INDIANAPOLIS – Thirty-two NFL teams share the on-field goal of winning a Lombardi Trophy as well as the wish to prepare players to succeed past the playing field.
One of many ways the league and its teams help players has happened annually since 2005 when individuals are given a chance to enroll in the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program. It is an initiative to assist players in being prepared for post-playing career ventures.
This past March, Colts offensive tackle Winston Justice went through the program for the second time during his career. Justice attended the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University seminar that ran from April 1-5. He wanted to further refine his post-career business plans. It was repeat behavior for Justice, who went through the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania seminar in 2009 when he played for Philadelphia.
Winston takes a meticulous approach to his playing career, and he believes taking advantage of opportunities to benefit post-playing days is vital for each of the NFL's 1,700 players.
"It's important because the NFL is a profession that is going to end for everyone," said Winston. "It will end fairly early in our lives, and professional football players are really short-minded. They really don't see past the next day, which is good in a sense because that is the way we're trained. We're trained to take every day and make the most of it. You still have to plan for after football because it is going to happen."
The seminars are just one way teams try to assist players. The Kellogg program focused on entrepreneurship, underscoring the fundamentals of investing and how to create and finance new ventures. Faculty members taught classes on finance, angel investing, equity versus debt capital, effective negotiating and marketing in the nanosecond world. The Harvard Business School conducted the other seminar for this year, helping attendees develop business ideas or plan in such areas as investments, real estate and retailing.
In past years, the Wharton seminar included topics of financial analysis, real estate development, stock market investing, negotiation skills, risk management and community reinvestment. The Stanford Graduate School of Business helped broaden understanding of evaluating opportunities in business, sports, real estate, investment and entertainment. All the seminars had formal programs or case studies, and they featured instruction by top professors.
David Thornton was a multiple-time attendee of the seminars during his nine-year career with Indianapolis and Tennessee and now as the Colts' director of player engagement, he advocates others doing so, too.
"The programs have case studies that present real-life situations and opportunities," said Thornton. "For instance, you will get presented with different investment opportunities and you have to make a wise decision from the variables involved. They show you how things can be successful or unsuccessful. They have credible professors who help you develop strategies to think principles through. That's the rewarding experience that you gain – the insight on how to simply rationalize through the process of investment opportunities."
Thornton now advises Colts players on how to weave their way into the club's culture with an eye toward developing skills that will last beyond the playing field. He led by example during his 2002-05 Colts playing career.
"Each off-season, I took a lot of pride in doing something non-football related, whether it was continuing education, doing an internship or just learning," said Thornton. "A big part of Player Engagement is encouraging players to be life-long learners. I completed the NFL's Wharton, Stanford and Kellogg Business School programs just to see if there was anything I wanted to explore. Initially, I wanted to go into the restaurant business; but after I attended Wharton, I decided against it.
"These opportunities can verify something in your mind or eliminate it from your planning process. Eliminating things that you thought might interest you can save you time, aggravation and money, as well as the possibility of business failure. The more you explore what is out there, you will find what you don't want to do as well as finding things you have a passion for. This can help you transition into your life after football successfully. Each time I went, I gained a stronger foundation of how to make the right decisions. You also can develop a quality list of people you can call on for advice with opportunities you might be presented with. It does not hurt to have access to professors at these institutions."
Life in the NFL usually means there is a game the next Sunday should a week's preparation be unsuccessful on the scoreboard. In business, Justice knows a failure can bring impact far greater than a loss in competition. The seminars helped him prepare to avoid such a setback.
"The classes allowed me to see because you are good in football doesn't mean you will be good in business," said Justice. You can't take the same approach to business as you have in football because you're not as prepared as other people are (in the business world). People really take time and dedicate their lives to a certain type of business. Football players can't just jump into it without preparing. You have to know all the facts before you invest your money or time in something. You can get hurt in the business world. In football, you might lose but there usually is another game. If you lose in business, you might be done. Your money might be gone. If you lose it, a player might think, 'I'll just invest again and try to get it back.' A lot of times, that doesn't happen. You see other players who have lost money, and it's hard to get it back."
Based on statistical analysis by NFL Management Council and AonHewitt, the 206 drafted rookies who began their careers on NFL 53-man rosters on the opening weekend of the 2011 season will have an average NFL career duration of nearly seven years (6.86). Including the 60 undrafted rookies on Kickoff Weekend 2011 rosters – the most since 65 in 2003 – the expected average career duration of a 2011 rookie still exceeds six years (6.36).
