Who is David Mulugheta? How 36-Year-Old Son of Eritrean Immigrants is ‘Changing the Trajectory’ for NFL agents
AUSTIN, Texas June 11, 2019 – David Mulugheta remembers his first reaction: You guys are out of your mind.
Safeties Earl Thomas and Landon Collins group-texted their agent on May 9, telling him to look outside. Mulugheta opened the front door of his home to find a gleaming, black 2019 Mercedes G Wagon parked at his curb, a bright red bow fastened to its hood.
Mulugheta texted a picture to Jaguars Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey, another client.
“No way that’s yours,” Ramsey told USA TODAY Sports he responded. Mulugheta FaceTimed Ramsey to prove it. Then he wondered how one goes about sending back a car.
The scene, if not the present itself, was typical for Mulugheta and the players he represents, none of whom see the price tag as the message of this story. They instead look at the gratitude, the group texts and the knowledge that, yes, Mulugheta still stubbornly drives the Chrysler 300 he bought in college, using it to take his 3- and 5-year-old sons to jiujitsu and then to Target for red-and-blue slushies. Even having that car marks a stark shift for Mulugheta from when he was was 3 years old, buckled into the passenger seat of the taxi his father drove because his family couldn’t afford a babysitter. That was a time when the Mulughetas had “sleep for dinner.” As in, go to sleep: There is no dinner tonight.
Ravens safety Earl Thomas, agent David Mulugheta and Jamaal Charles, recently retired running back.
Now the 36-year-old son of Eritrean immigrants has negotiated NFL contracts for some of the league’s biggest names. He has represented at least one first-round selection for seven straight years. In April, Dwayne Haskins became his second quarterback in the last three years to be drafted in the top 15 (the Texans took Deshaun Watson 12th overall in 2017).
Mulugheta, now an equity partner at Athletes First, still receives questions about whether that “young black kid” actually negotiates his players’ contracts. Record deals this spring – like Collins’ six-year, $84 million agreement with the Redskins that made him the highest-paid safety in the league and Thomas’ four-year, $55 million pact with the Ravens – quiet some of those doubts. Mulugheta is not the first black NFL agent to rise to prominence. But he’s proud that in a predominantly white industry, his example shows minorities “someone who looks like them [can] do it and do it successfully,” he said. At least one fellow black agent agrees.
“The norm is not going to work anymore,” Young Money Sports agent Nicole Lynn told USA TODAY Sports. “David came into this business wearing his Jordans with his fitted tee and Gucci jacket. It’s changing the trajectory of what it looks like to be an agent.”
David Mulugheta (left) helped safety Earl Thomas land a four-year, $55 million contract from the Ravens this offseason.
An unexpected path
Mulugheta didn’t intend to become an NFL agent. Growing up, he didn’t play football much less know what a sports agent was. He wanted to be an entrepreneur or pursue corporate law.
“When kids see someone who looks like them in these roles, they think ‘OK, that’s something I might be able to do,’” Mulugheta said. “I never saw anybody that looked like me that was an agent.”
But when Mulugheta visited his best friend Jamaal Charles ahead of the 2007 draft, the Texas running back’s agent, Andrew Kessler, saw a 24-year-old he considered bright, loyal and authentic.
“Any good adjective you could think of for an agent,” Kessler told USA TODAY Sports. “That really nice balance between someone who you really enjoying being around and also have a lot of respect for.”
Kessler invited Mulugheta to intern with Athletes First that summer, ahead of Mulugheta’s first year of law school. Mulugheta joined the agency full time after graduating from Nebraska. Building his clientele, Mulugheta relied on the values instilled in him at home. His parents “had to work 10 times harder just to get to a place of sustainability,” Mulugheta said. Neither one graduated high school, but both demanded academic excellence from their children. Their three sons each earned a bachelor’s, plus a collective two law degrees and MBA. Their daughter, the youngest, graduated from Harvard and has deferred acceptance to Stanford’s MBA program.
Along with Mulugheta, each of his siblings met the high academic expectations set by their household and received the education that their parents had always envisioned.
His older and younger brothers earned an MBA and J.D., respectively, each from Southern Methodist University (SMU); while his sister attended Harvard University, which led to a unique opportunity.
In the midst of her undergraduate studies, Mulugheta’s sister took a year and a half leave of absence to work for President Barack Obama’s administration at the White House. As both her service and the Obama presidency concluded, the family was invited to take a photo with the 44th President.
“Everybody’s proud of each other,” Mulugheta said, “but it’s expected.”
Mulugheta treats his high-achieving players – 11 Pro Bowlers, 11 first-round selections since 2013 – the same. Who wants to be on vacation with seven Pro Bowlers when you’re not one, they ask themselves. Collins describes the dynamic as a friendly competition, uplifting peers even as they suit up for different teams. He feels mixed emotions when a fellow Mulugheta client thrives against him.
“Say Earl catch a pick against me or my team or something,” Collins said. “I’m like, ‘Damn, that boy done throw that pick.’ But I’m happy for [Thomas] because he got a pick. Now I got to go out there and do the same thing or get a turnover. Do something crazy.
“We really try to outdo each other. Because if we outdo each other, we definitely know we’re putting it out there.”
‘At the end of the day, right is right’
Off the field, Mulugheta and his players team up. Take April, when Jaguars executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin publicly criticized Ramsey for not attending voluntary workouts. Ramsey was training in Nashville, his hometown, while spending time with his pregnant girlfriend and their under-1-year-old daughter. Ramsey and Mulugheta game-planned a response over FaceTime. Their conclusion: Perception is reality. If the team takes a matter public, so will we. No need to idle while a team official spins a narrative.
“At the end of the day, right is right,” Mulugheta said. “If I think someone’s attacking one of my guys unfairly, then I’m not afraid to speak out about it and hold them accountable.”
Mulugheta tweeted clarifying that the Jaguars knew where Ramsey was and why. Ramsey added that he didn’t “HAVE to be there BUT they know the EXACT REASONS I am not. My teammates know it’s ALL love and know I’ll be ready when it’s time.”