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NFLPA and Fanatics team up to help players prepare for life after football

NFL players say the experience helped them prepare for the next chapter of their lives

NFL players often experience a moment in their lives when they are faced with contemplating life after football. They realize they may not be entirely prepared for what happens when their football career ends.

NFL journeyman cornerback Justin Rogers recognizes that sentiment. He has played for five different teams since he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL draft. He is now a free agent, last playing for the Washington Redskins in 2015.

Thanks to a three-weeklong externship program hosted by the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), Rogers, who is currently earning a master’s degree in business administration, was able to apply what he’s learning in his postsecondary degree program to real-life professional experiences. He spent his time at one of the program’s externship host companies, Fanatics.

Rogers, 29, knows the importance of preparing for his post-NFL career. He will graduate in May from Indiana University.

“I am getting my MBA and I now see how with Fanatics I applied a lot of this stuff firsthand. I was getting the best of both worlds. Learning and actually having to apply it. That was one of the most interesting parts of the internship for me,” Rogers said.

“Fanatics did a good job with showing us the ins and outs,” he added. “They wanted us to see how everything was to find out what we might be interested in. I think that kind of helped me because it’s life after football. I wanted to join the corporate world, the business world. Find out what area I wanted to go in and I think that internship with Fanatics helped.”

Justin Rogers preps a custom made-to-order shirt at the Fanatics manufacturing facility in Jacksonville, Florida. Fanatics is the global leader for licensed sports merchandise.

Fanatics

According to its website, Fanatics is the market leader for authentic, officially licensed sports merchandise and offers the world’s largest collection of timeless and timely gear from every pro and college team.

Nineteen NFL teams were represented in this year’s externship class, with the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers boasting four externs each. This year’s externship program marks the NFLPA’s fourth installment with a record 41 players sprinkled across 15 different organizations. The program is offered to current and transitional players and assists them in gaining practical experience to help them pursue careers after football. A total of 86 players applied to the program. Six of those players, including Rogers, spent time at Fanatics, which is in its third year as a host company with the NFLPA.

Rogers joined Indianapolis Colts defensive end Arthur Jones, Denver Broncos linebacker Corey Nelson, San Diego Chargers tight end Jake McGee, New Orleans Saints defensive end Mitchell Loewen and Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Cameron Bradfield. The 2017 class met at the Fanatics’ East Coast headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida, to begin the program. Throughout their time there, they learned about the business of global sports retailing by gaining on-site training in such areas as marketing, operations, business management, product design and development and in-venue retail operations.

Fanatics program director Rebecca Kulick said the externship program has been great for the company and the players involved.

“It’s been a really valuable experience not only for the players, but for us as well,” she said. “They get to come in and interact with people in our company. It’s a pretty valuable experience for us, where we get to learn a lot from them, then really take their feedback to heart and listen to their views as coming from a player perspective.”

Kulick also added that the program has expanded each year.

“This year, we had six players,” she said. “The year before, we had five, and the first year, we had four.”

Nelson said even though the externship was only three weeks long, he was able to learn a great deal about Fanatics.

“I learned a lot about how a company would work from a CEO on down to chief executive on to the board to the vice president … I learned how an organization really operates and that was pretty exciting to me. I actually got way more than what I thought I was going to get out of the externship,” he said.

Leaving the gridiron introduces a new set of challenges to players, becoming acquainted with life that excludes planned workouts, a team of sports management professionals and a regimen that is conducive to football. They face the harsh reality that their playing days have ceased. It takes an emotional toll on players and their families and studies show that many players don’t make a comfortable transition into everyday life.

“I’m living through it right now,” Rogers said. “I am taking a break and enjoying myself and stepping away from the rigor of training and having your body pounded all the time and taking the weight — taking some time off. That’s where I am. I am in school right now. I want to step away and just focus on school. That’s pretty much what I was looking forward to after playing football.”

