When Brown University football star A.J. Cruz began his quest to make it to the National Football League, he found an agency to represent him in an unlikely place.
Right around the corner.
Cruz became the first client of the Rhode Island-based ATR Player Agency, a joint effort by Johnston’s Billy Vigeant and Providence lawyer Gene Carlino.
For Cruz, it was the perfect fit.
“Coming from a small school, I wanted people who could represent me but also dedicate time to represent me,” Cruz said. “I could have signed with agencies out on the West coast who have 25 guys. I was sitting there saying, ‘Well, how much time are you really going to have for me?’ Here I have an opportunity to have guys who are just focused on helping me reach my goals.”
That focus is the foundation on which ATR is being built.
Vigeant, a former football standout at La Salle Academy and Wagner College, has been involved in sports marketing for more than two decades with the company he founded, Good Sports Entertainment. When he met Carlino several years ago, he found a kindred spirit. Both were passionate about sports. Both wanted to break into player representation.
ATR was born.
“Going into the game of present-day guys and getting involved is something I always wanted to do,” Vigeant said. “Based on that, I wanted to form an agency and at the same time, I had to find a unique person to do it with. Gene was the perfect guy.”
Carlino went all in, even as he got some sideways looks along the way. Rhode Island, with no professional teams and only a few high-level collegiate athletic programs, wasn’t the place most expected to see an agency founded.
“People laughed at me originally,” Carlino said. “They said, ‘Boy, you’re in a real hotbed.’ It’s not like Texas, where the athletes are falling off the trees. But that’s not the way Bill and I saw it.”
Between players who call New England home and those, like Cruz, who come through, Vigeant and Carlino believe there’s plenty of opportunity. And they see no reason why the agency can’t attract players from all over the country.
“I think there are no geographic boundaries in this business,” Carlino said.
On top of that, being set apart fits the agency’s profile. ATR stands for Above the Rest. It’s a goal as much as it is an acronym. Vigeant and Carlino see themselves as unique players in the high-stakes world of professional sports.
Raking in the dough and making it big aren’t their goals. They plan to embrace their clients’ goals.
“At this stage of my life, I feel fortunate to be able to give back,” Carlino said. “It’s very exciting for me to see A.J.’s dreams come true. Don’t get me wrong – we all have to pay the rent, pay the mortgage, make a living. But the fulfillment of seeing A.J.’s dreams come true is the largest pay off. That’s going to drive us.”
After the NFL’s labor crisis delayed agency licensing last year, ATR finally got its license in October. Vigeant and Carlino recruited Rhode Island native and former NFL player Jamie Silva to be a player advisor, along with former New England Patriot Patrick Pass. Together, they charted a course.
Vigeant and Carlino decided that in their first year, they wanted to take on just one client and put all their efforts into him.
They had several options, but Cruz stood out.
“Bill and I decided that out of the block, we were going to with one in our first year and dedicate all our resources to him,” Carlino said. “Bill and I feel we couldn’t have hitched our wagon to a better young man.”
Cruz’s relationship with Vigeant and Carlino highlights everything the agency is about. He’s eager to chase his dream of playing in the NFL, but as an undersized defensive back from a small school, he didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle. He met with the ATR team and his parents interviewed Vigeant and Carlino. He knew he’d found the right fit.
“I want good people who not only care about what they do, but care about the people they’re working with,” Cruz said. “Whatever happens, they’ll stick with me. That’s something very unique to ATR. I know guys who when they didn’t sign a free agent contract, their agents never talked to them again. To have the comfort and support that these guys are here, even if at first I might not succeed, is great.”
Cruz is a native of Lake Forest, Calif. He was a football and baseball star at Santa Margarita Catholic and had several offers to stay close to home. Instead, he visited Brown, found a second home, and jetted across cross country.
He wasted no time settling in. As a freshman, he earned second-team All-Ivy League honors. He battled injuries his sophomore year, but came back with a vengeance as a junior, finishing with 60 tackles and shining as a kickoff returner on his way to first-team All-Ivy honors.
This past season, Cruz continued to impress. He led the Bears in interceptions and ranked second in tackles. He earned first-team All-Ivy honors again and was named a first-team AFCA FCS All-American.
In addition to his success on the field, Cruz has gotten involved with Athletes In Action, a sports ministry program. He was also a captain for Brown, and was voted a captain at the FCS Senior All-Star Game.
Vigeant and Carlino love what they’ve seen from Cruz.
“You have guys that are thinkers and guys that are hitters,” Vigeant said. “A.J. is the best of both worlds.”
Pass is on board, as well. He won three Super Bowls with the Patriots, and he envisions himself as a voice of experience for the agency’s clients. He’s eager to help Cruz find his way.
“I’m very impressed with A.J,” Pass said. “From what I’ve seen on film, he plays the game smart. It doesn’t matter where the ball is on the field. It seems like you’re always going to see A.J. around the ball. NFL coaches love that. He has great instincts for that, and for his size, he’s a great tackler.”
Pass compared Cruz to former Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders, and to another former Brown star, Sean Morey, who went on to play with four NFL teams.
“[Morey] would go 110 miles per hour on the scout team,” Pass said. “He would make some of the older guys mad because he was non-stop. Those older guys wanted to take it easy. Sean didn’t know how to do that. The coaches gave him a chance and he took it.”
Cruz is hoping to get a similar chance, and he’s confident he can run with it.
“I’ve played with a chip on my shoulder my whole life,” Cruz said. “I think everybody had a reason why I shouldn’t be on the field.”
Cruz’s quest began in earnest after the college season. He spent a month in an intensive training program in Pittsburgh and is now preparing for his pro days, where he’ll show off for several teams.
The draft is in April. If he doesn’t get selected, he’ll try to go the route of the undrafted free agent, which often works out well. Among the undrafted free agents currently having NFL success is Houston running back Arian Foster, who ranked sixth in the league in rushing in 2012.
“The goal at this point is to get into a camp and make a roster,” Cruz said. “Eventually, I could see myself contributing, ideally as a defensive back, but if that starts with special teams first, I’ll do whatever it takes to get there.”
Vigeant and Carlino will be there every step of the way. They’ve organized his pro days and are excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.
“To have a young gentleman like A.J., we’re very proud of that,” Vigeant said. “We’re going to do everything in our power to help him make his dreams come true.”
From there, the goal is to make many more dreams come true and to build ATR into something special in the process. Several prospective clients have reached out, and the agency is poised to grow with every passing year.
From Rhode Island, ATR’s plan is to rise above the rest.
“Look out for us and look out for our guy A.J. Cruz,” Vigeant said. “We’re coming through.”