NEW YORK -- Deion Branch spent his classroom time listening intently to everything the instructors told him -- and feverishly taking notes.
Forget X's and O's. This was stuff the Seattle Seahawks wide receiver really needed to hear.
"Everything they're saying relates to what we're doing in our lives as athletes," Branch said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "Guys trying to take advantage of us by taking our money, guys making bad investments, everything. They hit everything that goes on in a professional player's life."
The former Super Bowl MVP was one of more than 75 current and former NFL players who recently participated in the league's business management and entrepreneurial program held at the Wharton School in Philadelphia and Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
"I was amazed to be in the room with all of these businessmen and entrepreneurs and have them share their stories with us," said Branch, who attended the four-day program at Wharton. "It was fascinating. It's almost like how they look at us as football players. We were looking at them in the same way."
The league started the program in 2005 with the NFL Players Association, and hundreds of players have attended workshops focusing on topics such as learning how to manage money, putting together business plans and recognizing bad investments.
The sessions may be more valuable now than ever. With the uncertainty surrounding the NFL's collective bargaining agreement and the threat of a work stoppage in 2011, players need to know how to handle their money now more than ever.
"It definitely prepares you for the future and it's a wakeup call," said Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Farrior, who went to Wharton. "We might have a stoppage in play after next season, so guys are going to have to prepare themselves so they know what to do when they're not getting those checks every week."
Farrior said the NFLPA has already advised the players to make sure they put themselves in a comfortable position if there's no football in 2011.
"They tell us about saving our money," Farrior said, "like this year, they want us to save at least half of our salaries."
It's easier said than done, whether you're a millionaire athlete or a blue-collar worker trying to make ends meet. Athletes deal with similar issues -- albeit with much larger accounts -- while managing money, filing taxes and making investments.
"When our financial advisers and CPAs are going over our taxes, I want to know what they're saying," said Branch, who plans to attend the Harvard session next year. "Not just hearing what they're saying. I want to see it and know exactly what they're talking about and what they mean."
That's what's made the players jump at the chance to participate in the programs that cost $6,500, a fee reimbursed by the league upon completion.
"Basically you're getting all of these entrepreneurs, all of these businessmen -- people whose shoes we want to be in when we're done playing ball -- and they're coming in and taking numerous hours out of their time," Branch said, "and teaching us certain things we need to know about the business world."
The programs at the schools were similar, although Wharton included a heavy emphasis on real estate while Harvard focused on business operations, negotiations and legal issues.
"I just think as athletes, from the seventh grade or whenever you start playing Pop Warner, you kind of get on a conveyor belt," said New York Jets guard Brandon Moore, who spent a week at Harvard after participating at Wharton a few years ago. "You get kind of shut out from the outside world, what the everyday person is living and breathing. To be able to get that exposure to something outside the football field is huge."
The days were grueling, starting early in the morning with one lecture or group session after another until late in the day.
"I think the schedule was tougher than a regular practice day," Indianapolis Colts safety Jamie Silva said with a laugh. "We aren't used to sitting in class pretty much all day, but the experience couldn't be beat."
The roster of students included former players such as Morten Andersen and John Hall, established veterans and several young players.
"That was impressive," Farrior said. "I think all of the older guys, we thought if we had something like this when we were rookies, we'd be a lot better off. We probably could've saved ourselves a few dollars."
Peter Linneman, a longtime Wharton faculty member and the principal of Linneman Associates, has been part of the program since its inception.
"I've always found the players to be focused, genuine, decent and humble," he said. "I tell them that you work too hard to have your money stolen from you, and there are a lot of people trying to steal it from you."
Linneman has become friendly with many of the players and sets up occasional conference calls with them to discuss investments and other money matters. "I explain to them that just because I'm successful in what I do doesn't mean I could do what they do," he said. "They need to understand that in reverse. It takes time."
While many players who participated have specific long-term business goals, Branch isn't quite sure what he'd like to do when football's over. He kicks around the idea of getting into real estate one minute, and thinks about being a general manager the next.
"The biggest thing the instructors told us to not rush into things and make the wrong decision," Branch said. "They suggested we go out and work first and not just jump into doing this or that. That was vital. This is really going to help me."