Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo expands his field

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 11:57 PM

Brian Orakpo is getting ready for his close-up. His makeup artist for the afternoon, Trish Martinez, goes with CARGO blu-ray around his eyes, Make Up For Ever on his cheeks and Burt's Bees on his lips. But the final touch for the day's photo shoot is the most important - the milk moustache, for which she opens a small carton of Greek yogurt and dabs it on Orakpo's upper lip.

"Me being naive, I thought it was actual milk they use," says the Washington Redskins' talented linebacker.

Orakpo's emergence as a dangerous pass rusher came last season, when he tallied 11 sacks as a rookie and earned a spot in the Pro Bowl. Now in his second year, Orakpo has seven sacks through eight games and is on pace to surpass last year's total.

He's trying to take full advantage of his football success by capitalizing away from the field.

Orakpo and Creative Artists Agency, which represents him on and off the field, have been methodical and deliberate in their marketing approach. CAA encourages its clients to focus on football during their rookie seasons. If they thrive on the field, year two is the time to spread their wings away from it.

It's a similar approach that CAA uses for most of its young stars, from Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons to rookie Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams.

"I think you have to be careful going into year one," says Howard Skall, Orakpo's marketing agent with CAA. "Even if you have a guy who went high in the draft and played at a national school like Rak did, you also want to have them established in the local marketplace. You don't want them out there too much before they've ever set foot on the field."

Says Orakpo: "It would have been too much of a burden last year. It would've been too much on my plate."

He's been busy this season, though. In addition to a handful of preexisting deals, Orakpo recently launched a Web site (BrianOrakpo.com) with a blog, joined Twitter (@rak98), signed a local sponsorship deal with Verizon, agreed to take over for former Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell hosting a golf fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and began making preparations for his first football camp, which is scheduled for next spring. He's trying to get out in the community more, too - he made an appearance at a Tysons Corner mall Saturday after practice and last Tuesday paid a visit to an Arlington elementary school prior to the milk moustache photo shoot for Dairy Management Inc.

Most NFL players can't aspire to the national deals that put the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on television commercials every week.

But that doesn't mean there isn't money to be made. The vast majority of endorsement deals in sports are of the regional and local variety, experts say.

"The really big ones, those are rare," says Stephen Greyser, a senior professor at Harvard Business School, where he specializes in marketing, sports and branding. "Those are for a certified big star or someone who flashes across the sky like a meteor. Most aren't going to get those kinds of deals. The vast majority of players get nothing. Or very little."

Because NFL careers don't last long, Orakpo knows now is the time to strike, which is why he spent part of his day off last week with a stripe of yogurt smeared across his lip.

"Football can set you for life," Orakpo says, "or you can have money or fame for three or four years and then go back to square one. You have to take advantage of it and be smart with your decisions."

Preparing himself

A couple of hours prior to the photo shoot, Orakpo stepped out of a black SUV at Arlington's Claremont Immersion Elementary, which the NFL was honoring for its commitment to health and fitness. Orakpo and Redskins running back Clinton Portis met with students at an assembly, where one student asked the players to name their favorite foods.

Portis chuckled, answering pork and Frosted Flakes. Orakpo said, "My favorite food has to be - How many of you like pineapple?" The students cheered and hands shot to the ceiling. "That's my favorite."

Orakpo has actually been preparing for this career step for several years. At the University of Texas, players on the football team were taught how to deal with the media and spent many of their Fridays visiting local hospitals.

Before the 2009 NFL draft, CAA sent Orakpo to Athletes' Performance, a comprehensive training center in Arizona, to prepare for the NFL Scouting Combine, where college football players perform skill tests before NFL coaches. But the training there extended beyond the field. Orakpo also sat through a classroom session called "Brand U Media Training."

Don Yaeger, a former Sports Illustrated reporter who now runs 180 Communications, has taught the course for four years, meeting with many of football's top prospects, including the past four No. 1 overall draft picks.

"You can always tell, the higher they are on the draft board, the more they're paying attention to ways they can affect their off-the-field revenue," Yaeger says.

Prospects at Athletes' Performance generally understand that their playing contract is slotted and will only earn them in the ballpark of a 3 percent increase from a similarly-drafted player the prior year. Yaeger explains to them that it's the off-the-field endeavors that increase their earning potential.

He asks each player to come up with five words that describe how they'd like to be perceived by fans, and then teaches players how to incorporate those concepts into their interviews and public appearances.

"Brian was one of those guys who was as thoughtful about this as anyone I've worked with," Yaeger says.

Orakpo's five words: accountable, competitor, humble, leader, versatile.

"Brian was great," Yaeger says. "He was one of the guys who realized they can impact their off-the-field revenue by having a brand that other people want to be aligned with."

