

"I know he's watching it," says Simmons. "Do I think it hurts him? That he feels bad that he's not there? Yeah. He left here with the intentions of playing in the league this year.

"Do I think he's a person who is easily influenced? No. He's his own person."

The Crabtree advisers

So what is going on in Michael Crabtree's head these days, as he has become the second-longest NFL rookie holdout in two decades? The answer, some say, lies in his inner circle. Crabtree's posse isn't the typical one filled with high school chums, siblings and a sampling of hangers-on. His circle consists of at least three men over the age of 40: former NFL superstar Deion Sanders, Texas state Sen. Royce West and Crabtree's cousin, bail bondsman David Wells.

Sanders' comments about Crabtree reportedly touched off tampering charges against the New York Jets, but we'll get to him later. Aside from Crabtree's father, Wells could possibly be the biggest influence in Crabtree's life. He trained the youngster from Dallas at a boxing gym with no air conditioning and surrounded him with powerful men by the time he hit high school.

Wells says he's made millions in the bail-bonds business, and doesn't need to ride his cousin's coattails for money or access. He's gotten past the ropes and seen the NFL high life as a bodyguard for former Dallas Cowboys players Michael Irvin and Adam "Pacman" Jones, and is widely known in the Cowboys organization. Wells says it takes a village to raise a young African-American man, and that he always wanted to make sure the young Crabtree had someone strong to lean on.

Crabtree plays dominoes with West, who now serves as one of his lawyers.

"The Michael Crabtree that I know is a genuine person," West says. "Well-thought-of in the community."

Back in Dallas, Wells has taken somewhat of a beating in recent days. In early August, he was quoted as saying Crabtree was willing to sit out the season and re-enter the draft in 2010, a statement that angered 49ers fans and drudged up media reports of Wells' legal problems from the past. Contacted this week, Wells said his comments were misconstrued, but wouldn't elaborate.

"I have not told Michael Crabtree to hold out," Wells says. "Write that.

"I care about my cousin. I love him very much. My business is to make sure my cousin makes the right decisions. I'm not talking about football. I'm talking about his life."

Wells is quick to defend Sanders, whom he calls a "close friend and a mentor" to Crabtree. He is adamant in saying Sanders hasn't influenced the negotiations. A couple of weeks ago, Sanders became involved in the story when he said two teams were interested in a trade for Crabtree, and that they would pay him handsomely.

Despite the rumblings, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach says he'd be surprised if anyone other than Crabtree's agent was advising him.

"They say he's an entourage guy, but that's not true," Leach says. "Michael's kind of a loner who keeps to himself. He's just a nice, polite guy who goes about his business. I know that sounds a little Frank Capra, but it's true.

"I know [Wells] a little bit. I think he's a good guy. I've always known him to have Michael's best interests at heart. That's his priority, really. I mean, heck, that guy could've made himself agent if he wanted to, but he didn't."

Handling the holdout

As the Crabtree story twists and churns on, his agent, Eugene Parker, has stayed mum. Parker, Crabtree and the 49ers all declined to comment. This isn't Parker's first major contract negotiation. He represents Hines Ward, Richard Seymour and Larry Fitzgerald. And he once helped Sanders get a $35 million deal with the Cowboys. Parker no doubt knows about the probability that rookies who hold out are far more likely to get injured and have inconsequential first seasons.

Six weeks ago, Parker helped Tyson Jackson, the No. 3 overall pick for the Chiefs, arrive at camp in River Falls, Wis., albeit a few days late.

It's no secret that holdouts miss out. In 2007, Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 overall pick, skipped all of training camp and held out until Sept. 12. Russell completed just 36 passes for 373 yards as a rookie, and, two years later, is still struggling in his role as a starter. Two first-round quarterbacks in 2008 -- Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco -- were in camp on time and thrived on playoff teams as rookies.

"It's just a situation that physically, as well as mentally, they have no idea what they're missing," says former Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson. "Now it's the regular season, and [Crabtree] has already missed two games. He's basically just taking his rookie year and throwing it away from a career standpoint and a financial standpoint.

"I don't think there's any way he'll ever recover the experience he's losing this year in the National Football League, and I don't think he'll ever recover the financial loss."

Peterson knows all about the perils of rookie holdouts. In 2002, he drafted defensive tackle Ryan Sims with the No. 6 overall pick, then watched Sims go through a long contract dispute. When he finally arrived on the team, out of shape, Sims lasted just a couple of weeks. He dislocated his elbow, was out for the season and spent the next year playing catch-up. By the time his five-year run was over in Kansas City, he had amassed just 54 tackles and five sacks.

