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ON THE JOB

Life After Football

Someday, there's not going to be a next quarter. Vaughn Bryant knows all about that.

Ashton Worthington

IMAGE MAKER: Bryant urges players to nurture their reputations.

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By Stephen Whitty

The list of excuses an athlete can use to explain away a disappointment is as long as any playbook. The coach wouldn’t use me. The calls were bad. The fans weren’t with us. It just, you know, wasn’t our day.

But ask Vaughn Bryant why his gridiron career ended early, and his answer is short and declarative.

“I really just wasn’t good enough,” he says.

Fans who remember Bryant’s standout college career in the early ’90s, or his two seasons in the NFL, might disagree. But Bryant, ’94, isn’t fishing for compliments. He’s trying to be honest.

“A lot of players, they’ll say it’s all politics, or they didn’t have the right coaches,” says Vaughn. “But I played for Dennis Green, Bill Walsh—there are people who would have killed to have that opportunity. I had talent, but lots of guys were just as good as me. It’s the luck of the draw.”

These days, as one of the NFL’s managers for player development, Bryant is helping people figure out what to do when their football luck runs out.

Commuting every day from Brooklyn to the league’s Park Avenue headquarters, Bryant specializes in getting players to do something unpleasant: think about life after football. Because eventually, there’s not going to be a next quarter. And their new life is going to require new skills.

True, stars with multimillion-dollar contracts and smart investment strategies have nothing to worry about. But plenty of players don’t fit that description.

“The minimum salary for a first-year player right now is $295,000,” Bryant says. “The average career is somewhere between three and four years. And you’ve got agents, you’ve got taxes . . . so that’s great, but it’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things. It’s a nice cushion. But you’ve still got to do something else with the rest of your life.”

Bryant’s job is to help players think of that something else.

“The thing I love about Vaughn is, he relates,” says Roland Williams, an eight-year NFL veteran who’s now a broadcaster with Versus and CBS College Sports. “He’s a guy that makes you feel he knows where you are, he understands what you’re going through, and he’s going to absolutely help you get the tools you need.”

There are several parts to the tool kit, but it begins with something Bryant conceived and the league has dubbed Player Brand University, a crash course predicated on the idea that the most valuable thing any player takes away from his career is his image. Does he want to walk off the field as a Tiki Barber, or as a Michael Vick? Working in concert with colleagues and the teams, Bryant helps provide young men with some much-needed introspection.

“As a player, you make a decent amount of money, achieve a decent amount of exposure, but how do you leverage that?” Bryant asks. “Players sometimes say, I feel like I’m being used. Well, be proactive. Go to the club and say, hey, this is a philanthropy I’d like to get involved in. Know what your image is and take some control over it. Take responsibility for yourself.”

It’s one of many lessons Bryant says he learned at Stanford. Bryant grew up in Detroit, the son of a police officer and a real estate agent. But resilient as he was—he used to play rough-and-tumble football in the street—freshman year at an elite university was a shock.

“I had to utilize every resource I could to make it through,” he says. “Plato and Aristotle—that was pretty dense material for someone like me. I was in over my head—I thought about leaving. But I had a great adviser and there were tutoring services, and by sophomore year I started to get comfortable. The lesson I learned was, let’s not make excuses. Let’s find a way to make this happen.”

As a senior, Bryant was a fourth-round draft pick for the Detroit Lions. Over the next two years, he bounced from the Lions to the Dolphins to the Jets to the Eagles. And then it was, essentially, over. He was 24.

“It’s emotional when you lose a sport,” Bryant says. “It’s like you’ve been married for 20 years, and one day your wife leaves and never calls again.”

“Pro athletes die twice in this life, and the first time is when you stop playing,” says Williams, who helped the St. Louis Rams win the Super Bowl in 2000. “It’s very humbling. You’re giving up something where you’re one of the best in the world, and going on to something where maybe you’re just going to be good, or maybe even not very good at all.”

Bryant had Stanford to return to, where he finished the few credits he needed for his sociology degree. Later, in 2000, he added a master’s in marriage and family therapy from Northwestern. After working briefly as a couples counselor, he returned to Stanford in 2001 as an undergraduate adviser. He joined NFL headquarters in 2005.

“The best thing I did was getting away from [pro sports] for a while, which gave me some perspective,” Bryant says. “Sometimes you have to be removed to get that objectivity, and accept that you’re not a player anymore. That’s key. Because then you can focus on whatever path you’re going to take.”

For some players, that path may lead to entrepreneurship, and the league has a business management program that can help them sort out those options. For others, that path may lead to sports journalism. Like pro football, it’s a glamour job—but, Bryant points out, these careers can last a lot longer.

That’s why Bryant came up with Broadcast Boot Camp, which brings in on-air professionals to help train a new generation. It’s already popular enough that players have to compete for the limited spots; Williams says the course’s rehearsals, mock sportscasts and constructive criticism result in “real, concrete, quantifiable” help.

“Obviously, there’s a finite number of high-powered jobs, but there are a lot of platforms,” Bryant says. “There’s radio, Internet radio, blogging, cable TV, local TV. Stations need color commentators, play-by-play guys, sports directors. . . . We just want to give guys the skill set to do it. How do you take the knowledge you have and translate it for the fan? How do you get comfortable in front of the camera?”

Contemplating these and other questions, every morning Bryant takes the elevator up to the league’s plush offices. He walks past a luxurious reception area, full of magic totems and revered icons—Vince Lombardi’s warm-up jacket, a Super Bowl scrapbook the size of a cocktail table, framed front pages on Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals star turned Army Ranger who died from friendly fire in Afghanistan.

And then Bryant goes into his own small office where a box of multigrain crackers sits on the bookshelf and his 5-year-old daughter’s brightly colored pictures are tacked up on the corkboard, and tries to help other football players think about what’s next for them, too.

“All our programs are really about, how are you going to maximize your career,” he says. “What do you care about? What kind of influence do you want to have? You have to find your own image, and it has to be authentic. And then you have to own that, and then you have to actualize it.”

It’s a lesson he teaches well. It’s one he taught himself.


STEPHEN WHITTY is the movie critic at the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.

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