A product that fits

Following the school visit, Orakpo headed to Redskins Park, where a crew was waiting in the team's television studio to record some audio spots. One of Orakpo's new deals is with Dairy Management Inc., and they had an afternoon to record audio, shoot still photos and record video.

Wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt with a Pro Bowl logo, Orakpo sat behind a microphone and read a script. His deep voice booms like Barry White crooning through a tuba.

"I drink chocolate milk as a great way to fuel my body. It contains important nutrients for strong muscles. This is Brian Orakpo and I loooove chocolate milk."

Orakpo hopes his brand translates to companies and organizations that care about health, hard work and clean living.

"We're looking for somebody who would be a positive role model for kids, someone who's clean cut, someone who's engaged, wants to give back to the community, might be willing to make a school appearance or talk with kids," says Isabel Maples of the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association, who was helping supervise the photo shoot.

Skall has been busy working on Orakpo's behalf. As a rookie, Orakpo had a deal with Nike, a Pepsi agreement and contracts with a handful of trading-card companies. Skall is trying to build from there, and says with any player, that means there's a lot of cold calls and a lot of rejection.

It's often a bigger challenge with a defensive player.

"It's a quarterbacks league," he says. "You look at the quarterback, protecting the quarterback and on defense, guys who can get to the quarterback. So if you're a guy who can get the quarterback, make big game-changing plays, you can be very marketable, even without being an offensive skill position guy."

For NFL players, the bulk of their income will always be their playing contract. When the Redskins made Orakpo the No. 13 overall pick in the 2009 draft, they gave him a five-year deal worth up to $20 million. This season, between his base salary and bonuses, he will pocket more than $7.8 million.

Aside from the game's elite players, most endorsement deals will bring in five- to six-figure paychecks.

Skall searches for authentic relationships - products and services that Orakpo actually uses and would want to endorse. The key is finding the perfect fit and being creative.

"I think the whole idea of a sack of groceries and quarterback sacks - there might be something there," Skall adds. "You can play off that, I think."

Orakpo knows that to succeed off the field, he needs to keep excelling on it. And Skall knows that his client would be even more marketable if the Redskins can win and thrust Orakpo onto a national stage.

"Especially when you're talking more from a local and regional level to becoming more national, it certainly helps to have the team success," he says. "Very few players have been able to be real relevant from a national marketing standpoint without being on a successful team."

Part of brand-building also entails work in the community. Orakpo is eager to launch his own charitable foundation. Six of his teammates - Lorenzo Alexander, London Fletcher, DeAngelo Hall, Donovan McNabb, Santana Moss and Portis - already have theirs, and Orakpo is in the early stages of deciding what cause he'd want to support and what activities he'd have associated with it.

Now 24 years old, Orakpo says he has a different perspective on life and on sport in his second season. Last offseason, he got married and later had a baby.

"People look at us as role models, see us on the field, and I want to show them another side - that we're not just jocks, not just touchdowns and sacks," he says. "I want to give them a different perspective on who we are and what we do."

'Unlimited potential'

Downstairs at Redskins Park, next to the team's cafeteria is a racquetball court. On this day, though, it's been turned into a photo studio with lights scattered about and a white backdrop near the back wall. Milk, cereal and other props fill one table off to the side.

Orakpo never imagined that he'd be shooting photos with a milk moustache. Since 1993, numerous athletes have sported the moustache in advertisements, from Alex Rodriguez and LeBron James to Andy Roddick and McNabb.

This shoot isn't technically part of the long-running "Got Milk?" campaign, but it will be used in conjunction with the NFL's "Fuel Up to Play 60," the league's health and fitness initiative.

Orakpo is dressed in full uniform, from his gold game pants and burgundy jersey to his shoulder pads. He smiled on command, flexed his giant biceps. Props came and went. At one point, a carton of chocolate milk appeared.

"Chocolate milk?" Orakpo said with a chuckle. "But I got a white moustache." It was quickly replaced with a regular milk carton.

The photo shoot was just another step. He has big plans both on and off the field. "When it's all said in done, I'd like to be financially stable," he says, "so that if I want to do different stuff, it's stuff that I want to do, not that I need to do."

To do that, he'll need to keep playing at a high level, maintain a strong connection with fans and help his team return to a place of prominence in the NFL.

"In my opinion, he'll be the face of the Redskins and one of the building blocks and cornerstones for the next decade here," Skall says. "He has unlimited potential from a marketing standpoint locally.

Nationally, it's more challenging. The team has to start winning and he has to do his part - keep making Pro Bowls, keep playing at a high level. If that happens, there's some real potential. The sky's the limit."

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