From pro football to Harvard Yard

NFL players swap their pads for laptops in the off-season, taking classes at Harvard Business School to prepare for life after football.

Last season Omar Gaither successfully executed play after play on the football field as a rookie linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles. This morning, chalk in hand, he stands in front of a blackboard at the Harvard Business School, analyzing plays of an entirely different sort.

The problem at the moment is where Mr. Gaither will locate parking spaces in his sketch of "503 Cricket Road" – otherwise known as HBS Case Study No. 396001. Already Gaither has drawn an outline of the apartment complex, an entrance, and a walkway from the curb. Professor Arthur Segel has posed the question of where tenants will leave their vehicles. "Normally, the way I've seen it done is one space per unit plus a few extra for guests," says Gaither.

Professor Segel nods. Gaither waits, chalk posed. His classmates, 17 other National Football League (NFL) players seated in a tiered U-formation, offer assorted opinions based on their reading of the case study: There should be 28 spaces, two for each unit. The number of units should be increased. Tenants could park on the street.

Segel interjects: "Oh, I'm going to pay all that, and I'm not going to get a spot?"

Both the discussion and the divergent views are integral to the Harvard Business School case method and its application to an unusual program the university runs in conjunction with the league. The NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program is designed to help players make sound financial decisions and, more important, to prepare them for the one thing almost all professional athletes struggle with – life after sports.

Throughout the class, Segel – a kinetic man who clearly loves to teach – leads the analysis of the real-life scenario the students reviewed last night in their dorm rooms. The approach replicates the long-established one for Harvard's two-year graduate business students; the NFLers are here for the second of two three-day sessions.

It's not as if the players don't spend a fair amount of in-season time in classrooms. They do – hours each week studying plays and analyzing films. But learning how to run a company is different from learning how to run a nickel defense. "They come from a completely different world," says Segel. "They don't have a lot of formal business training, but they have a lot of life training." Many of the players also hold college degrees.

Versions of the program, which was started in 2005, are also offered by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Although each school brings its own focus – Harvard's is general management and entrepreneurship – all attempt to parlay the players' life experience (as well as on-field values of cooperation and competitive excellence) into business success. More than 100 players participated in the program this year.

"It helps put them on the right track, and it puts them in touch with people," says Mike Haynes, vice president of player and employee development for the NFL. The program also allows players to network among themselves and to share their perspectives.

"Everyone is always trying to sell them things," says Segel. "We can at least give them a framework to ask questions and be a little bit skeptical about what they're hearing."

To that end, Segel teaches the students in his real estate development class about floor-area ratio and return on equity, but perhaps his most pointed comments concern professional advice. "I can't tell you how important it is to surround yourself with good lawyers," he says. Segel focuses discussion of "503 Cricket Road" on four considerations: product, structure, capital, and people – especially people. "You'd better be able to get along with the fire chief who's giving you the permit, and the tenant, and the guy who operates the elevator," he says.

***

In some ways, the class resembles any other. Many of the students are avidly attentive, leaning forward to catch every word. A few seem less focused. One student whispers to another, and in the back, someone nurses a cup of coffee.

Among those who seem most engaged (and best prepared) is Todd Steussie, who plays tackle for the St. Louis Rams. In Segel's class, Mr. Steussie might be considered the overachiever, offering detailed answers to many questions. "There are some problems. The construction costs get out of control," he says at one point.

"Surprise, surprise," says Segel. Then he grins. "So you need padding in this game as well as in yours."

Later, Steussie and another classmate, Chris Heatherington of the San Francisco 49ers, explain their seriousness. "I'm not a spring chicken," says Steussie, who, at 36, is entering his 14th season in the NFL. "I might get to play another three years, but I'm not sure. I'm in class thinking, 'How can I apply this to my future occupation?' "

Steussie, who majored in economics at the University of California at Berkeley, says that after attending the program last year at the Kellogg School, he decided he needed to reckon with life after football. "A light turned on," he says, not least because he realized he'll need to "get out of the house" after he retires or deal with his wife's ire. Then, too, there's the void that leaving football opens. "A lot of us have Type A personalities," Steussie says. "We have to throw ourselves into something."

Mr. Heatherington, who is entering his 12th season, says veteran players approach the program with added intensity. "We're here to gain knowledge, use the time, make contacts." Before joining the NFL, Heatherington graduated from Yale University with a degree in psychology. He'd like to go to business school when he retires.

***

Younger players seem to benefit from the program, too. Indeed, Gaither is 23, as is another rookie, Brad Butler of the Buffalo Bills, who signed up because "veterans recommended it."

When they first join the league, new players often face major adjustments. "You're in a new city, with new teammates," says Mr. Haynes, a former player who is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "Family and friends are coming out of the woodwork.... Everyone knows you signed. In many ways you're a marked man."

A common misconception is that NFL players can live solely off their earnings after retirement, Haynes says. Even though many do earn in excess of a million dollars a year, the average football career lasts only a few years. And making a lot of money quickly, while you're young and perhaps not all that business-savvy, sometimes spells trouble.

At Harvard, in addition to in-depth analysis of the case studies, the players engage in sessions on career planning and self-assessment. There have been early successes. Dhani Jones, a linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, launched a company called Five Star Bow Ties that features a line of neckwear. And many players apply the knowledge they gain to real estate they hold or are considering acquiring.

Matt Light, a left tackle for the New England Patriots who earned an engineering degree from Purdue University in Indiana, is involved in the historical redevelopment of several properties in his hometown of Greenville, Ohio. He's here "to get reeducated," he says. "I haven't been in school for a long time. And the people here are some of the best."

Tonight at dinner, after afternoon sessions on buying an existing business, real estate, and hands-on negotiation, the players will listen to Jerry Richardson, who transitioned from NFL player to owner of the Carolina Panthers. Then it's back to the dorm to study for tomorrow.

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