As Eddie George neared the end of his nine seasons in the NFL, 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," says George, a Heisman Trophy winner who played for the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys from 1996 to 2005.
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George used his landscape architecture degree from Ohio State University to help found the Edge Group, a company that does landscaping and design projects in Columbus and Toledo, Ohio, and Nashville, 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 NFL says it is six years.
George was 30 when he retired, and many players are out of the game at a younger age. The money they earn in a short playing career isn't enough to last.
ANSWERING A NEED
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," says Bahati VanPelt, executive director of the organization, which was started in 2013.
He 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 decided while recovering from a foot injury to finish his degree. He earned it in 2001.
"I didn't know when or how my career was going to end. I wanted to prepare myself," he says.
George and four business partners launched the Edge in 2002. George expected to focus on design, but found himself doing marketing and seeking new clients. By the time 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 to keep the company alive.
The Edge's revenue has returned to pre-recession levels, says George, who has also been a college football analyst on Fox Sports and earned an MBA from Northwestern University in 2011.
LEARNING THE NUTS AND BOLTS
Deuce McAllister, a running back with the New Orleans Saints from 2001 to 2009, has co-owned businesses, including a trucking operation, a real estate development company, a car dealership and restaurants in Jackson, Mississippi, and 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 success. 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 at about 90 percent of capacity, and the company is also involved in commercial development.
Looking back, he says, 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 says.
McAllister learned from that failure that a business like selling cars, which demanded he be at the dealership daily, didn't fit with his desire to be involved with several businesses at once. At a Babson workshop, he got a better understanding of what it takes to run a company.
"When the accountants and I are going through (profit and loss statements), I'm going to understand what they're saying," McAllister says.
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 had partners in the beginning, but when the first version of the site failed during the recession, they couldn't agree on how to change it. So now he works on his own, hoping to take on new partners. He wants to make Joccupation an online community where athletes can share their experiences with each other and non-players as well.
Battles, who teaches high school social studies in Lawrenceville, Georgia, while working on his company, learned at a Babson workshop that he has to be the one in charge.
"We're used to being on the field," he says. "As an entrepreneur, we're moving into the front office."
Follow Joyce Rosenberg at www.twitter.com/JoyceMRosenberg .