Commentary

Bears ponder life after football

What will players do when NFL is no longer an option?

Updated: August 29, 2012, 5:17 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST -- The last job Rashied Davis had outside of football was "most famously," as he put it, at Best Buy. The Bears receiver also did security, saying with a laugh, "I was a little bit of a bouncer at one point."

But Davis, like some of his Bears teammates, hopes to have solid plans for his post-football career if the game he grew up playing suddenly is taken away, as it was Wednesday -- at least temporarily -- when Davis was cut by the Bears.

With final roster cuts looming at the end of the week, no one cherishes that thought. But for those on the proverbial bubble and those seemingly secure with their spots on the team, this time of year is a constant reminder that football can be a fleeting proposition.

Wade My wife and I have a nice cushion to figure it out, but that's the difficult part. You've been doing this for 12 some-odd years. What's next?

-- Rashied Davis

"The majority of us are going to have to transition into another career, some by choice, some because they weren't very smart," Davis said. "My wife and I have a nice cushion to figure it out, but that's the difficult part. You've been doing this for 12 some-odd years. What's next? What am I good at? What am I capable of doing? What do I want to do? What do I have to do? ...

"Younger guys, older guys, guys in general aren't necessarily prepared for it because it's a huge lifestyle change. That's obvious by the statistics about retired athletes."

A 2009 Sports Illustrated survey found that 78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce within two years after leaving football.

"There's a lot of factors tied in with that," Davis said. "A lot of us come up from adverse situations, and then when we do make it, you've got family, friends, whatever, everybody's reaching to try to get some of whatever you have and you're trying to do your best to take care of them. A lot of us have bleeding hearts, so you get caught up in that.

"Then you have other factors like bad financial advice, bad management. You go from being a college kid with no money and everything taken care of for you, to now you're in the NFL and you have to pay your own bills, cash your own checks, have your own bank account, manage your own money, and a lot of guys don't necessarily wind up with the right people doing that and a lot of guys get taken."

While NFL Players Association statistics show that the average NFL player salary last season was $1.9 million and the median salary was $770,000, the average career length is 3.5 years. And with approximately 400 NFL players ending their football careers each year, many prematurely and without a guaranteed contract, it can lead to a crisis. The belief that somehow all athletes can afford to retire to the golf course makes many athletes roll their eyes.

"It's not really like that," said tight end Kellen Davis. "We make all of our earnings in such a short period of time that you really have to budget it and know what you're doing with your money to stay wealthy over time. That's the goal after football. When you're making such a good amount of money at an early age, you have to be careful, you have to protect it."

While Davis, who turns 27 in October, is seemingly secure as the Bears' starting tight end in his fifth NFL season, he said he is starting to think about his post-NFL life.

"You never really think about that when you're, like, 20 years old," he said. "It's not really a concern. But I've been around for a while and you've got to take care of what's yours.

"I don't have a plan, but there are a lot of things I would like to get into. I'm pretty interested in restaurants and cooking, things like that. So that would be something I'd like to do, or possibly real estate."

[+] EnlargeIsrael Idonije
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireBears defensive lineman Israel Idonije has a comic book company that will publish its first project later this year.

Long-snapper Patrick Mannelly said it didn't hit him until he suffered a knee injury last season in his team-high 147th consecutive game.

"It was kind of a reality check that it's time to really start thinking about what's going to happen after [football], so I made a few phone calls to some people I know," he said.

Mannelly, who worked on Wall Street for a major investment firm while in college, said he did not want to talk about his specific interests just yet. "But as I get closer to the end, I want to keep pursuing those opportunities," he said. "The ultimate goal is to play as long as I can. The longer you play, the more options you have to do what you want to do because you're more financially set up to pursue your passion."

Fullback Tyler Clutts has worked as an insurance broker during offseasons. He is in his second NFL season, but he played two seasons in the Canadian Football League and one season apiece in the United Football League and Arena Football League after leaving Fresno State.

