NFL players: They’re just like us! They consume 10,000 calories a day! They survive tackles from monstrous 350-pound linemen! They make millions, have groupies and retire at age 32.
Well, actually they’re not like us at all, except in one critical respect: they’re obsessed with reimagining their lives. The average NFL career lasts only about 3.5 years; post-career depression is common, and many former stars have trouble finding their way once the stadium lights dim. Helping them sidestep the crash is NFL Player Engagement, a sanctioned arm of the league that educates current and former players on next life steps. At this summer’s Broadcast Boot Camp—a grueling, invitation-only 4-day series of seminars and workshops for those looking for careers in TV and radio—James “J.B.” Brown, host of The NFL Today on CBS, spoke to three attending former NFL stars to find out what they’ve learned about career and life reinvention.
As a star defensive tackle for 9 seasons—7 in Tampa and 2 in Indianapolis—McFarland won two Super Bowl rings.
Rule 1: It’s the structure, stupid
“When you first come into the NFL, teams are obsessed with developinghabits. There’s a specific time to work out, to eat, to practice, even to relax. That structure is what we built our lives around, and those habits become so deeply engrained. It’s something that lets you concentrate on the bigger things that really matter. Everybody needs structure. Without it, you’re just searching. That’s one of the great things that football teaches you about life.”
Rule 2: But don’t hesitate to let it crash and burn
“We all develop these habits and skills, and we want to continue doing them forever. But the hardest part about life transitions—and one of the reasons it’s so tough to shift from the NFL to something else—is that you need to get rid of those habits blocking your next steps. It’s like breaking a smoking or a drug addiction: sometimes you need to go cold turkey to move forward.”
Rule 3: You don’t need to be the superstar
“I was a lineman—one of those big guys doing the grunt work for every play, 60 of 62 snaps a game. When you play the toughest positions on the line, you develop true character—football character. And it also teaches you also how to be humble. There isn’t a lot of publicity, but we’re central to winning. So you learn how to go and do your job really well and move forward without getting a lot of recognition. That’s a useful thing for anyone to know.”
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Rule 4: Keep your eyes wide open
“The truth is, I never really dreamed about the NFL—I dreamed mostly of finding a way to get out of my small town, Winnsboro, Louisiana. I got an athletic scholarship to LSU and this thing called the NFL just kept popping up. I got drafted and away to Tampa I went. It was the first time I ever left Louisiana. I saw the palm trees and the beaches and I never wanted to leave after that. But I started thinking about next steps while I was still playing. I was very fortunate enough to get a local radio show for a few years during my playing days. It was an opportunity and I jumped on it. People realized I liked to talk. I’m just an old country boy from Louisiana who likes interacting with people. It was something I found out I was good at.”
Rule 5: Make yourself uncomfortable
“By the time football was ending, I was getting anxious. The people I graduated with at LSU in 1999 had sent out their first resumes a decade earlier. They started a foundation and built a brand. By the time I got out of the league and spent some time starting a family, I felt far behind. So that was scary. But, in the end, I knew what it is that I wanted to do—I just didn’t know how to get there. And that’s why the Broadcast Boot Camp has been so good for me. It thrusts you into an uncomfortable position: trying something new. It allows your brain to move in different directions. It’s like the first time I made a tackle: ‘Hey, this ain’t bad. Maybe this is something I can improve on and go forward with.’”
Rule 6: Reinvent, reinvent, reinvent—and never look back
“I enjoyed football and the things around it. But I never, never loved it. I knew it was time to walk away when it didn’t engulf me. I didn’t dream about it. People say, “Man, don’t you want to go back out there?” I say, “The U.S. Mint don’t print enough cash for me to go back.” Because once you’ve checked out of something—regardless of what the physical body can do—the mental part’s already gone. Mentally, if you’re not there, you’re going to fail.”
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Rule 7: Give yourself some damn credit
“Now I have a regular drive time radio show in Tampa. When I was 12 or 13 years old, I was terrified to talk in front of people. I was a short little fat kid with an Afro who stuttered a lot when I got nervous. I was not confident. So I’ve fortunate that I’ve been able to pull off a 180. It’s incredibly satisfying.”
Utecht was a tight end for the Indianapolis Colts and the Cincinnati Bengals. In 2009, during his 6th year as a pro, he experienced a career-ending head injury. He still suffers from its effects.
