I spent nine wonderful seasons in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers and Jacksonville Jaguars until retiring with a knee injury in 2000. I have spent the past twelve years re-defining myself as an entrepreneur, husband, father, friend, brother, son, athlete, and philanthropist. This transition has challenged me financially, emotionally, socially, intellectually, physically, and spiritually. I freely admit that I struggled with it for a long time and, truth be told, even after twelve years, I still struggle from time to time.
During this time I have watched literally hundreds of my former teammates and opponents go through the same transition. Some have handled it very well…but most have not. Below is a list of the most common mistakes I have witnessed over the years, some of which I have made myself:
- Failing to Plan
My good friend and longtime coach Dick Jauron always said, “Nobody plans to fail, they simply fail to plan.” The NFL offers the opportunity to live a fabulous lifestyle…but it is always temporary. Even the most talented of us will be good enough to play for fifteen years, and then leave the game in our mid-30s. You need to start planning for the 60+ years you will spend after the NFL on Draft Day.
- Failing to Complete a College Degree
As an employer I know firsthand that in today’s global economy, a Bachelor’s degree is now the absolute bare minimum requirement for consideration for any white collar job. Having your degree in hand demonstrates to potential employers, business partners, and investors that you took your education seriously, were committed to achieving your goals, and that you have acquired a respectable level of intellectual competency. Find a way to finish your degree.
- Unrealistic Expectations for Post-NFL Employment/Business Opportunities
Many of my teammates would talk in the locker room about the dozens of high paying jobs that would be waiting for them once they retired from the NFL. “I played in the League for 10 years…who wouldn’t want to hire me?” The cold hard truth is that playing in the NFL does very little to prepare you for a career in the real world. We gain little to no training or experience in marketing, accounting, finance, sales, management, technology, or any other key element required for a company to be successful. One former NFL player was told by a potential employer: “To put it bluntly, you have no transferrable skills.” Ouch. But that is reality. Take full advantage of the networking opportunities the NFL affords you while you are playing, but always manage your expectations. The truth is most of us will likely need to learn to provide for ourselves.
- Trusting the Wrong People
As NFL players, we tend to be leery of outsiders. But we also tend to be too trusting of people within our circle…family members, friends, teammates, agents, etc. Just because you know someone well enough to trust them does not mean they have the expertise required to advise you or manage your affairs. Far too many NFL players have been burned by very well-meaning, good-hearted, and trustworthy people who simply were not qualified to give proper advice. Surround yourself with qualified and experienced advisors in finance, taxes, legal matters, business, real estate, or whatever you are involved in. And never, ever hire anyone who is not legally obligated to uphold the fiduciary standard.
- Inadequate Cash Reserves
Most players drastically under-estimate the amount of time it will take from the time they leave the NFL until the time they have secured a steady income stream that will sustain their lifestyles. Players typically burn through their severance in the first year and then start depleting their savings/investments while they try to establish themselves in the business world. Plan for the worst case scenario and aim to pleasantly surprise yourself.
- Assuming Debt
I never understood how or why banks routinely approve NFL players for thirty year mortgages when their average career lasts just over three years. Even with today’s tightened regulations, banks are eager to lend money to NFL players for not only houses, but for cars, boats, jewelry, businesses, and investment real estate. Do not burden yourself with any debt unless you have a reasonable expectation of a sustainable income stream either from your investments, your business, or your occupation. And even then, do so with caution. Always remember that it is impossible to go bankrupt if you do not owe anyone any money.
- Taking Too Much Risk
As NFL players, we tend to be very confident individuals, and often too confident. Night clubs, restaurants, real estate ventures, and franchise opportunities are all extremely risky business propositions. Worse yet, they require substantial expertise in legal, accounting, tax, management, operations, marketing, human resources, and sales. When you invest in a business, never forget that you are choosing to compete against the sharpest entrepreneurs on the planet. Very few of us possess the skills required to compete successfully in the business world while we are in the NFL, or shortly thereafter. If you want to invest in a business, be certain you have acquired the prerequisite skills.
- Taking Too Little Risk
Just as many NFL players have been burned by assuming too little risk as those who have assumed too much risk. A player who leaves the game in his 30’s faces the daunting prospect of 60+ years of inflation continuously eroding the value of his investments. In dollar terms, this means a $250,000 per year lifestyle will be exactly equivalent to a $750,000 per year lifestyle in thirty years. Traditional retirement vehicles such as cash, certificates of deposits, annuities, and bonds were designed to suit elderly retirees with short life expectancies, not multiple decades. You have no choice but to structure your investments to provide a perpetually increasing income stream…just to break even.
