When conjuring up an image of a sports talent agent, the mind might wander to a sharp-tongued individual donning an expensive suit, wheeling deals and barking orders from an expensive downtown high-rise in Los Angeles, Miami or New York.
Think movies and television shows like “Jerry McGuire,” “Ballers,” and “Arliss.”
But, David Walkowiak and Andre Kirwan aim to defy that stereotype. They operate a boutique sports agency firm out of Walkowiak’s law office, off State Road 54 in Lutz.
Walkowiak and Kirwan partnered around 2014 to form DNA Sports Management, a full-service sports agency that primarily works with professional football and hockey players.
Kirwan jokes the firm’s name sometimes gives the impression the duo is in an entirely different line of work — with people frequently asking if it’s a medical tech company.
The DNA moniker takes on multiple meanings.
For one, it ties in the first initial of Dave and Andre.
And, like the biological DNA, the firm asserts the tagline: “With You for Life.”
It also signals the team is available to help their clients even after their athletic career — providing guidance into the public and private sectors.
They’ve helped clients break into coaching and scouting, have written law school recommendations, and have helped another launch a rap career and establish contacts in the music and entertainment industry.
They regularly assist with housing issues, financial literacy, athletic training programs and are just there, sometimes, to lend an ear.
“We stay with these guys, whether they’re making millions of dollars or nothing, because we take this seriously,” Walkowiak says.
Kirwan asserts the firm’s priority is “do the right thing by players and not compromise integrity.”
In essence, Kirwan and Walkowiak are on call 24/7, Kirwan says.
“It’s just a matter of when life happens, so when they need us, they need us,” he says of DNA’s athletic clientele. “We’re taking calls on weekends, on evenings. If they had a bad practice, they’ll call us for a pep talk, so really, we’re family. We tell the parents, ‘We’re an extension of you…’”
DNA Sports started from humble beginnings.
The very first negotiated deal was on behalf of a player for the Triangle Torches, a little-known and now defunct professional indoor football team based out of Raleigh, North Carolina.
It was far from a headline-grabbing, multimillion dollar deal.
League players made around $150 per week and were given a couple food vouchers.
Now, the pair is working with several athletes who’ve gone on to have stints or extended action in both the NFL and CFL.
A new addition to the DNA roster is former USF record-breaking quarterback Quinton Flowers, who plays in the Fan Controlled Football league. Flowers also enjoyed stints with the Cincinnati Bengals (2018), Indianapolis Colts (2019) and XFL’s Tampa Bay Vipers (2020).
Another familiar face is former USF outside linebacker Nigel Harris. The former Hillsborough High standout is now on the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders negotiation list and has previous experience with the Los Angeles Chargers, New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans.
Walkowiak estimates DNA Sports has represented “close to 100 players” since its inception. He acknowledges many initial signings were reaches to have a legitimate shot in the pro football ranks, coming from the Division II and NAIA collegiate football ranks.
With time and experience, the firm now can be more selective with its client list.
“I think we learned a lot in the early years,” Walkowiak says. “We realized it’s not quantity. It’s not that you just sign everybody and hope one sticks, you know, it’s that we want to be a boutique agency, and one that really caters to all the needs.”
The firm has gone global to procure talent, too.
DNA Sports in November tabbed three Russian hockey player prospects to contracts — defenseman Artur Karmashkov, goaltender Ivan Veremchuk, and center Yuri Zholobov, respectively.
Karmashkov and Veremchuk have played in the KHL, the Soviet Union’s equivalent of the NHL, while Zholobov has had action in the Czech Republic’s premier professional leagues.
The signings were made possible with the help of former Tampa Bay Lightning winger Alexander Selivanov, the agency’s Director of European Scouting/European Agent.
Further beefing up its ice hockey portfolio, DNA Sports recently hired Adam Bennett, the No. 6 overall pick in the 1989 NHL Draft, to an advisory role.
Bennett, who bounced around professional leagues for six years, including playing for the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers, will be consulting primarily Florida-based hockey talent, helping them latch on with junior teams, colleges and so on.
The numbers guy
Walkowiak and Kirwan each bring their own set of unique backgrounds and experiences to the sports management firm.
Walkowiak is a self-professed “geek that loves numbers,” and describes himself as “the guy behind the scenes.” He previously worked closely with the Lightning’s former ownership group led by Henry Paul and Phil Esposito, assisting on tasks like arbitration, trades and player contract evaluations.
His career feats include facilitating the trade of then forward Jason Bonsignore and handling the arbitration case of then goaltender Daren Puppa.
On negotiating player contracts, Walkowiak calls the process “very similar to doing a comparative market analysis in real estate.”
With a passion for sports growing up and hockey in particular, Walkowiak “always wanted to be an agent.”
A practicing attorney since 1997 who specializes in real estate law, circuit civil and family law, Walkowiak figured he’d revisit this dream knowing pro athletes have landed larger and larger deals in recent years.
The tipping point came when Colorado Avalanche forward Gabriel Landeskog in 2013 signed a seven-year contract extension worth $39 million.
The report piqued Walkowiak’s interest.
Someone he never heard of was now “making Wayne Gretzky money,” he said, referring to arguably the greatest hockey player of all time, who retired in 1999.
“For a period of about 15 years, to go from the greatest player that ever played the game, to almost the same amount of money for a guy that I had never heard of,” Walkowiak says. “I wanted to revisit that.”
Kirwan, meanwhile, takes on more of the role of relationship-builder and athlete mentor. He often reminds clients and others to “stay humble, stay hungry and prayed up.”
Kirwan was a decorated athlete in his own right. He played nearly nine seasons with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, where he won a Grey Cup Championship as a starting wide receiver in 1997. He even had an NFL training camp stint with the San Francisco 49ers after graduating from Stanford University.
Kirwan understands the importance of an agent being forthcoming, and transparent, with athletes.
He once had to fire an agent from a high-profile firm for lying to him about sending his highlight film to NFL teams who’d expressed interest at the height of his CFL career. It could’ve been what Kirwan needed to break into the NFL at the time.
Kirwan often ponders if he would have been better served by a smaller, more personable firm like DNA Sports.
“I’ve sat on both sides of the table now.
“The No. 1 question I’d always ask an agent when I was interviewing them was, ‘Who else do you represent?’ and a lot of times you go for the shiniest objects, the biggest names and that’s what I ended up doing,” Kirwan explains.
“In essence, I should’ve gone to a boutique firm like us that really fought for my cause. Having had to fire an agent for lying to me, it’s even that more personal to me to do what we say we’re going to do,” he said, noting athletes are placing their futures in the firm’s hands.
So, what does the future holds for DNA Sports?
Perhaps the firm will venture into additional professional sports, such as basketball, soccer or track and field.
“We’re not opposed to branching out,” Kirwan says, but, “we don’t want to be a jack-of-all trades and a master of none.”
Whatever path they take, Kirwan and Walkowiak are bullish on the agency’s future prospects.
“It’s just a matter of time before we start having those first-rounders, those second-rounders,” Kirwan says, referring to top-flight NFL Draft prospects.
Says Walkowiak: “We’re excited. We have a lot going on. We’ve picked up quite a bit of traction lately.”
For information on DNA Sports Management, visit DNASportsManagement.com, email , or call 813-962-3176.
Published February 24, 2021