- Tom Friend, ESPN.com Senior writer
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Gary Wichard, a prominent sports agent who was the inspiration for the movie, "Jerry Maguire," died Friday morning at his home in Westlake Village, Calif., after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 60.
In the early 1990s, film director Cameron Crowe noticed a magazine photo of Wichard hugging one of his clients, and Crowe said he then brainstormed a script about a football agent who had a close relationship with one of his players. The movie, starring Tom Cruise, later earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
In real life, Wichard had a similar bond with most of his players. Former New York Jets defensive end Jason Taylor dedicated his 2010 season to Wichard after learning of the agent's illness and has said, "I needed someone like Gary in my life. Or else I would not be who I am today, wouldn't be the player I am, wouldn't have the wife and kids that I have now."
Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens, Dwight Freeney of the Indianapolis Colts and Keith Bullock of the New York Giants were also Wichard clients who rarely went a few days without calling him. Wichard also represented Chris Cooley of the Washington Redskins, Jimmy Clausen of the Carolina Panthers, Elvis Dumervil of the Denver Broncos, Darren Sproles of the San Diego Chargers, Antonio Cromartie of the New York Jets and C.J. Spiller of the Buffalo Bills, among others.
"I didn't have any sons," Wichard said recently. "But these players are my sons. They're my guys."
Wichard made his name in the late 1980s when he represented Oklahoma University players such as linebacker Brian Bosworth and tight end Keith Jackson. It was down in Norman, Okla., that he met and befriended a Sooner nose tackle and subsequent head coach, John Blake. They became friends and confidants, which would become an issue later in Wichard's career.
After Blake was fired as Oklahoma head coach in 1998, Wichard convinced him to move to Los Angeles, so he could help Blake get back on his feet. Blake began training Wichard's rookies for the Senior Bowl, and that exposure helped Blake earn a job as defensive line coach at Mississippi State in 2003. Blake later moved to Nebraska as defensive line coach in 2004, and then ultimately to North Carolina as defensive line coach in 2007.
Wichard secured North Carolina's Kentwan Balmer as a client in 2008 -- at the time Wichard had a bevy of top defensive linemen -- and in the summer of 2009, Wichard said Balmer wanted his friend, Marvin Austin, another North Carolina linemen, to train with him in Los Angeles. Because Austin was still an underclassman, Wichard said he would not pay for Austin's trip west. Balmer, according to Wichard's attorneys, decided to take it upon himself.
The controversy surfaced this season, leading to Austin's permanent suspension, Blake's forced resignation and Wichard being suspended for nine months by the NFLPA for "impermissible contact" with Austin at a time when the player was not eligible for the NFL draft under the labor agreement.
Last week, North Carolina investigators issued a search warrant for the financial records of Wichard as they continue looking into whether North Carolina's sports agent laws have been broken. According to Wichard's attorneys, North Carolina investigators were looking into the relationship between Blake and Wichard and their frequent phone calls.
The reason Blake was calling, according to Wichard's family, is that Wichard had pancreatic cancer. Wichard was diagnosed in February of 2010 after attending, of all things, the Senior Bowl. He said recently that he did not publicly challenge North Carolina's investigation because he was undergoing chemotherapy. Because the cancer was inoperable, Wichard was in chemotherapy for much of the past year, was losing weight and said he did not have the strength to fight the charges. He also said that his preference was to keep the illness private.
Wichard is survived by his wife, Maire, whom he met when he was a 19-year-old freshman at C.W. Post College, and two daughters, Dana and Jessica. Over the years, the three women also grew close with his athletes. Before each NFL combine, Wichard would fly his players to Los Angeles for training sessions and offer them to stay in his home. Taylor has spent a Thanksgiving with the Wichard family, and former client, tight end Keith Jackson, lived briefly with the Wichards while he was going through free agency in 1990s.
His players say Wichard's football background and loyalty is what appealed to them most. After growing up and attending high school in Glen Cove, N.Y., Wichard became a star quarterback at C.W. Post, where he played for longtime Colts personnel executive, Dom Anilie. "My style was a little like Rich Gannon," Wichard once said.
Prior to the 1970 season, the New York Giants held their training camp at C.W. Post, and Wichard began shagging Pete Gogolak's practice kicks, throwing the ball back 60 yards in the air. Legendary Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle told reporters Wichard had a better arm than Joe Namath and Sonny Jurgensen, and the hype began.
Don Klosterman and George Young, two executives from the Baltimore Colts, began scouting Wichard, and Wichard said Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom also personally flew in to see him. Gil Brandt scouted Wichard for the Cowboys, while Al Davis came to campus for the Raiders, and Wichard was touted, at one point, as a potential first round pick.
After the 1971 season, Newsweek's Dick Schaap gave Wichard a Heisman Trophy vote, and the quarterback was invited to the Senior Bowl that year. But he went to Mobile, Ala., out of shape, performed poorly and fell down the draft board. On draft day, Wichard had to wait until almost midnight to be drafted, selected in the second-to-last round by the Colts. Howard Cosell said on his radio show that Baltimore had the late-round steal of the draft, but, the truth was, Colts already had Johnny Unitas and Earl Morral at quarterback. Wichard received few reps in practice and was released during training camp. His career ended a year later with the Patriots due to a shoulder injury, but, because of his Senior Bowl flop, Wichard vowed never to be unprepared again.
He entered the agent business at the urging of NBA star Julius Erving, a friend from Long Island, who introduced him to his own agent, Irwin Weiner. Wichard recruited players for Weiner, bringing in Colts running back Don McCauley and hockey player Jean Potvin from the New York Islanders. He eventually branched off to start his own agency, and his first marquee clients were Rob Carpenter of the New York Giants and quarterback Richard Todd and defensive end Mark Gastineau of the New York Jets.
He was so close to Todd that when the agent began complaining about health issues, Todd said his own brother was a diabetic and that Wichard's symptoms matched his brother's. Wichard saw a doctor and was diagnosed as a diabetic in his early 30s.
Besides his wife and daughters, Wichard is survived by his brother, Neal, of La Jolla, Calif., and his brother, Alvin, of New York. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Longtime NFL player agent Gary Wichard has died at 60.