May 28, 2010
After about five months in New York City, Brian Cleek was beginning to feel a little dejected. And he’s not a guy who easily gets that way.
When he was a WVU student, he’d dreamed of living in New York, but it wasn’t turning out the way he’d planned. Full of optimism and with a brand new diploma, he’d moved to the city eight days after his December 2001 graduation from WVU’s College of Business and Economics.
Months later, he was sleeping on a fraternity brother’s couch in Queens, taking the subway every day to 42nd Street and 6th Avenue to sell insurance. He was working on commission and living on a fast-dwindling advance from the company.
But some days, he’d stand among the crowd in Times Square, only a few blocks from where he worked, staring at the skyline, planning for success. “It’s the most energetic place on the planet, and every day I saw success in every suit on the street walking by. It was pulsating, and I knew that the risk was worth it. The chances you don’t take are the ones you always regret. I have lived by that creed.”
He hung on, watching people on the other side of the divide—those who had made it—and planning for his time. “I didn’t make my first insurance sale until six months into the job. I’d been cold calling the whole planet to sell insurance, not knowing anyone, which made it difficult. I was persistent when there was nothing to be persistent about.”
Then, it happened: The National Football League and the first rung on his personal ladder to triumph.
At some point, he realized that selling insurance was a dead end for him. “I was drowning,” he remembers. So, he started targeting his calls at sports league offices, dialing every New York sports office number he could find on the Internet. His ploy was to get a foot in the door pitching life insurance, then with a sports executive on the other end of the line, to hook up for a job.
“My motive was to get them to know me,” he remembers. “One night, I got through to Derrick Crawford, a lawyer with the NFL whose secretary didn’t answer because it was so late. We hit it off. He’s from the South, and I’m from southern West Virginia, so I told him my story. He invited me in.”
Résumé tucked in his back pocket, Cleek headed for the NFL office on Park Avenue.
Working late isn’t anything unusual for an NFL lawyer, Crawford said. “In-house sports lawyers work long hours, but it doesn’t seem like work because we are all huge football fans, and it’s something you love and enjoy.”
And he always answers his phone. So when Cleek called, Crawford listened to his insurance sales pitch. “I was going to listen for a certain period of time, but then he started talking about what a passion he has for sports. There was something in the conversation I liked: I could tell that he was young, but he had a level of confidence you don’t often see in someone his age, although he wasn’t cocky or arrogant. We had a lot in common – we’re both from small towns, with small-town values, and his father is a lawyer, too, so we kind of bonded.”
When Cleek asked Crawford if he could come and meet him at the NFL offices, Cleek was in luck.
“I don’t meet with people generally when it’s football season. But it was the off-season, and he just asked for 15 to 20 minutes. Sure, I had a few minutes to spare; anyone has that,” said Crawford, who is now the chief diversity officer at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.
Cleek won Crawford over during that meeting at the NFL office, and the lawyer sent Cleek’s resume to Mark Donovan, then the NFL's senior director of sales and marketing who is now executive vice president and COO with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Within three weeks, Cleek was working for the NFL. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen that fast in the NFL. Usually it takes a lot longer,” Crawford said. “But, you know, you get a feeling about people, and my instincts are rarely wrong. I knew he would be successful.”
Today, the two are fast friends.
Another good friend is Susan Robison, assistant director of the Center for Career Development at WVU’s College of Business and Economics. She helped Cleek get an internship at the White House during the summer before his senior year, where he managed travel fund accounts during the Clinton administration. He was popular at that post, too. In fact, he was offered a full-time job and he stayed on through the fall, until the Democrats lost the election amid hanging chads and Supreme Court challenges. “Had Al Gore won that election, I may not have returned to school to finish my senior year,” Cleek recalls.
Robinson remembers Cleek as someone who was “not going to be stopped from succeeding in life.” “He makes a good impression on everyone,” she said. “He has come back to talk to students here at the College, and he has a lot of influence on them. And every time he has another opportunity open for him, it doesn’t change him. He’s still Brian.”
Cleek’s advice to current students is that they should get to know their professors and advisors. “Some students think professors are the ‘evil empire’ and that advisors are an annoyance,” he said. “But they aren’t. They are key to your future. Take them to lunch or go grab a coffee with them. Time spent with them like this will be even more valuable than class time.”
For students entering the job market, Cleek said they should take a non-traditional approach to job hunting. “Those who are hiring are looking for one out of 100: You need to write letters. Don’t rely on e-mail. Writing an actual letter will get someone’s attention. There are so many ways to do things differently. Nothing is better than an in-person meeting--sitting in front of someone and earning his trust and telling him what you want to do. That will make people remember you.”
It’s a formula that worked for Brian Cleek, anyway, who started his first day with the Harlem Globetrotters on June 14.
‘When I was 20 years old and a full-time employee at the White House—I knew I had to make it big and make it fast,” he said. “Sure, I had plenty of second thoughts. I missed West Virginia and my family. But I knew my future was in NYC, and that I would make a name for myself in this big city.”