NEW YORK — When The Trust was launched in 2013 as a positive result of the 2011 lockout that led to a labor agreement, few NFL players knew it existed, let alone the benefits it could provide.
This month, as The Trust reached its fifth anniversary, its scope has widened and its popularity is clear.
"At the beginning, we had zero recognition. Now, we average 1,000 guys a year activating benefits," says Bahati VanPelt, the executive director of The Trust. "The average increases every year by the month. We saw a surge and then it was steady and now we're in the next wave."
Former players have gone from virtually unaware to heavily involved in The Trust, which according to the NFL Players Association, "provides transitioning football players with the support they need to ensure their success off the field and in life."
How did the flow of knowledge happen?
"We have the resources designed to meet the former players' needs," VanPelt explains. "Referrals from guys who already are participating in The Trust have been significant. Players' association reps on teams and the executive committee and players' directors are getting the message out and providing information about The Trust. It's mentioned at every team meeting with the NFLPA.
"And the high player referrals indicate we are serving former players in the correct way."
The Trust, which started with seven full-time employees and now has 22, serves those players who earned two or more credited seasons in the NFL in dozens of ways. Most critical are such programs as:
—Medical/Wellness ; Brain and Body Assessments.
Brain and Body Assessments are provided for men who played in the league in the past 15 years. Such prestigious partners as Cleveland Clinic, Tulane University, Massachusetts General Hospital, The Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute, and Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offer a set of screenings and tests designed to helping develop and maintain a healthy brain and body.
Evaluations with a sports medicine psychiatrist, sports psychology counseling, and cognitive and neuropsychological consults are also available. Similar to Brain and Body Assessments, Milestone Wellness Assessments are designed to assess the health needs of former players who have been removed from the NFL for 15 or more years.
"With the assessments, we opened the door to the guys who are after the window of 15 years, which is a lot of players; a majority is outside that window," says former NFL tight end Anthony Becht, now a "captain" who mentors and advises former players on transition issues. "They have needs and we have provided them with a great opportunity to get that head to toe, a medical a la carte opportunity.
"From cognitive to heart to colon at very established medical institutions, these guys can see a way to have a baseline of good health for their private use."
The Trust has programs for undergraduate and graduate degree completion and vocational training, and includes a scholarship for meeting those goals. Former players can identify and target their educational options and goals and set a road map to successful completion.
"What are you interested in and how can you go about it?" asks NFLPA President Eric Wharton, who currently is attending Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania through a Trust scholarship. "We always had this path in football: If I play well in high school, I will go to college. If I play well in college, I can got to the pros. And if I play well, I can, stay there. Now, it's sort of like what is this next path?
"The Trust is trying to create those paths. If I want to be in 'X' industry, I can go back to school and get placed there, whatever it might be. We're still trying to make it bigger, be more successful in getting guys back to school and creating initiative for the rest of their lives."
The Trust has partnered with AthLife, Babson College, and Lee Hecht Harrison to help former NFLers — whether they already have finished their educations or utilize the scholarship program — to move into other fields of endeavor.
"It doesn't have to be some executive role," Winston notes. "They could start or get into a niche business, too. And it gives them a lot of purpose and flexibility, and keeps them busy and provides so much self-worth."
Through partnerships with Financial Finesse, The Trust provides financial education on a variety of levels. Don't think this isn't critical. Yes, many players — though not the majority — have earned huge salaries in the league. That doesn't mean they've acquired the skills to manage their money properly.
The key for The Trust is assisting with the management of the money they made.
"Whether you have money saved or successful stuff off the field or kind of played several years and made decent money, whatever your angle may be — even guys who never saved anything," Becht says, "they all go through a withdrawal period and they are not sure about the future ... the finances. How do you turn the page and get your life on a new schedule? We try to help them see it from every avenue."
One thing pro athletes are accustomed to is being in shape. And trying to stay in shape.
The Trust has partnerships with EXOS and the YMCA to help the former players remain fit.
Each year, The Trust's budget increases by 5 percent due to an escalator in the collective bargaining agreement, which expires in early 2021. All of it gets spent yearly.
"We are nonprofit based," VanPelt says. "What comes in must be spent on benefits, services and resources for former players."
VanPelt expects those services and resources to continue being expanded annually. The Trust has made big steps with a free agency program that helps players no longer on rosters but still hoping to continue their careers.
"The numbers have exploded out in terms of engagements," Winston says. "The Trust offers a full suite of services ... and when you count up and see what guys are using ... 1,500 scholarships, over $12.2 million for guys just to go back to school.
"I can't stress enough how difficult it is to run a full suite of services like that. Just think about only trying to help transition, and then another program with scholarships and then to get placed from there, that's not an easy task.
"We all use our resources to try to amplify the positive effects we can create. It is a grind, not easy work."