Former players thriving in business world

Bert Emanuel is among the former NFL players finding success in the business world.

Updated: February 16, 2004, 3:19 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Transition has always come easily for Bert Emanuel so, as the former NFL wide receiver moved through a crowded media center during the days preceding Super Bowl XXXVIII, it wasn't shocking to watch him operate with the same grace that allowed him to glide effortlessly through opposition secondaries.

Mingling with other onetime NFL players and shaking hands with the reporters who once documented his career, Emanuel still looked as if he could run the "switch" pattern, one of the staple routes of the "run and shoot" offense, from his familiar slot position. At the same time, only two years removed from the knee injury which ended his nine-year NFL tenure, the still-fit Emanuel looked as if he could be the CEO of a company.

Which, not surprisingly, is precisely his new role.

Emanuel is the founder of KAOS Sports, a burgeoning provider of what is known in athletics as performance apparel. And now, no one who knows Emanuel well will be mystified if he has similar success as CEO of KAOS as he did on the gridiron.

"Probably from the first day I set foot on an NFL field, I understood it was a temporary existence," said Emanuel, a record-setting quarterback at Rice University in the early 1990s before becoming an NFL wideout. "I knew that someday I would be in business. Maybe, at the time, I didn't know what business. But I knew there had to be something else out there once the NFL didn't have anymore use for me. I mean, football is a pursuit that, once you're done with it, you still have the majority of your life in front of you."

Emanuel, 33, is representative of many of the past and present players who attended the Super Bowl, and some of the festivities leading up to the game, to mix some business with their pleasure. Certainly, there remains a large segment of the NFL player population that is oblivious to the game's most painful reality, the one that dictates careers end when the body erodes. But for an increasing number of players, like the brainy Emanuel, the title game and its accompanying activities represent an opportunity for reconnecting with their recently-severed ties, and for laying a longer-term groundwork.

The Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, years ago, would lecture Pittsburgh Steelers players about the importance of planning for what he termed their "life's work." Perhaps more so than in other years, players seemed to use Super Bowl XXXVIII as a market for hawking the services they have created in their post-football lives, and Emanuel and KAOS Sports represented the growing spirit of entrepreneurship.

Said one former player, who asked that neither his name nor his product be used, since he is still about six months removed from finalizing a patent on an exercise-related product: "For years, I used to hear (football writers) talk about how the Super Bowl was kind of their unofficial annual convention, because it's the one place they saw all their colleagues in the same place. Once I started working on (my product), and knew there would be a big market for it among players, it dawned on me to go to places where players gathered. So now here I am at the Super Bowl and I'm going to the Pro Bowl, too. Those places become the center of the players' universe for those weeks. You can see a lot of (future customers) in one place."

Among the various purveyors licensed by NFL Properties to sell league-approved items, Super Bowl XXXVIII did not yet begin to reflect the numbers in which former players now are pursuing a piece of the action. But in the not-too-distant future, league officials acknowledged, more players-turned-businessmen will be chasing licensing agreements.

That is not to suggest we have entered into a fully enlightened era in which players all over the NFL comprehend the short shelf-life of their athletic careers and diligently plot for the long-term future. But as indicated by the number of current players who now hold college degrees, a number at approximately 50 percent, there is a growing awareness of the brevity of the average athletic career and of the reality that earning potential should not cease upon retirement.

"In a lot of ways," said Hall of Fame quarterback and ultra-successful real estate magnate Roger Staubach, "football provides you entry. But only if you take advantage of the name recognition you're automatically going to enjoy."

In the case of Emanuel, it isn't necessarily Q-factor, but more his familiarity with basic player needs that figures to make him and KAOS Sports very successful. There is a fairly basic tenet -- that people in any walk of life perform better, are ultimately more effective and productive, when they are comfortable -- that drives Emanuel and his company.

Early in his playing career, Emanuel understood that not all uniform materials were created equal. He began to seek a garment, with the aid of other players like defensive end Chris Doleman, made of materials that would "wick" moisture from the body and toward the surface to allow for evaporation. He wanted a product that would reduce the so-called "wet weight" for athletes and permit them to function with more comfort.

That was the genesis for KAOS, a firm whose products feature moisture management, heat regulation, comfort and durability. Those might be components that, to most people, mean very little. But one would be surprised how much athletes pay attention to such things and are constantly in pursuit of those kinds of products.

"You wouldn't wear wool in the summer or mesh in the winter, right?" Emanuel said. "The body needs to adapt. It functions better in (optimum) conditions. To me, being able to work in a uniform that is comfortable might be worth a touchdown. Now as a guy on the business end of it, looking back at my playing days, I know how important this is. And we're not just dealing with athletes."

Indeed, his company is marketing to construction workers, police departments and to the military. In less than two years, since Emanuel lay on the field with two torn ligaments in his knee and realized retirement was being forced upon him, KAOS Sports has grown into a multi-million dollar venture.

More important, though, Emanuel has raced through his business apprenticeship and is going full-bore into this endeavor. And he isn't the only one, as demonstrated at Super Bowl XXXVIII, where players mixed discussions of profit margins with talk of punts. Players seem to be increasingly realizing that, while fame is fleeting, there is an entire post-football segment of their lives to be lived.

"I was lucky," said Emanuel, one of the NFL's classiest performers during his career, and a player whose parents were both successful professionals. "I understood that football is a beginning, not an ending, and I think more guys realize that now."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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