USA TODAY International Edition

‘ We are making headway’

Lynn aimed to do what few Black agents had done in recent years: Represent an NFL player who is white. In Zappe, she found a QB on the rise – and a friend.

- Jori Epstein

“I was so emotional, because it was beyond me. It felt like a barrier was broken for a lot of people … like, ‘ Oh my gosh, we are making headway here. We are doing this.’ ”

Agent Nicole Lynn

Bailey Zappe thought he was done crying. Then he FaceTimed his agent, Nicole Lynn. Tears again welled in the eyes of the quarterbac­k the New England Patriots had just selected in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL draft.

“Don’t start crying, I’m going to start crying,” Zappe told her as he dabbed at the fresh round of tears.

The duo was overjoyed, of course, that a Victoria, Texas, product whom recruiting services awarded zero stars out of high school had now surpassed NFL pundits’ draft expectatio­ns even in an atypically rough year for quarterbac­ks.

But that wasn’t the only reason Lynn was overcome. “I was so emotional, because it was beyond me,” Lynn told USA TODAY Sports. “It felt like a barrier was broken for a lot of people … like, ‘ Oh my gosh, we are making headway here. We are doing this.’ ”

Because for the first time in seven years since she began representi­ng NFL players, Lynn had finally guided to draft weekend a client who is white. She’d become just the second Black agent – and first Black woman – in that stretch to solely represent a white quarterbac­k in the draft, a USA TODAY analysis found. ( Since 2015, 88 passers have been selected.) And she had exceeded her and Zappe’s expectatio­ns.

So as the Patriots selected Zappe with the 137th overall pick, Lynn finally allowed pride to overtake months of impostor syndrome. She hadn’t let down Zappe, herself or minority agents.

“The margin for error is very tight, right?” NFL agent David Mulugheta, who is Black and negotiated the most lucrative fully guaranteed contract in NFL history ( on behalf of Deshaun Watson), told USA TODAY Sports. “Even if it’s not her fault, if it doesn’t go as planned, unfortunat­ely it could become a stereotype.”

While determinin­g precise data on the racial makeup of agent- player combinatio­ns through the years is difficult, white NFL players – and particular­ly white quarterbac­ks – have hired Black agents so sparingly that the mention of its occurrence prompts several league insiders to recall renowned agent Eugene Parker representi­ng Rex Grossman, who is white, in the 2003 draft.

A USA TODAY analysis of NFLPA data on 62 quarterbac­ks who started at least one NFL game in 2021 found none of the 43 white quarterbac­ks was represente­d by only a Black agent. ( One of those white passers did hire a Black agent as part of a group of multiple representa­tives.) Nine of the 62 quarterbac­ks opted to bring on Black representa­tion at all, while Lamar Jackson and Jacoby Brissett represent themselves.

Zappe wasn’t aware of that landscape when he hired Lynn, but she understood how historical­ly unusual his choice was.

“Cool and rare,” Mulugheta said. “He’s amongst rare air, for sure.”

The hurdle

When Lynn received her NFLPA certification in 2015, she set her first major goal: represent a first- round draft pick. After the New York Jets drafted her client Quinnen Williams third overall in 2019, Lynn homed in on her next goal: represent a quarterbac­k in the draft. The Philadelph­ia Eagles selected her client Jalen Hurts in the second round two years ago.

Goal 3: Represent a player who is white.

“I really felt like we have all these racial divides in the NFL, whether it’s players or the actual NFL, and we’ve got to find a way for representa­tion to really have an equal footing and seat at the table,” said Lynn, who also serves as Klutch Sports Group’s president of football operations. “That first step is getting white players to trust minority agents.”

For years though, Lynn said she “couldn’t get in the room” – even for an initial interview – with white clients and their families.

Then a serendipit­ous series of events began unfolding Sept. 12, 2020, when Football Championsh­ip Subdivisio­n program Houston Baptist University played at Texas Tech. Lynn attended the game while supporting her husband, Gabe, who coaches Houston Baptist defensive backs. Zappe, in his fourth year as HBU’s quarterbac­k, rose to the occasion against the Big 12’ s Red Raiders, completing 30 of 49 passes for 567 yards and four touchdowns.

