Friday, April 20, 2018

TROPHY CASES

Inside, past the hedge trimmers and the chainsaws for sale on the sidewalk, beyond the movie boxes and hand tools on the shelves, kept separate from the wedding bands and high-dollar sneakers in the showcase, the symbols of championships and career highlights are waiting to be sold.

Don Budd looks through the iron bars near the checkout counter of Central Pawn, waving a visitor through a door and past the vault and up the stairs. "No names," says the owner of the shop in Kansas City, Kan., a reminder of an important part of his business model. He enters his office and motions toward a counter, where the Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl XXIX sits.

For more than two decades, Budd has built an unlikely network. Stories about broke athletes are common, former millionaires somehow growing desperate to make ends meet. When all else is lost, often a championship ring — from a bowl game, a Final Four or even a Super Bowl — is the last, precious thing to go. When that time comes, it's frequently Budd's phone that rings.

"It's kind of my thing," said Budd, 54. "You're standing at the counter and people are pawning microwaves and drills, and here comes a Super Bowl ring."

Since opening his store in 1988, Budd says, he has owned around 3,000 rings and estimates he possesses "several hundred" of them now. But why here, of all places? Central Pawn sits on an unremarkable street corner, next to a liquor store and a boutique, in a forgotten part of Kansas City.

Budd offers loans, sure, but more valuable to athletes is his promise to keep the transaction anonymous — an offer auction houses and websites cannot make. Even now, he reveals only the names of a few "customers," he calls them, who have died; he keeps most everything else — names, prices, how he came to possess such priceless wares — to himself. Even after a sale, Budd says, the buyer must sign a legally binding confidentiality agreement.

This is Budd's business, one of the few parts of Central Pawn he hasn't handed off to his son, Don III. He is serious about it. It is his code. The former athletes respect that. So they come to him. "They have a comfort level dealing with a person," Budd said, "and that person happens to be me."

In recent years, famous athletes such as Warren Sapp, Antoine Walker and Mike Tyson depleted vast fortunes through poor money management, bad investments and failed marriages. Whatever the reasons they walk through the door, Budd usually is offered the stories with the rings. He has come to believe it's the shock of the transition to normal life that leads them here. After the spotlight fades and the contracts expire, some keep spending like the millions are still flowing. "They don't quite grasp what the real world is," Budd said, "until it hits them in the face."

A few years after Budd bought the old bank building, the vault door already in place, former Oakland Raiders cornerback Skip Thomas walked in with his hands full. Thomas, who lived nearby, had fallen on hard times, and he was ready to unload a few prized possessions. They included a trophy the city of Oakland, Calif., presented to each starter in Super Bowl XI, along with Thomas' ring from that game: small diamonds forming the shape of a football with a larger diamond in the center, the sides adorned with Thomas's name and position, along with the words "Pride" and "Poise."

Thomas died in 2011, which is why Budd discusses him. He still won't reveal how much money changed hand.

"He didn't really want to do it but had to," said Brandon Thomas, a son of the late defensive back. "The situations were pretty tough on him, and he was left with no other choice."

Budd, understanding the meaning of the mementos, loaned Thomas the money and offered an extended period to reclaim his goods. A loan for an everyday item must be repaid with interest within 90 days, he says; athletes have closer to six months before their treasure is marked for sale. Budd says he wants to give the customer every chance to reclaim his memento.

Thomas, pleased with the process and Budd's discretion, later shared his secret with other financially strapped athletes, and soon they made their way to the corner. Budd says the late Lyle Alzado and John Matuszak, both former Raiders defensive ends, pawned their Super Bowl rings.

If a ring's payback time lapses, Budd finds his waiting list — there's a higher demand, he says, for Raiders gear, followed by that of the New York Jets and Green Bay Packers — and calls, in order, each buyer who requested a ring from a specific team and year. The customer must commit to buy immediately, or Budd calls the next person in line.

If he makes a sale, the sides move on to the legal part of the discussion — and, most important, the vow of secrecy.

Budd says an Oscar, a Grammy and two Heisman Trophies have found their way to his store, along with that Lombardi Trophy. He claims it is the same one Steve Young hoisted after San Francisco defeated the San Diego Chargers in January 1995, and it looks and feels real enough. Budd says he acquired it years ago, after former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. was involved in a series of legal battles.

A 49ers spokesman says a Lombardi Trophy sits in the lobby of the team's headquarters, adding he's uncertain whether it's the original or a reissued version. Budd says he doesn't expect to sell his version — though he would take $100,000 for it, he says — and, besides, he likes tossing it in a gym bag every February and bringing it out at friends' Super Bowl parties.

As for the rings, Budd keeps the most valuable of them in safety deposit boxes, years after thieves read a story about the collection and jackhammered through the store's north wall, assuming he kept the rings in the showcase. Instead, they were locked in the vault.

It's his way to protect himself and his goods, and Budd says some athletes are looking toward the future now, too. Gone, he believes, are the days of romanticizing a championship ring. "The way guys look at it now: 'That's part of my 401(k),' " he says. "It's all dollars. It's not really, 'I worked my (tail) off, and here's this ring.' "

When that time comes, he says, his phone will be on and the front door unlocked for whomever might walk in. "A lot of these guys," he says, "if they mention my name, they might not have met me yet. But they know my name."

 
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