‘Everybody knows you can’t play this game forever’
You have to understand. It’s really strange that Will Allen began preparing for life after football 12 years ago. In the summer of 2004, Allen was beginning his first season in the NFL, and for most rookies, “the future” means after practice. But not for Allen.
Throughout his college career at Ohio State, Allen heard and absorbed horror stories about players whose lives had crumbled after the cheering stopped. Divorce, bankruptcy, homelessness – so much could go wrong so quickly with retirement, Allen learned. So as soon as Allen entered NFL training camp, he also started the process of training for his post-football career, always reminding himself to stay on the lookout for anything that could help him in that goal. Allen put aside a portion of his game checks to savings. In the offseason, he attended business management seminars. And he read. A lot.
“Mostly about what people can do to get into jobs they’re interested in,” the veteran free agent safety said recently. “Just thinking about my next career, I was always taking those types of steps.”
It was with the help of the National Football League Players Association that Allen found his biggest ones.
Accepted into the NFLPA’s externship program, Allen, who’s pursuing a career in the energy field, was placed with two energy companies after the 2014 season. Allen enjoyed his work so much that he applied again following the 2015 season. In his second externship, Allen worked on Capitol Hill under a congressman who’s heavily involved in energy issues. Now Allen believes he possesses the tools necessary to launch his second career, and he acquired them through a program that has been especially beneficial to African-American players.
NFL Players Association Externship program participation
2014: 14 players (1 nonblack)
2015: 25 players (1 nonblack)
2016: 26 players (3 nonblack)
“You’ve got to be proactive when you’re talking about your future. You’ve got to think about how you want to tackle it. And for me, the program has been a huge part of” his strategy, Allen said. “There are a lot of great things about the program, but the best thing is that the NFLPA is helping players gain new experiences in areas where they want to work.
“It’s about exposing guys to what they would have to do in those jobs. Everybody knows you can’t play this game forever. The NFLPA is doing something to actually help guys get ready for the moment when they can’t.”
As training camps open around the league this week, the NFL’s on-field workforce begins a grind that won’t end (for the lucky ones) until February. Once they finally reach the finish line, players can apply to participate in a three-week program, which usually begins after the Super Bowl, that matches them with companies in their areas of interest. (Unpaid externships are generally shorter than internships.) In the program, players handle a variety of tasks intended to introduce them to what it takes to succeed in entry-level jobs as well as management positions. As strange as Allen’s actions may seem on the surface, with most NFL careers being so short, it’s never too early for players to start thinking about their post-NFL gigs.
On average, players retire after only 3.5 seasons, according to NFLPA research, and they can’t access their pensions until age 55 at the earliest. Only a small number of players walk away from the game financially independent. Most must build second careers to meet expenses. Just check out the news: There have been far more reports about professional athletes going broke than success stories about players who have transitioned seamlessly to new careers. Allen won’t wind up as a cautionary tale, he said.
“I told myself I will not be a statistic,” said Allen, 34, who has been a key contributor for the Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Dallas teams, and hopes to sign with another team to play his 13th season. “The biggest problem for a lot of guys is the transition. They don’t know what to do next, they don’t know how to do it and they end up going broke. Then when the money isn’t coming in, so many guys get frustrated, they get depressed and they get divorced.
“They still want football, that itch of competition, the locker room and togetherness. … If guys have another job, another career that they’ve been preparing for, a lot of that, a lot of those problems, can be avoided. That’s why so many guys are interested in the externships.”
African-American guys in particular. After each season, black players have filled almost all of the externship slots. Of the 65 players who have participated in the program, more than 92 percent are African-American. There were three nonblacks among last season’s 26-player class. Given that almost 68 percent of the NFL’s players are black, the program’s racial composition isn’t entirely surprising. However, other factors also likely explain the high rate of African-American participation.
Many African-Americans in the NFL come from low socioeconomic status backgrounds. Often they were the first in their family to attend college. The likelihood is that most weren’t exposed to the types of skills necessary to succeed in corporate America. Essentially, externships are accelerated, hands-on courses in the basic skills players will need to compete for office jobs.
Wisely, some African-American players have enthusiastically embraced a program that could help them long after they’ve walked away from the locker room. “If no one ever told you about certain things you need to do to get a job, how would you know?” Allen said. “Finally getting the experience puts guys in a better position.”
Dior Ginyard stays busy. The NFLPA’s manager of player affairs and development, Ginyard is focused on helping players prepare for their next career before they need one. And there’s no doubt about it: Players who complete the program grow immensely, Ginyard said. Some start externships not knowing “how to answer the phone in a professional setting – because they’ve never had to do it,” he said. “That’s something that most people take for granted. It’s something we’ve all done [in the workplace]. And when you’re not used to doing it, repetition in doing those things builds confidence.
“Guys don’t know what business casual is. We had one guy who got lost on the Metro. I had a guy ask me, ‘When should I work out?’ They’re used to agendas: This is when I get up, this is when I’m supposed to eat breakfast and lunch, this is when I’m supposed to watch film and this is when I’m supposed to go to practice.
“This program explains to them that, once they’re finished playing and they’re working a 9-to-5 [job], they have to figure out their own schedule. I know it sounds simple. But when you’ve been playing football for most of your life and everything is mapped out for you, it’s about a different way of looking at things.”