- Ignorance of NFL Benefits/Programs
The NFL and its teams have developed many outstanding benefits and programs to assist its players in their transition from the NFL. But you need to proactively take advantage of them. We have access to tuition reimbursement, degree programs, Health Reimbursement Accounts, 401k, pension, annuity, joint replacement, marriage counseling, workman’s compensation, line of duty benefits, and much more. Make sure to take advantage of the programs that have been put in place to help you.
- Ignoring Long Term Health
For all its perks, the NFL lifestyle can be extremely unhealthy. We typically develop poor eating habits, subject ourselves to multiple injuries, and consume excessive amounts of prescription drugs and/or alcohol. We offset some of these destructive behaviors with our extreme activity levels during our playing careers. But once we leave the game, our lifestyle habits tend to linger even as our activity level decreases dramatically. We need to consciously create a new healthy lifestyle consisting of nutritious meals and plenty of exercise.
- Neglecting Family Relationships
There is no question that transitioning out of the NFL is a difficult process. But do not forget that it is equally (if not more) difficult for our spouses and significant others. Just like us, our spouses lose their social network, their sense of belonging, and part of their identity. And after watching us thrive as a strong, confident warrior in the NFL, they may see our vulnerable side as we transition to our new life. Rather than confront these challenges together, NFL couples often turn away from each other and toward others during the transition. Unfortunately, that is often the beginning of the end of their relationship. Divorce is devastating both financially and emotionally. Be brave enough to open up to your spouse and seek her help as you navigate your transition. Conquering this challenge together may very well bring you closer than ever.
- Neglecting Friendships
Ask any former player what he misses the most about the NFL and the number one answer is almost always “the locker room.” The intense camaraderie we share with our fellow teammates is stripped away from us when we leave the game, leaving a gaping void. Aim to consciously fill that with relationship with former teammates, brothers, neighbors, your children’s friends’ fathers, guys at the gym, men’s groups, sports teams, etc.
- Harboring Resentment Toward Your Last Team
Very few of us leave the game on our terms. Most of us feel we should have been given one more chance to prove we still had what it takes. Being cut, released, waived, or traded from a team that you gave your blood, sweat, and tears to hurts. This often leads to feelings of resentment toward your former team or even the NFL. Be man enough to admit that your time had come and accept it. Rather than harboring resentment, embrace your former team’s Alumni Group, the NFLRPA, and the NFL Alumni. The NFL is the greatest sports league on the planet and we will all forever be one of its Brothers. Be proud of your career and commit to representing yourself, your teams, and the League well.
- Failing to Develop an Outlet for Competitive Drive
Nobody survives in the NFL without having an ultra-competitive drive. Unfortunately, unlike other sports, once we retire from football, it is simply impossible to continue to play recreationally. The challenge is to find another outlet for your athletic competitive drive. Find another sport to compete in…perhaps something completely different from football like swimming, biking, running, triathlon, golf, tennis, mountain climbing, or even coaching. Commit yourself to getting good at it. Seek coaching from someone who has mastered the sport then train just as hard as you did for football. You will be amazed how fulfilling it is to begin to master a brand new sport.
- Failing to Re-Define Yourself
For most of our lives the world has identified with us as a Football Player. Most guys cling to their former selves entirely too long when their playing days are over. Yes, we should all be proud of our NFL careers. But when it is over, we need to begin the process of re-defining who we really are, perhaps for the first time in our lives. This process begins with a tremendous about of soul searching to decide who it is you really want to be. Eventually we need to psychologically evolve from a Football Player, into the Great Husband, the Excellent Father, the Fabulous Coach, the Wonderful Neighbor, the Great Son, the Trustworthy Friend, the Generous Philanthropist, or whatever means the most to you. To steal a line from Jim Brown in Any Given Sunday…”When a man looks back on his life, he should be proud of all of it…not just the time he spent in pads and cleats.”
By Don Davey
Davey is a former NFL defensive tackle who played with the Green Bay Packers and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Currently he is the Senior Portfolio Manager for Disciplined Equity Management, www.demgt.com
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