Houston Baptist lost 35- 33 despite being a 41 1⁄ 2- point underdog. Lynn wondered: Who was this guy slinging it?

She messaged Jim Nagy, executive director of the Senior Bowl. He hadn’t heard of Zappe.

“She put him on the radar, there’s no doubt about that,” Nagy told USA TODAY Sports.

Lynn said she didn’t formally recruit Zappe during his COVID- 19- shortened, four- game season. But they exchanged contact informatio­n so she could answer the family’s questions. Zappe asked Lynn’s advice on whether to declare for the 2021 NFL draft or capitalize on the COVID- 19- permitted fifth year of eligibilit­y. He said some agents had advised that his stock would hover in the Round 7 to priority free agent realm regardless. Lynn believed another season of exposure could open doors.

“She was the one who bluntly told me, ‘ No, you need to stay,’ ” Zappe told USA TODAY Sports. “Basically, ‘ You’re not good enough to go this year, so you need to stay one more year.’ ”

Transferri­ng to Western Kentucky to rejoin Houston Baptist offensive coordinato­r Zach Kittley, Zappe erupted: He passed for 5,967 yards to break an 18year- old NCAA record. Zappe’s 62 touchdowns in 14 games also broke the record of 60 ( in 15 games) that Heisman Trophy- winner Joe Burrow had set at LSU before the Cincinnati Bengals drafted him first overall in 2020. And in games against the Big Ten’s Indiana and No. 17 Michigan State, Zappe tossed six touchdowns to no intercepti­ons while completing more than 70% of his passes in each performanc­e.

Lynn began formally recruiting him. “She’d been trustworth­y, someone I could trust and talk to about the whole process, and she was really upfront with me about what she knew,” Zappe said. “It does not matter gender or color, nothing. It just depends how you do what you do.

“Everyone knows Nicole is one of the best in the entire profession.”

He called when she was celebratin­g her birthday and gave a verbal commitment. The opportunit­y made Lynn “feel like I could do anything,” she said. “A hurdle removed.”

She didn’t tell Zappe that. She instead told him what she was determined to prove: “I won’t let you down.”

‘ We just connect’

Even as her excitement built, Lynn wondered: Would she and Zappe have anything in common? She was a Black woman who grew up in city life in Oklahoma; he was a white man raised on hunting and fishing in rural Texas. She loved books and had written one; Zappe said he rarely reads. Could her Beyoncé vibes square with his love of George Strait?

“We couldn’t be more different,” Lynn said. “But I get him the way I get Jalen Hurts. I know this kid really well and we just connect. It’s so regular and so natural.”

They strategize­d the pre- draft process when Zappe interviewe­d with all 32 NFL teams at the Senior Bowl in February. More than half the clubs invited him for interviews at the scouting combine in March and again ahead of his pro day. Arm strength concerns would be addressed with 13 deep balls on Zappe’s 56- throw pro day script. Questions about the Air Raid offense’s relatively simplistic verbiage could be dispelled with recall of specific plays – like the 13yard touchdown Zappe completed in a 42- 21 win against Rice on a play called “Blue Rug Z Quick Pop Lakers Toss Fox 95 H F Wheel.”

And as Zappe answered teams’ questions, Lynn answered his on “everything known to man,” he said – including fashion. Zappe was Lynn’s first client to ask whether pants and cowboy boots qualified as appropriat­e business- casual attire for his visit to the Carolina Panthers. A team rep confirmed: They do.

By draft weekend, Lynn and Zappe had learned much about each other. They could talk about TV shows and cooking and life for hours, as they did the night before pro day. And their optimism grew, Lynn guessing Zappe would go in the fifth round. But he knew how capricious the draft could be.

“Seahawks and Cowboys had me going undrafted,” he told his family in a scene captured by NFL Films’ “Hey Rookie, Welcome to the NFL” crew. “Patriots and Browns had me going like fourth.”