For the previous externship cycle, the NFLPA received 50 applications. During the season, there are almost 1,700 players on NFL rosters, “so in the grand scheme of things, yeah, that may not seem like a lot, but you’re talking about guys who have just finished a full season and want to get home to their families,” Ginyard said. “They commit to spending three extra weeks before they take a break to prepare for life after football. And once they get in it, the program itself, guys are loving it.”
No player was more eager to get started than Allen. As far back as he can remember, Allen has always been interested in energy. “I’d like to make it more cost-effective for everyone,” he said.
During his first year in the program, Allen split time between National Grid USA, an electric and natural gas company based in Massachusetts, and The Brattle Group, which is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and, among other things, provides consulting services on electric utility matters. Allen handled a lot of paperwork, but he wasn’t chained to a desk for the entirety of the externships.
On one occasion, Allen suited up and hit the field. Instead of wearing a helmet and shoulder pads, however, Allen’s uniform was a hard hat, safety glasses, work boots and a reflective vest. He spent a day observing a National Grid team working on gas leaks. “If you really want to know how to do something and do it well,” Allen said, “the best way to do it is learn it from the bottom up.”
Allen also learned a lot during his stint in the office of Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). Primarily, Allen assisted the senior policy adviser for Rush, who’s a high-ranking member of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee. Besides fulfilling the duties of a low-level staffer (answering phones, running errands, etc.), Allen also helped draft memos, attended staff briefings and was involved with meetings in which energy/environmental issues were discussed. If you want to do big things in the energy field, Allen figured, you need to know how the government works.
“It’s absolutely necessary, when you’re dealing with energy and utilities, to know policy,” he said. “Obviously, you need to understand how to work with constituents and stakeholders, but investors, too. All those different pieces are a part of the puzzle when it comes to energy. That’s what I really want to be involved in.”
Allen has always had a clear vision of what his next move would be after football. Few players, though, enter the program with a path in mind. Not surprisingly, most have more questions than answers. That’s fine with the NFLPA, which encourages players to use the externships to determine their comfort level in different fields. A player interested in being a television analyst may soon discover he’s uncomfortable speaking on camera. You know what that means: time to consider another career.
“What do you like? That’s what we want guys to figure out,” Ginyard said. “We get some guys who get into the companies that we work with and they love it. They say, ‘OK, this is the direction I want to go.’ But other guys find that what they thought the job is really isn’t what the job is. The key is exposing them to different industries. Then they can decide.”
Reggie Smith wasn’t sure where he was headed. After four years with the San Francisco 49ers, Smith became a free agent following the 2011 season. He wanted to remain in the league, but two years passed without Smith receiving an offer, so the safety retired and returned to the University of Oklahoma to finish his degree.
— Reginald L. Smith II (@superreg30) February 23, 2016
While trying to determine what would come next, Smith heard about the program, applied and was accepted in the 2015 class. Smith joined Fanatics, the massive sports apparel company. If you buy sports apparel on the internet from professional sports leagues and organizations or colleges, Fanatics handles the order.
Quickly, Smith learned he was well-suited for the job. Efficient and energetic, Smith stood out while working in the company’s mammoth 550,000-square-foot warehouse in Jacksonville, Florida. “I definitely liked the work,” Smith said. “It was only three weeks, but it was something I could see myself doing.”
Last July, Fanatics hired Smith. “We liked him a lot,” said Rebecca Kulick, a Fanatics official. “He’s now an outbound supervisor. During our peak season, he supervises anywhere up to 150 people.”
And Smith paid it forward: On Smith’s recommendation, Fanatics hired two other former players. They also have trained to be managers. That’s what Ginyard is talking about.
“What Reggie did is exactly what we’re trying to accomplish,” Ginyard said. “Fanatics could see he was working hard and taking initiative. He really maximized his opportunities while he was there. Then they hired him full time and now he’s a manager.
“He did a great job, which is the biggest part of it, but the other part of it is networking. If an employer respects your work and your opinion and they get to know you, you’ll be in a better position to help others. He referred two other former players and Fanatics hired them as well. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish: to have players succeed after football and be in a position to help other players.”
In supervising employees at Fanatics, Smith has applied much of what he learned from football. On every play, teammates must be in sync to succeed. It’s no different at Fanatics, which processes and ships hundreds of thousands of orders daily during the busiest times of year.
“It’s all about teamwork in everything,” Smith said. “Everybody has to work toward the same goal. And when you’re a leader, you have to make sure everyone stays focused. There are definitely things you can apply in your next career. That’s why it helps to get out there to see what you want to do after you’re done.”
Allen still wants to play another season. Although he’s confident that he has enough left to help a team, he’s ready to tackle his next career, too.
“The program helped me understand how corporate America works. I learned how businesses are run and I developed skills along the way,” he said. “When you’re talking about life after football, what more could you ask for?”
NFL players will tell you that the abbreviation of the league’s name should stand for “Not For Long.” And even for others like Allen who have defied the odds, the story eventually ends. Fortunately for players, the NFLPA has helped them get off to a good start on their next chapter.