Newsday and the NFLPA conducted a survey of 763 former NFL players that concluded that 61 percent said “they found it difficult to adjust to daily life after their career, while 85 percent said they did not believe the NFL adequately prepared them for the transition.”

According to CBS News, “studies have shown that a high percentage [78 percent in 2009] of NFL players declare bankruptcy after their playing days, and many others suffer financial difficulties.”

“The externship has become a staple program of this organization and has provided an opportunity for our members to obtain gainful experience and critical skills needed to excel during their NFL careers and beyond,” said Dana Hammonds, senior director of the NFLPA’s player affairs department. “These players are to be applauded as they have sacrificed time away from family and friends because they understand the value and concerted efforts, led by their union, to gain meaningful professional experience.”

The program, run by the NFLPA player affairs department, is designed to assist players in realizing their potential and value beyond football. The externship serves as one of several NFLPA postcareer programs built on the theme of helping players — both active and transitioning — find their niche and unearth more of their gifts.

Jones said he appreciated the externship at Fanatics because the company is sports-related.

“I’m still currently playing, and going into the program was me figuring out what I wanted to do post-football, because, as we all know, you can’t play forever,” Jones said. “Pretty much where can I fit in this company, and me as an athlete, I couldn’t see myself just sitting around doing office work, and something that really gets me into sports, something related to sports, and this company was definitely an awesome fit for me.

“One day, we met with apparel, what all goes into making the jersey and we did [work] with T-shirts and what’s a hot market item. I will keep some of these notes, and I could go on for hours on all the knowledge that I learned about the company. Everyone, they really loved their job and they’re passionate about what they do. The work ethic and the culture around it was amazing. Football was always my goal since high school. I worked hard and put my mind to it, and right now I’m living my dream. If I wasn’t playing football, I’d probably jump in law enforcement and either public speaking, communications, something — broadcasting.”

Jones said the hardest part was participating in meetings at different restaurants.

“As a current player, eating at steakhouses every week is not the best for trying to keep your weight down in the offseason,” he added. “That was probably the hardest part. It was an amazing opportunity. I’d advise other guys in the NFL to do the same. Figure out what you want in the offseason and take advantage, because the NFL pays for these things.”

The group at Fanatics also participated in NASCAR operations during the 2017 Daytona 500, which many experienced for the first time.

Aside from the Jacksonville office, they visited the Fanatics’ West Coast headquarters in San Mateo, California.

The program at Fanatics has grown from four to six interns over the past three years, and they’ve already seen some stars shine through and become full-time team members. Former 49ers, Raiders and Panthers strong safety Reggie Smith participated in the inaugural program in 2015, and following his retirement from the NFL, he’s worked his way into a senior management position in one of Fanatics’ busiest warehouses.

New England Patriots player Eric Rowe is also a 2016 graduate of the program.

Other host companies that participated included the Broward Sheriff’s Office, United Way, the University of Washington athletic department, Whalerock Industries, CSN Mid-Atlantic, ESPN 980, Events DC, Marriott, NFLPA, Panini, The Trust, the University of Maryland athletic department and Under Armour.

Kulick said the most memorable part of this year’s externship program was learning what the players, who bring a unique experience to the business world, receive from the training.

“For me, it is seeing what they get out of the program, as well as what our employees get from them,” she said. “There’s a lot of interaction with our employees, who get to really show them what they do on a daily basis, and the players get to learn what it’s actually like to work in the corporate world.”

As the NFLPA continues to partner with companies such as Fanatics, they will maintain their goal of assisting players in navigating their life after football. Everyone in the Fanatics class said they would recommend that all NFL players sign up for the externship program.

“I definitely refer them or anybody in professional sports, whether they’re a rookie or whether they’re a 10-year, eight-year vet. Anyone that’s playing professional sports and looking to aspire to something outside of football, I think this is definitely the route to go,” Nelson said. “I think this organization is definitely the route to go, because they teach you so much that you can take with you to another job or, you know, to your team, throughout your day-to-day life. There’s so many things that they taught us.”

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.