Moment of reckoning

When the draft finally began April 28, Zappe encountere­d a new roadblock. For the first time in 21 years, only one quarterbac­k – first- rounder Kenny Pickett of the Pittsburgh Steelers – was selected by the end of Round 2, pushing down several passers who were expected to be taken ahead of Zappe.

Lynn began to worry: Would her client even get drafted? If he didn’t, would their results impact minority agents recruiting white clients in the future?

“One shot with a white kid,” she said. “I had this extra pressure of every Black agent and felt like, ‘ If I mess this up, that’s it for everybody.’ ”

Entering the final day of the draft, three more quarterbac­ks had left the board. Four down, two to go, according to what some teams had told Lynn and Zappe about their position rankings. So when the Patriots called to tell her they were drafting her client, she asked: Which one?

Meanwhile, at his home, Zappe had estimated he was safe to use the restroom with the Kansas City Chiefs, Bengals and Patriots coming on the clock. Why would teams that had recently invested first- round picks in starting quarterbac­ks prioritize one this early? In the hallway, his phone rang.

“I’m going to give the phone to Coach Belichick,” a voice came through, “and he’s going to give you the news.”

Lynn was already ringing Bailey’s father’s phone in the living room. “Patriots!” she screamed. “Let’s go!” “Thank you so much, Nicole,” Michael Zappe responded.

Zappe became just the third white quarterbac­k to be represente­d solely by a Black agent in that stretch, a USA TODAY analysis of the 88 quarterbac­ks drafted since 2015 found.

Lynn drove two hours to Victoria to celebrate with the Zappes.

“To have her there, have her meet my whole family and kind of show everybody like – yeah, she’s a badass,” Bailey said, apologizin­g for his language.

“It’s awesome. She fit right in.”

‘ Make it the norm’

Zappe and Lynn are still soaking in what they call his “surreal” draft fortune.

He heads to New England this weekend for rookie minicamp, then OTAs, eager to learn from fellow Patriots quarterbac­ks Mac Jones, a first- rounder last year, Jarrett Stidham and veteran Brian Hoyer.

“You put on the film of Bailey Zappe, and it’s hard not to like him,” Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh said. “It’s going to be up to him to carve out what role that is initially, and then going forward.”

And, going forward, Lynn, Mulugheta and others hope Zappe’s experience will lead more young white quarterbac­ks to consider hiring Black agents.

“I don’t think it’s one magical thing that’s going to happen that does it,” Mulugheta said. “Just doing good work, continue that and make it the norm.”

He lauded the Zappes for “being open- minded and willing to sit down and talk to people that others may think would be outside of his normal comfort zone.”

Bailey Zappe is glad he did.

“In a profession that has a barrier, that needed to be knocked down and overcome,” he said. “You don’t judge a person by the way they look or what color they are. It just matters the way they treat you.

“Whether she’s from Oklahoma and I’m from Texas, she’s bougie and I’m not bougie, I go hunting and fishing and she’s never done that — just to have different background­s, to kind of learn from each other and learn different sides of how ( we) grew up was awesome to learn someone else’s different viewpoint of life.

“No matter who you are, anybody can be friends. And we’re friends. I could never be more thankful for having her as my agent.”

 ?? ILLUSTRATI­ON BY JAKE LOVETT/ USA TODAY NETWORK, WITH COURTESY AND USA TODAY SPORTS PHOTOS ?? ABOVE: Nicole Lynn and Bailey Zappe celebrate the Western Kentucky quarterbac­k being selected in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL draft by the New England Patriots.
ILLUSTRATI­ON BY JAKE LOVETT/ USA TODAY NETWORK, WITH COURTESY AND USA TODAY SPORTS PHOTOS ABOVE: Nicole Lynn and Bailey Zappe celebrate the Western Kentucky quarterbac­k being selected in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL draft by the New England Patriots.
 ?? NICOLE LYNN ?? In signing Bailey Zappe, Nicole Lynn achieved one of the goals she set for herself and formed a rare partnershi­p.
NICOLE LYNN In signing Bailey Zappe, Nicole Lynn achieved one of the goals she set for herself and formed a rare partnershi­p.

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