"I'm still a licensed insurance broker, and I still call in and do a little bit here and there," he said. "But I absolutely have plans of things I want to get into as a career, some investment stuff I want to do. I've got a family [he and his wife have a baby daughter] so I can't think short-term and I can't think in the moment right now. I have to plan ahead, plan for the worst, hope for the best."

The NFL Continuing Education Program reimburses players up to $15,000 a year for those completing their degrees or continuing their education.

Rashied Davis, who played in the Arena Football League his first four years out of college and in the NFL the last seven years, said he may take advantage of the program.

"I majored in sociology [at San Jose State] but I'm not going to be a sociologist," he said. "But I do have Rashied Davis Charities, which focuses on education ... with the main goal of taking so-called at-risk kids and building them from the ground up.

"My ultimate goal is to be able to change a generation of young kids that are growing up in adverse situations, to teach them that they can be a part of the so-called greater community. They don't have to be what they see every day, which is maybe gangs, drugs, violence. The kids that I work with grow up around a lot of gangs and such, like I did."

Davis said it is that upbringing that has guided him in his realistic view of his football longevity. It has also influenced the way he and his wife are budgeting their finances.

"My wife and I have done great," he said. "We've saved a ton of money, but we still live in a house that's too small for our growing family. We have two kids and we live way below our means. People think a million dollars, or whatever it may be, is set for life, that you can just sit around and live off your interest. Well, not really.

"For me, I just need a job that pays my bills. If I enjoy the job, I'll be happy. I'd love to be a custom car maker. I have no fabrication background and no fabrication skills, but I could learn, I guess. I would probably go to get a job somewhere and learn by hands-on work."

Davis said he thinks NFL players are more and more aware of planning for their futures, which is partially motivated by fear.

"It's scary," he said. "When you're fresh out of college, you can explain [to a potential employer] why you haven't worked yet. But I'm 33 years old. If somebody asks me, yeah, I can say I've been in the NFL, but that doesn't give me any work experience. That doesn't tell them why they should hire me other than I have great stories to tell. I have more skills than they would know and I would show it. But I would have to do more proving."

Some players have taken advantage of the opportunities presented to them as professional athletes by getting involved in internships and training programs. And then there's Bears defensive lineman Israel Idonije, who in his ninth NFL season has developed side careers that would be the envy of many longtime business people.

"For the last five years, I've focused on life after football," Idonije said. "I have a manufacturing facility [which produces church supplies]. I have a comic book company, and we should be publishing our first project later this year. I have a large real estate business I operate. And I have a great management team that allows me to keep everything going and allows me to focus on my primary job, which is to play football and continue to be the best I can be on this team."

Idonije, who has worked with after-school programs through his foundation as well as other charity endeavors, said he has one guideline he follows.

"Whatever I'm doing has to be innovative," he said. "It has to have a global approach and it has to be able to ultimately make the world better or have the opportunity to give back to the community."

Idonije is happy, he said, to give teammates vocational advice if they ask and says the key is to have a plan before their football careers are over. "And be working the plan -- that's critical to life after football," he said. "If you're going to start doing those things after you're done, it's going to be too late."

Like Idonije and others, kicker Robbie Gould also has his own charity, The Goulden Touch, and during offseasons has sought out internships at friends' businesses, included a heating and air-conditioning company.

"I'm around a lot of good business people, and I'm always picking their brains about things they do with their companies or what am I going to need to do with transitioning [out of football], whether it's internships or résumé-building," said Gould, who earned a business degree at Penn State.

In his eighth season with the Bears, Gould is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history and is also the team's player rep. He considers that to be preparation for his post-football life, as well.

"At some point in time I'm going to walk away from the game, and I'd love to get into business and do something in the corporate world," he said. "Whether it's a small or large company, I really don't know. But I hope by meeting all these contacts and interacting with them and helping them as either a spokesperson, by going to their company and meeting their employees and spending a day with them, or maybe doing an internship, that maybe I'll have an opportunity to get a job with them when I'm finished."

Either way, the key is to be prepared.

"If it was all over for me in two, three years," Idonije said, "I'm ready to step right into the next thing. But I'm not even stepping into the new role because whatever I do after football, I'm doing right now."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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