Rule 8: Fake it until you make it
“All the repetition, structure and consistency of the NFL leads to a confidence you take into other things. It’s ingrained: The more you practice, the better you become. The minute you walk through the locker room doors and see a ‘No Excuses, No Explanations’ sign, you believe you’re going to be a champion. It’s like osmosis, or self-talk. It just flows into everything else. So acquiring that mindset was a great learning experience for me—it pushed me beyond any level that I thought I could reach.”
Rule 9: But have a backup plan
“Sports were always a consuming part of my life. But ever since I was a kid, my parents made sure to develop diversity in my life. I think it really allowed me to discover my identity. They allowed me to discover multiple passions, and I took those interests and ran with them. One of them was music. It really grew alongside my passion for football.”
Rule 10: Make opportunities count — for real
“While I was still playing my last year with Indianapolis in 2007—the year we won the Super Bowl—I was asked to perform 16 shows with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. As long as it didn’t affect my play, [head coach] Tony Dungy was very supportive. He and his family and bunch of my teammates were all sitting a few rows out as I’m singing with this orchestra. It was surreal. A reporter asked Dungy about it, and he said: “I knew Ben would be a good football player. But I always knew he was destined to be a musician.” Part of me thought: Does that mean he thinks I’m a better singer than football player? But it was around that time that I really began to realize that this was something I can do.”
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Rule 11: Stop feeling sorry for yourself
“Having other passions in my life to fall back on really helped me through the transition process when that last concussion—my fifth major one—happened. I was sidelined. I found myself depressed and fighting to find my purpose and to regain my feet, and there it was: singing. I think of the guys who I’ve played with who had their entire identity wrapped up in this game and I can’t help but feel bad for them. I always knew that it wasn’t going to last forever for me. The players all joked that we knew what NFL really stood for: ‘Not For Long.’”
Rule 12: Build your support team. Then change the world.
“Whether you’re a football player or office worker, you need a support system to make a life transition succeed. It’s critical. Because my wife is so supportive of everything I try, she’s given me the freedom to go and reach for the stars. And that is probably the greatest gift that she can give me at the moment, because of my competitive heart and my desire to really be someone. And change the world! That’s something I want to be a part of.”
KEVIN WILLIAM O’CONNELL
O’Connell has played quarterback for the San Diego Chargers, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions and New England Patriots.
Rule 13: Plan for the end-of-world scenario
“I really started thinking about what I wanted to do later in life even before playing in the NFL. I struggled with some injury problems. So you think about all the scenarios. Best case: I’m starting quarterback for one of 32 franchises, and life goes from there. But the worst-case scenario is that something happens—an injury or some other misfortune. And you find yourself just another guy trying to find success in this world in another field.”
Rule 14: Get ready to feel utterly lost
“I’d played organized football since grade school. Now suddenly I’m 28 years old and I’m on my own schedule. I don’t have a coach sending me a workout plan. I don’t have a nutritionist sending me a meal plan. There are so many things I have to learn to do for myself. As an adult, you’re really thrown into the deep end of the pool. So I’m glad I took the steps that I’ve taken. I can’t speak more highly of the advanced Broadcast Boot Camp, in terms of opening me up to new possibilities. It’s a whole new profession.”
Rule 15: Feel free to dabble
“I’d always been told by coaches and other players that I’d make a great coach, because of my love and understanding the game. As a back-up QB, you constantly have to see and diagnose things. I think of it leading to some communication or broadcasting role. I think my biggest fear would be to try out everything but not be good at anything. But you really do have to dabble in lots of stuff to find your footing. NFL Player Engagement has done a very good job of teaching players how to prepare for their next steps. Before it’s too late. The NFL is so quick and competitive, guys are gunning for your job every year. And come late April, there’s always going to be another draft. There’s a new shiny toy for these football coaches to use. You have to be ready for whatever comes.”
Rule 16: It’s all about the rush
“I think the process is the same for anyone looking for a new life, whether you’re 28 or 58. You need to find the passion—when you do, the work ethic will follow. You’ve got to love what you’re moving on to. And you’ve got to find a way to be competitive with it. You need the equivalent of that blood-pumping rush we players got running out of the tunnel in front of 85,000 people. It might be getting in front of a camera and talking football, or maybe in front of a courtroom as a lawyer. We’ve seen guys take a lot of routes. But you’ve got to find that thing that gets you up in the morning and really gets you going.”
Rule 17: You have to find a way to self-motivate.
“The secret is to be excited about your next step, and not to feel bad about it. Not to feel any kind of regret whatsoever. That’s what life is all about.”