Former National Football League player John Booty always knew there would have to be life after football.
When injuries forced him out of the game in 1996, he dreamed of owning his own health club.
Six months ago, Booty and his wife, Chartese, opened the World Gym Fitness Center in Largo. The gym is thought to be one of a few minority-owned health clubs in the country, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a trade group.
"We kind of feel to whom much is given, much is required," said Chartese Booty. "We stepped out on faith."
The dream was catching.
John and Chartese Booty brought in 10 other African American couples to form an investment group to share ownership of the club. It's a group that represents the new face of Prince George's County, predominantly black and affluent.
"It's been a beautiful dream of John's that he shared with us," said Zara Young, who is Chartese Booty's sister. Young, a D.C. schoolteacher, and her husband, Gregory, contributed $15,000 to the venture.
"I've never been a big fitness ace. But we wanted to invest. This serves a dual purpose," she said, adding that buying into the health club provides an incentive to get back into shape.
For John Booty, a native Texan who now lives in Prince George's County with his wife and young daughter, the ultimate goal of owning a gym was clear. The problem was, he had no idea where to start.
He wanted something that would appeal to the residents in his mostly black community. He wanted families. He wanted average bodies.
"We recognized that we needed a club that was upscale," said Chartese Booty. "We didn't want to be a meat market."
A friend directed the couple to the Georgia-based American Club Systems, a consulting and management firm that helps entrepreneurs get into the gym business and, in some cases, operates the gyms for them.
Once Booty was confident that he could make the gym work, he set out to find investors for the $800,000 venture. The Santa Monica-based World Gym International, which has sold its naming rights to about 300 clubs around the world, estimates that an average 12,000-square-foot club costs $465,200.
Booty planned a considerably larger 17,000-square-foot gym, which was to include a 2,300-square-foot aerobics studio, a rehabilitation center, a children's play area, a juice bar and saunas.
For capital, Booty turned first to the close circle of football players he knew from his eight NFL seasons. He also turned to the National Basketball Association.
Booty, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, signed on former Washington Redskin Martin Mayhew, former Minnesota Viking Scottie Graham, Arizona Cardinal J.B. Brown and the Orlando Magic's Harvey Grant, a former Washington Wizard. Graham and Brown have since dropped out.
Booty used his NFL severance and cashed in stocks to contribute his portion. He also brought in a team of local investors to form the LGB group, which stands for Lord God's Blessings. The smallest investment was $5,000, and the largest was $150,000.
The company -- over which the Bootys maintain majority ownership -- initially raised about $400,000, which went toward building costs, said Nadine Varella, a Silver Spring resident who is treasurer of the company. The gym is located in renovated retail space in the Largo Town Center near Redskins Stadium.
"We literally had to go in and do everything," Varella said. "It needed floors, electrical, plumbing, all of it. Our major expense was putting that shell together."
The LGB Group also received approval recently for a $250,000 loan from the Small Business Administration.
Varella said the club is signing up 200 to 250 new members a month and expects to turn a profit by the second quarter of next year.
In the meantime, the investors meet every two weeks over pizza or chips at the Booty residence. They start each meeting with a prayer.
Katrina Meares-Garland, a software consultant, said she and her husband, Maurice, who owns his own financial services company, were looking for investment opportunities when a friend told them about Booty's idea.
The couple, both 33 years old and graduates of the University of Maryland at College Park, have a 4-year-old daughter.
"I was scared," Meares-Garland said of the first time she heard the pitch. "I'm real conservative. I just didn't know anything about it. I didn't know World Gym."
But she did know that "there was a need for a gym in this area," Meares-Garland said. "I did like the fact that a group of families were coming together to bring this to our community."
The couple pulled together $5,000 from their savings and checking accounts to put into the health club.
The World Gym Fitness Center opened with a star-studded cast of athletes on hand to help cut the ribbon. Washington Wizard Rod Strickland towered above the crowd of onlookers, which included media personalities such as Mocha Lee, co-host of BET's Heart and Soul, and Donna Richardson, co-host of ESPN2's "Crunch Fitness" program.
"You have an idea, and you try to paint a good picture," John Booty said. "It's not a perfect picture. My will has been tested. Everyone's will has been tested. You just have to stand together and put it in God's hands and focus on the big picture."
Chartese Booty said the club has turned out to be much more work than the group expected. John Booty, who is president of LGB, is at the club every day. The other investors help with public relations and coordinate charitable activities for the group.
"A lot of us were thinking that we weren't going to be in here day to day," Chartese Booty said. "But you've got to be in your business, even if it's not full time. You have to put your heart into it. It was an eye-opener to all of us."