Don Yee has brokered contracts and argued on behalf of athletes few recognize or remember, and some impossible to forget.
He is Tom Brady’s agent, if that name rings a bell.
A Sacramento native, Yee will be attending another Super Bowl on Sunday, anxiously watching as Brady aims to win his sixth Lombardi Trophy with the New England Patriots against the Philadelphia Eagles. Yee on Friday left the warmth of Los Angeles, where he lives and works, for the chill of Minnesota, where he will seamlessly blend into the crowd. A man deemed by national media outlets as an “uber-agent” or a “super agent” insists that none of this is about him.
But it is about him, or at least some of it is – as someone who translates the language of a contract and crunches numbers while players, coaches, franchises and fans twist and turn.
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He’s the one soon to formulate a contract for 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in what figures to be a whopper of a deal.
But for all of his multitasking abilities, Yee, 57, is still trying to master one passion in particular: the drums. They have him flummoxed. This has been the case since his William Land Elementary School days in Sacramento.
“I was in fourth grade, and the teacher gave us a music test,” Yee said with a laugh on Thursday afternoon. “She told me I was essentially tone deaf. I wouldn’t be playing saxophone or any sexy instrument. So it was the drums.”
The drums still tease and taunt him. When Yee isn’t poring over papers or watching a client at work such as New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton or Hawaii receiver and NFL draft hopeful Trayvon Henderson of Grant High roots, experiences Yee calls, “a fun ride,” he distances himself from the sporting world. Completely.
“I’m still trying to improve as a drummer,” Yee said. “I have an electric drum kit at home and I also take lessons. I really enjoy music. I try to visit as many mom-and-pop restaurants as I can. I tend to favor those. There are enough restaurant chains and corporations, so I go to mom and pop, a food truck even.”
On his prospects of a drummer, Yee offered this self-evaluation, “Probably an undrafted free agent. But there’s always hope!”
Regional roots, direct approach
Yee was born in 1960, the son of Chinese immigrants in Sacramento. He grew up near 16th and Broadway, and at 13, he sought his first job.
He saw an ad in The Bee in 1974 posted by the Sacramento Solons seeking batboys and clubhouse attendees. Yee wrote a letter to the Triple-A franchise that would be playing home games at Hughes Stadium.
“For whatever reason, I felt at a young age that I had an innate understanding of sports and how things might work and should work,” Yee said. “I wish I had a better innate ability to play the drums. That’s what I would have preferred.
“But it happened to be sports, and I was fortunate enough to land that job with the Solons.”
Yee crafted a fib to skip an eighth-grade class at Sutter Middle School and hopped a bus to the Sacramento Inn Hotel off Arden Way to meet with the Solons brass. Greg Van Dusen, the Solons public relations man, hired Yee. Now retired and living in Sacramento, Van Dusen lit up at the mention of Yee.
“Donny Yee!” Van Dusen bellowed over the phone. “OK, he’s not Donny any more but he’s still a kid to me. He was a great batboy, always hustled, and never wrapped up in himself. It’s still true. He is who he is.”
Van Dusen paused then continued, “Wait. He was in eighth grade when I hired him? He lied about that! Thought he was in high school. Smart kid. He could be one of the greatest feel-good stories to ever come out of here. You know that two of the all-time great agents are from here? Scott Boras and Donny Yee. Just great!”
Yee also learned from Solons manager Bob Lemon to avoid having “rabbit ears,” or in other words, to have selective hearing.
“Look,” Yee said this week, “a lot of athletes at that time in the 1970s were not that sophisticated. I took heat because I was a different ethnicity, a young kid. When you’re 13 years old, it’s hard to comprehend. Lemon told me not to worry what other think. Those three years I was with the Solons were among the best three years of my life. It was fun. It really gave me a head start understanding what happens behind the scenes in the sports business. That’s always stayed with me.”