Though rookies are drafted in late April, the negotiations, Peterson says, don't start in earnest until about two weeks before training camp. Agents want to wait and see where the numbers and the market are. The NFL has a slotting system that, in most scenarios, decreases compensation according to draft order. So general managers put up a firm stand with rookie pools and slotting, and agents fight to get more guaranteed money.

The phone calls increase as the days creep closer to camp. When a player holds out, Peterson says, front-office personnel go through various stages of emotions.

"After the frustration and the maddening anger," he says, "then it goes to disappointment.

"The one thing we know for sure, and that players eventually figure out, is that the National Football League moves on. Players … They're always replaced. The league goes on, players continue to play, coaches continue to coach, and the game goes on."

Holdouts of the past

No, the games didn't stop without Crabtree. In the opening week of the season, the 49ers shocked Arizona, the defending NFC champ, on the Cardinals' home field. Like most days, coach Mike Singletary steered the postgame commentary away from Crabtree, choosing to focus on the 53 guys who were there.

But eventually, the 49ers will have to talk about Crabtree. They have until Nov. 17 to sign him if he's going to play this season. After Aug. 14, the club was no longer permitted to trade Crabtree's rights. The next point he can be traded is at the start of the 2010 trading period on March 5. If Crabtree is not signed and he is not traded, he would go back into the April draft.

If Crabtree doesn't flinch and sits out the whole season, it won't be unprecedented. Kelly Stouffer was picked by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the '87 draft, couldn't agree to a contract, and had his rights traded to the Seahawks the following year. Stouffer never became a franchise quarterback, and drifted away after his second stint in the league ended in 1996.

And then there was Tom Cousineau, the No. 1 overall pick of the 1979 draft who never played a down for the Bills. Cousineau, initially miffed by what he perceived as shoddy treatment by Buffalo, was ultimately lured away by bigger money in the CFL. He played in Canada for three years, made twice as much as he would have in the NFL, and one day out of the blue received a six-figure bonus from a generous front-office person to help cure his homesickness.

Cousineau eventually found his way back to the NFL, and had a good career. But to this day, he still has regrets. His heart told him to play in Buffalo, to take what the Bills offered. His head said to go where the money took him.

"Negotiating protocol and all that goes with that … it was so foreign to me," Cousineau says. "You have to believe in people. I thought I'd made a good choice with [agent] Jimmy Walsh, and I believe that to this day. He was looking out for my best interests.

"Who out there, all things being equal, would prefer to work for less money than more money? Who makes that choice?"

One thing people close to Crabtree know is that he's stubborn. When an opposing defensive back would mouth off in the media and challenge him, Crabtree generally had his most productive games. He always believed, every Saturday, that he was the best receiver on the field. He was confident, going into the 2009 draft, that he was the best receiver in the rookie class. And when the Raiders stunned the Radio City Music Hall crowd by picking Darrius Heyward-Bey, not Crabtree, at No. 7, the trouble, apparently, began.

"I know he has the inner confidence in him that he was the best receiver last year," Simmons says.

"When he does get on the field, a lot of people are going to be eating their words. He's going to be a phenomenal player. That's his passion."

Preparing to play

On a late-summer day in the Bay Area recently, Crabtree resurfaced. He ran and jumped and caught roughly 70 footballs from former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer. They talked for more than an hour about what Crabtree can expect when he finally gets into a league that he is seemingly so determined to impress, yet so adamantly avoids. A mutual acquaintance of Crabtree and Dilfer set up the workout, and the pair has met three times in the past month or so to talk about everything but contract negotiations.

"I told him early on that I wouldn't go there," says Dilfer, who also serves as an ESPN analyst.

"He's a very focused kid. Far more focused than kids his age," Dilfer says. "He compartmentalizes things. My impression is that in his mind, he's compartmentalized this as saying, 'Hey, my job is to be ready to play when my people put me in position to play.' He doesn't think he's part of that. He's just focused on getting himself physically and mentally ready for the NFL. And he thinks the business side of it -- of signing or not -- is a whole separate issue, and he's not concerning himself with it."

How long can he go? Crabtree won't be hurting for money any time soon. He has endorsement deals with Subway, EA Sports and Nike Jordan Brand sneakers. Trading cards could possibly net him another six figures.

Last weekend, a few folks from Texas Tech wondered if Crabtree might show up on the sideline for the annual rivalry game with Texas. Just a year ago, Crabtree delivered his iconic moment against the Longhorns, catching the game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds, doing it in double coverage. That night, he went home with his family and did push-ups during the commercials of a TV movie. He didn't need a party, or an entourage. Crabtree was just preparing for what was ahead.

"The 49ers desperately need to sign their first pick," Leach says, "and Crabtree desperately needs to play football this season. Where the dust all settles, I don't know. But you wonder if both sides will feel like it was worth it, you know?"

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.