Commentary

Tip Sheet: New program helps retirees

Georgia Tech seminar helps 25 NFL veterans transition into off-field careers

Originally Published: June 11, 2010
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Mark Bruener and Donovin DariusGetty ImagesRetired NFL veterans Mark Bruener (left, seen here as a Houston Texan) and Donovin Darius (right, as a Jacksonville Jaguar) attended the recent NFL seminar designed to help players transition to off-the-field careers.

ATLANTA -- There has been a pretty good battle over the last few years, much of it internecine infighting, for the collective soul of retired NFL players.

But the league this week took a big step toward addressing the minds -- and, almost as important, the pocketbooks -- of former NFL veterans. The NFL sponsored a four-day "transition program" at Georgia Tech for former players, most of whom recently moved from the field to the business world, and the symposium, the first league-initiated program of its kind, drew positive reviews from attendees.

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The seminar is like the 6-year-old Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program, a joint venture of the NFL and the NFLPA, and held at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard earlier this year. The NFL Career Transition Program could become a fixture on the calendar for players who recently exited the game.

"Part of what it does is demonstrate that the same skill set you developed as a player is also applicable in the business world," said former tight end Mark Bruener, who played 14 NFL seasons and served on the union's executive committee. "You have to have the same commitment you had as a player. … Most guys don't leave the game on their own terms. We all still think we can play. But there is life after football, and this program helps enormously in getting you prepared for it."

For four days, the 25 veterans who attended the program heard from members of the Georgia Tech faculty, and from retired players such as former Falcons center Jeff Van Note, on a variety of subjects. Among the issues discussed: personal finance, risk management and resources, launching a new career, job search and networking skills, personal health and well-being, nutrition, and communication skills.

The players, who had to apply to the program and write an essay about why they wanted to participate, attended classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. They had a one-on-one session with an executive adviser in the evenings. Bruener said that he went 8 a.m.-8 p.m. on Thursday. Former NFL safety Donovin Darius agreed that the days were "long but extremely productive." There was a blend of classes and panels, and the players were very attentive, participants and league officials concurred.

Another indicator that all the players were committed to the program: All of the players paid for their own transportation here.

Darius, 34, coaches high school football, works with a nonprofit organization, and has started his own company to counsel high school players on the transition to college on and off the field. The 37-year-old Bruener works with an apparel firm and has considered starting his own business. Both players conceded that their adjustment to retirement, particularly in the first year, was difficult.

Other players at the program simply were attempting to adjust to their exodus from a game that has been such a big part of their lives for so many years.

"We know anecdotally how difficult it has been for a lot of players to move from the NFL into the business world," said NFL vice president of player development Chris Henry. "A lot of the players have just, in a sense, had the rug pulled out from under them. They're still young men, with a lot of productive years left in society. We felt this [program] was a way to help them make the change."

Part of the reason the program was held here was Georgia Tech's academic standing and willingness to play host. The program might move to other parts of the country in the future.

Darius and Bruener acknowledged the value of four days of intense exposure to ideas, support and advice. Darius, who played 10 league seasons before he retired, suggested the program is "a must." He recommended that all players with at least three years experience take the course. Bruener said some classes and panels had to be extended because the players had so many questions.

"It's great to see [the players] so engaged," Henry said.

At a time when many former players experience a disconnect, and there has been considerable (and often passionate) discussion about issues such as retirement benefits, there was no debate about the significance of this week's transition program.

Said Darius: "As athletes, we sometimes get stereotyped. But a lot of the same attributes we develop as players -- leadership, accountability, working with others, problem-solving -- are exactly what corporations are looking for. Those same skills are transferrable, we found, to the business world.

"We got in one week what a lot of people pay thousands of dollars to get. Being an optimist, we can have as big as, or even bigger, impact on the corporate world as we had on the football world. It's gratifying to know that."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.