Preparing players to succeed well beyond the field is an essential aspect of the team's mission. When the league started placing an increased emphasis on player development years ago, the Colts were cited as the most improved franchise in the early stages of the organized efforts. Three times in the period of 2001-05, the Colts were identified with the league's top player development program. Last year, the organization was lauded for its unmatched performance in financial education efforts for its players.
"Each of our clubs plays a crucial role as NFL Player Engagement continues to assist players transition into and out of the NFL," said NFL Vice President of Player Engagement Troy Vincent. "The Colts organization has an outstanding track record of educating its players on all programs and services that are available and encouraging players to participate and excel."
While Justice may be new to the Indianapolis playing roster, he still will take an active approach to getting teammates to prepare themselves for life outside of the game. It is something he traditionally did earlier in his career.
"I always want to encourage guys to take classes, even if they didn't finish school," said Justice. "I want them to be prepared, too, for when football is going to end. There is a 100 percent chance an NFL career will end, and you have to be ready. A player needs to use football as a stepping stage for the rest of his life, not for his life."
The typical NFL player will be through with his on-field career while he is a young man, and even the best of the best exit the sport with years to shape a lifetime. Justice does not think a playing career has to be the most rewarding thing a player ever will do, and that is something he says to his teammates.
"If this is the best part of your life, it's pretty sad because it ends while you're young," said Justice. "You have look forward to thinking that the next day is going to be your best day.
"This (playing in the NFL) may be the neatest thing you ever do, but it doesn't have to be. Nobody should want it to be. I don't want to be living in the past of me being a football player. I'm going to enjoy it and try to be the best football player I can be, but my goals don't stop here."
Former Colts fullback Chris Gronkowski, recently traded to Denver, is a product of the Eller Business School at the University of Arizona. Gronkowski attended the seminar at Harvard this year and found the session to be beneficial.
"Right off the bat they gave you an example of a guy who played in the league and showing you his financial status to show you what you have to do from the point of retirement going forward," said Gronkowski. "It was an eye-opener for some players who think the money is going to keep coming in after football. That was the first case study we got. From there, we were instructed how to invest money in businesses or real estate. They had negotiating classes geared toward a player who wants to invest his money after his career ends rather than letting the opportunity go to waste."
Gronkowski is from a family that includes brothers Dan (Cleveland Browns) and Rob (New England Patriots), and he feels the need to prepare for a life after football is something that should be taken seriously by every player.
"It's huge. If you know how to prepare now, you can really help yourself out in the future," said Gronkowski. "Instead of having to work until retirement in your second career, you can set yourself up to kind of do what you want. It's something that has been passed through my family as well. We were taught to save and invest money the right way early in life, not just to go out there and spend, spend, spend without a plan. This is a great chance to stock your bank account up now so you can plan your second career rather than working just to make ends meet."
Gronkowski was just one of many former Colts who took advantage of the business seminars. Since the program's inception in 2005, other Colts attendees or some associated with the franchise include Ryan Lilja, Blair White, Ryan Diem, Donald Strickland, Tarik Glenn, Larry Tripplett, Ben Hartsock, Jeff Charleston, Raheem Brock, Jake Scott, Matt Stover, Dwight Hollier, David Macklin, Rocky Boiman, Gerome Sapp, Ran Carthon, Troy Walters, Gary Brackett, James Mungro, Jim Nelson, Darrell Reid, Dylan Gandy, Anthony Gonzalez, Jamie Silva, Jacob Tamme, Josh Thomas, Tom Santi, Donald Brown and Dallas Clark.
Though with Indianapolis less than a year, Gronkowski believes the club did a good job in stressing the importance of post-career planning.
"I think they definitely make the attempt to help players in a number of ways," said Gronkowski. "Not everyone is going to listen. You can preach about it all you want but at the same time, there is so much money coming in to young players that it's hard to listen to it sometimes."
A player will not go onto a playing field without study, conditioning and instruction, and he should not do the same in the business world. Thornton exited the game as a success by any measure. Now, he will try to get others to follow in the same footsteps of preparedness.
"We won't be financial or business experts, but we can educate ourselves with the fundamental knowledge of how to make wise decisions," said Thornton. "It's just like you don't want a business person showing you how to run a 'dig' route or how to attack a Cover-2 defense. He or she won't understand those things the same way a player might not understand things in the business world. Player engagement programs help players gain clarity in the business world equipping them to make smart decisions after they retire."