Last Monday at 2:15 p.m., Louis Delmas pulled his Maserati up to Miami Squeeze, a roadside deli and smoothie bar with outdoor seating that’s painted in shades of coral and aqua. The former Lions safety, now a free agent, lounged in those chairs for a few hours with Rosenhaus Marketing boss Robert Bailey, discussing the pros and cons of Delmas’ only current offer.
The Dolphins wanted him, and agent Drew Rosenhaus was somewhere in the city working his smartphone and negotiating a deal for Delmas, a two-time Pro Bowler who’d spent his college and professional careers in Michigan, first in Kalamazoo at Western Michigan and then in Detroit.
The Saints and Steelers had flown him out for visits, but he left without offers. Making the free-agent rounds was something like getting recruited or drafted all over again, minus the mystery. “You pretty much know what they think of you,” Delmas says.
The Dolphins had shown interest early and scheduled a visit for the weekend of March 1. It was Delmas’ final stop before free agency opened at 4 p.m. last Tuesday. Getting to the Dolphins’ facility was easy enough—Delmas was born in Florida and has a home 15 minutes away from the team’s facility.
He lived in Sarasota until he was 10 years old, when his parents fled a police investigation into his mother’s alleged cocaine dealings. He eventually moved in with high school teammate E.J. Biggers, whose family became his surrogate family. They’re still in Miami (even though E.J. plays in Washington) and Delmas’ agent is based in Miami, too. But Delmas didn’t want to make a decision based on those factors alone.
“It’s every child’s dream to play in front of your family,” Delmas says, “but it’s not like you can just decide on that.”
At 3 p.m., Drew Rosenhaus and his business partner/brother, Jason, arrived at the North Miami Beach restaurant and reported that they had a deal that was 90% done. Fighting a cold, Delmas finished his spicy chicken wrap with spinach at 4, just as Miami’s first-year general manager Dennis Hickey called with a final offer. He said they needed an answer by 6, and Delmas told him, “You’ll know before then.”
Delmas had two hours to reflect. Drew Rosenhaus likes this routine; he prefers players wait out negotiations and consider their options on a beach or in an empty restaurant rather than at a cramped office. Delmas had been joined by his high school coach earlier in the day in Rosenhaus’ office, and despite his current entourage, he was now alone with his thoughts. On the restaurant patio, Delmas replayed in his mind his visit with the Dolphins, which felt more like a daylong pep rally.
“I talked to everybody from the head coach, to the GM, to the lady at the front desk, to the defensive coordinator, to the strength coach,” Delmas says. “Basically, they didn’t really ask me questions—they just told me about myself. They told me how much of a high-powered player I am; how explosive I am; how much I love the game. And I do love the game—the power, the physical aspect of it. They think I can bring the guys around me together.”
That last bit, about bringing the Dolphins together, is the top priority in Miami. Following the bullying saga, which led to the departures of offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, Hickey is keeping an eye on character and chemistry as much as he is analyzing knee ligaments and game film. Delmas was an emotional leader on an underachieving Lions team that missed the playoffs in 2013. He played every game despite missing significant practice time with knee troubles, had three interceptions and finished the season ranked as the NFL’s 11th-best safety in pass coverage by Pro Football Focus.
The 26-year-old was given a physical to gauge the health of those knees, which have both required surgery in the past. They forced him to miss eight games in 2012, and after that season, he thought he was done in Detroit. “Maybe you’ve had this moment, where you walk into your house and for some reason you feel like it’s not your home,” Delmas says. “That’s how I felt after 2012. Last year I had that feeling, and if you think about something hard enough you’re going to get the answer to it. Which is now.”
The Lions cut him when his two-year deal worth nearly $9.5 million hit the halfway mark, and Delmas couldn’t get more than a one-year offer from Miami. That troubled him. While Rosenhaus and others fiddled with their phones and computers at the table, Delmas first bowed his head before swinging it backward and looking up at the sky with closed eyes.
“He just zoned out for a bit,” Bailey says. “The level of nerves is like waiting to go in and take a test. It’s not waiting on the grade, it’s waiting to go take the test.”
Of course, this test was multiple choice: Take a deal from the club that wants you now, or wait for the safety market to pan out and hope a desperate team comes calling with more years and more money. With no wife or kids, it wouldn’t be a huge deal to leave South Florida and establish himself in a new city. But there was no telling how the draft would affect team needs at safety across the league, and besides, Miami was the first to show interest and the general manager made him feel at home.
“He didn’t make it seem like it was a job, or even an important situation,” Delmas says of Hickey. “He made it seem like I was sitting in my own living room, and we played football for fun. Honestly, getting a longer deal is everybody’s goal. If I could sign a four-year I would sign a four-year. But I’m going to be playing this game for the next five years, so one year doesn’t determine the next five years.”
For nearly two hours, Delmas meditated and mulled his options. Bailey says he must have asked Drew Rosenhaus to repeat the terms four or five times: One year, a maximum of $3.5 million. Delmas, the 33rd pick in the 2009 draft and a Pro Bowler in each of the next two seasons, finally came to a conclusion.
“They seemed to support me the most and they cared the most,” he says, “and they didn’t let the medical determine my worth as a football player. They gave me a chance to prove myself once again.”
They called Hickey at 5:50 p.m. and put him on speakerphone, 10 minutes before the Dolphins’ deadline.
“We accept the deal,” Delmas said.
Then he sat in his car, alone, and prayed.