As Eddie George neared the end of his nine seasons in the National Football League, the running back began pondering his next play.
"Something I'd worked on for most of my adult life was coming to an end, and it was really depressing, the unknown," said George, a Heisman Trophy winner who played for the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys from 1996 to 2005.
George, who retired from the game at 30, used his landscape architecture degree from Ohio State University to help found the Edge Group, a company that does landscaping and design projects in Ohio and Tennessee.
Many pro football players would like to start their own businesses after they leave the field, and now they can seek help from programs specifically designed to help retired athletes navigate the obstacles of entrepreneurship.
For some, building a business is a lifestyle choice. They want to keep working. Others need to earn a living. Although the minimum NFL salary this year is $420,000, many players don't make the big money for very long. The average football career is 3.5 years, according to the players union, the NFL Players Association. The league says it is six years. Either way, the money players earn in a short career isn't enough to last.
A branch of the players union called the Trust sponsors entrepreneurship workshops at Babson College. The NFL has a similar program at some of the country's top business schools.
Trust founders "felt there was a void in the entrepreneurial space, the obvious need for our players to learn more about owning their own businesses," said Bahati VanPelt, executive director of the organization, which was started in 2013. VanPelt says football players have skills that help them as entrepreneurs: They know how to work toward a goal, be team members and achieve something even when the odds are stacked against them.
Both programs introduce players to small-business basics, including how to evaluate whether entrepreneurship is for them and how to analyze balance sheets.
Going back to school pays off
George's path to business ownership began when he was about halfway through his NFL days. He had left Ohio State for the Oilers before graduating, and he decided while recovering from a foot injury to finish his degree. He earned it in 2001, and later earned an M.B.A. from Northwestern University.
"I didn't know when or how my career was going to end. I wanted to prepare myself," he said.
George and four partners launched the Edge in 2002. He expected to focus on design, but found himself doing marketing and seeking new clients. As the recession hit in 2007, the company had revenue of about $3 million. But when the real estate market collapsed, landscape design wasn't a priority for corporate clients. George and his partners cut the payroll by 30 percent. The Edge's revenue has returned to prerecession levels, George said.
Learning the nuts and bolts
Deuce McAllister, a running back with the New Orleans Saints from 2001 to 2009, has co-owned a trucking operation, a real estate development company, a car dealership and restaurants in Jackson, Miss., and in New Orleans. He started the trucking company soon after he was picked in the first round of the 2001 draft, using his signing bonus to finance it. McAllister grew up in a small-business family — his father also was in trucking — so entrepreneurship seemed like a natural path.
He has had mixed results. The car dealership, which opened in 2005, failed within five years because of the recession. But condos that his real estate business developed are running about 90 percent of capacity, and the company also is involved in commercial development.
Looking back, he said, he didn't have the right partners to keep the dealership going through the recession. He realizes his football player's optimism may have prevented him from closing the showroom sooner.
"As a player, you always think you can get a first down. That can hurt you to a fault," he said.
You're the boss now
Ainsley Battles' football career and its unexpected end helped him prepare for entrepreneurship's unpredictability. Battles has been working on Joccupation.com, a social media site for athletes, since a hamstring injury sidelined him for good in 2004. He spent four seasons as a safety with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Battles, who also teaches high school social studies in Lawrenceville, Ga., learned at a Babson workshop that he has to be the one in charge.
"We're used to being on the field," he said. "As an entrepreneur, we're moving into the front office."
Joyce Rosenberg is a reporter for the Associated Press.