Yee continued, “In 1974, there weren’t a lot of jobs available for Asian Americans outside a short list of occupations. My parents, to their credit, were incredibly supportive of me and always instilled in me that you can do anything you wanted to do. I have to say that when the Solons season started, it was early April, and school was still going. All the games were at night, and since we didn’t have a family car, I rode my bike to the games and got home at midnight. A Schwinn Heavy Duti, no helmet, no reflectors, and rode down the middle of Freeport Boulevard. Loved it!”
Yee also recalls how his father, who died in 1993, was best friends with Frank Fat, whose popular Sacramento restaurant was a hub for politicians and celebrities.
“I watched Governor Reagan and his staff legislate,” Yee said.
Yee graduated from Sacramento High School in 1978. He was inspired about the concept of fairness and law by older brother Michael, who attended UC Davis Law School. Yee wrote a school paper about an affirmative action case involving a UCD student, and he was hooked.
Underdogs rising together
While studying law at UCLA, Yee interned at Sacramento’s KFBK radio station as a producer for a nightly sports talk program. He obtained a Lakers season credential and covered parts of Magic Johnson’s rookie season of 1979-80.
“I got to see what the NBA was like, to a certain degree, and understand the media perspective, and what was expected,” Yee said. “My childhood and into college, I got to be in a lot of locker rooms and got a real understanding of what was going on.”
In 1988, Yee became a sports agent, which was similar to someone his age marching into Hollywood hopeful his manuscript would be snatched up.
“It was incredibly competitive,” Yee said. “When I first got into the football business, I knew no one. My background was baseball. I had to start from scratch. If Asians were rare in the baseball world then, then they were even more rare in football.”
His big break came as the result of determination and at the intersection of two underdogs.
In 1999, a tall, lanky fellow named Tom Brady playing quarterback at Michigan impressed him with his moxie.
Yee and business partner Stephen Dubin, a Michigan graduate, watched and studied all of Brady’s senior games. At the end of that season, Yee wrote a letter to Brady’s father, Tom Sr., to introduce himself.
Yee and Brady met – and clicked.
“What impressed me about Tom was his poise,” Yee said. “It’s a hard thing and potentially impossible to teach. That’s a rare trait to me. He’s a very good person.”
He has been a shadow for Brady ever since, from waiting through six rounds of the NFL draft to waiting for a sixth Super Bowl ring. Yee defended him through the “Deflategate” saga, and navigated the complexities of representing both Brady and Garoppolo while the two were teammates.
“Don’t believe everything you read,” Yee said of the recent ESPN reports of conflict among Patriots power players Brady, coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft.
Life of an agent
Before last year’s Super Bowl win over Atlanta, Brady told media of Yee: “He’s been a great adviser for me. He was someone that really had the same goal where I could find the right spot and my career could flourish. (Yee wasn’t interested) necessarily in the goals of what an agent may be, but what your goals may be. My goal has always been winning and he’s tried to support that in the best way he could, and that’s why I have so much respect for him.”
Yee’s connection with coach Payton of the Saints helped him unite with Garoppolo. Payton and Garoppolo came out of Eastern Illinois. Said Garoppolo months ago to Boston media, “(When) I was coming out, I didn’t know anything about agents or the draft so he helped me along the way. Don reached out to me toward the end of my senior year and I went out and visited their place in L.A. They did everything to a T, perfect, and I decided these are my guys.”
Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, out of Kent State, said of Yee to Patriots media, “He is an unbelievable guy. I like to think of him as a little Zen master.”
On Garoppolo, Yee said, “He’s a terrific person, from a very close-knit family. He’s down to Earth. I’m very fortunate to be working with people like Tom and Jimmy and so many others.”
Yee’s mother, who died in 2014, became such a fan of Brady’s that she penned him letters. Knowing very little English, she wrote them in Chinese. Yee had them delivered and translated to Brady. Yee said he’ll share the contents in a book some day, perhaps.
“My mother was very eloquent in her native language, and she had great penmanship, something very pretty to look at. Tom appreciated the letters.”
The life of an agent.