PRO FOOTBALL PLAYERS LOOK LARGER THAN LIFE ON THE FIELD. Seated in a three-tiered classroom at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in late February, they seemed positively Brobdingnagian. The ergonomic swivel chair holding Rodney Bailey, 300-pound defensive end for the Arizona Cardinals, sagged inches above the flecked carpet, its base creaking in protest. When Green Bay fullback John Kuhn absentmindedly cracked his knuckles, the noise carried throughout the back of the vast room. And on the long, curved tables in front of each of the 36 players, next to three-inch-thick binders of assigned readings, yellow highlighters and ballpoint pens, were piles of snacks that looked big enough to feed a whole squad of kindergartners: bags of chocolate chip cookies, trail mix, Goldfish crackers and sea-salted chips; multiple bottles of water and red and turquoise Gatorade.
Ross Tucker, former offensive lineman for the Washington Redskins, had lined up in front of himself two large cups of coffee, two bottles of water and an already-empty container of orange juice. (Like the snacks, drinks were complimentary in the lobby of Penn's Steinberg Conference Center, where the class was being held.) He had chosen an aisle seat so he could stand and stretch his stiff back and knees -- ailments earned during his six-year playing career -- and positioned himself on the classroom's second level, directly in front of the lectern, because, he said, "It helps me pay attention and stay focused." Like many of his peers, he was at Wharton to learn to become a better entrepreneur: Last September, he had launched his own business, Go Big Recruiting, a Web site that, for a fee, submits high school students' game films to prospective college coaches. The business was close to breaking even, but Tucker felt he needed help taking it "to the next level."
Entrepreneurship strikes many NFL players as an attractive post-football option. Although the average pro career lasts less than four years, the average annual salary is about $1.7 million, according to the NFL, which can provide nice starting capital. To make sure the players are fully aware of what launching a business entails -- including the pitfalls and predators they'll meet along the way -- the NFL and the NFL Players Association teamed up with Wharton and Harvard Business School in 2004 (Stanford and Northwestern universities joined in 2006) to create the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program, an annual event that crunches classes in real estate investment, marketing, scam-awareness and the like into a few marathon days during the offseason.
Tucker, now 29, attended the inaugural Business Initiative Program at Harvard in 2005, his fourth year in the NFL. His football career choice had always struck the Princeton grad as "unlikely"; for the first two years, after starting out as an undrafted rookie for the Redskins, he didn't even buy a new car, instead driving the same 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee he'd had in high school. (He also played for the Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots before coming back to the Redskins last year.)
"I've always seen it as a temp job," he says about football. "It's not like golf. You can't play it forever." Plus, he acknowledges, "I was never one of the chosen ones . . . I've always been a fringe player."
So, in offseasons, Tucker completed two internships at Merrill Lynch and another at a global real estate advisory firm, and earned his securities license. Aside from working on Go Big, he writes an online column for Sports Illustrated and serves as a host on Sirius NFL Radio and as a football commentator for the Comcast network. He's also learned his father-in-law's propane business "from the ground up," even getting his commercial driver's license so he can take fuel trucks out for service calls.
"Yeah, I got a little teasing from my friends about being the only Princeton grad who played for the NFL and has a BlackBerry with Bluetooth driving a propane truck," he says. "But everything I do takes me one step closer to figuring out what I want to do with my life."
He'd been kicking around the idea of Go Big for years, and the site was about to launch when, during a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens last August, Tucker suddenly felt a shooting pain in his neck. After the game, a Redskins doctor conducted tests on his feet and hands to assess the damage, and came back with grim news. Tucker's spine had been aggravated. That doctor -- and the one who provided Tucker with a second opinion -- strongly advised him to quit football. He was placed on the injured reserve list.
Tucker found the diagnosis "absolutely devastating." As much as he had tried to prepare for that day, he says, "a lot of my fondest memories in life took place around football . . . It's certainly something you have to mourn."
So, for the first time in six years, Tucker did not spend this past winter getting ready to play in the fall. Instead of bulking up in anticipation of the summer's grueling preseason training camps, he slimmed down, losing 65 pounds off his playing weight. His contract with the Redskins ran out, and he prepared to fill out his retirement paperwork. And on a breezy Sunday morning in late February, he packed his bags and made the two-hour drive from his home in Pine Grove, Pa., to Wharton, in Philadelphia.
LOCATED ON PENN'S SPRAWLING CITY CAMPUS, the Steinberg Conference Center resembles a boutique hotel more than an academic institution. Besides amphitheaters and classrooms, the center boasts private guestrooms with baths and personal computers, an exercise center, gourmet dining room and cocktail lounge. The halls and lobbies, dotted with attentive concierges, serve as a backdrop for the prestigious Balser Art Collection -- about 300 late 20th-century works of art, including some by Joan Miró, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali.
High-earning executives from around the world pay impressive sums to sharpen their business skills in this brick building. (The NFL program alone carries a $10,000 price tag per student, covered through the NFL Tuition Reimbursement Program.) Tucker and the other players had to apply for the privilege. Acceptance is based on education level, business experience, community leadership and answers to several short essay questions, including how they intend to apply the knowledge they will gain. "We wanted to ensure that the process was competitive and players were serious about the undertaking," explains Christopher Henry, director of player development for the NFL. "We're clear about the importance of preparing these guys for life after football, and to suggest that life outside of football is not competitive would be disingenuous."