Why This Super Bowl Winner Decided to Go Back to School
You don’t have to be a Ballers fan to know that life after sports is not always financially comfortable for retired pro players. Every couple of years, it seems, a wave of media coverage focuses on former sports stars who hit financial rock-bottom due to joblessness, money mismanagement, and divorce after their careers end. Just in time for football season, we interviewed Gary Brackett, a retired Super Bowl-winning linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts and an example of a player who created a sustainable life after pro sports.
Since retiring from his nine-season NFL run in 2011 due to a shoulder injury, Brackett has gone into the restaurant business, opening the Indianapolis-area sports bar and grill chain Stacked Pickle. He is also the founder of the Impact Foundation, a non-profit that supports chronically ill children and their families, as well as provides professional skills training and internship opportunities for at-risk Indiana youth.
While Brackett’s switch from the Super Bowl to the service industry is an extreme example, many people contemplate a mid-career change, especially when the skill they are most passionate about no longer pays the bills. We asked Brackett how he handled this transition, and what advice he has for others thinking about making a big leap into a new field.
There’s a widely circulated statistic that 78 percent of NFL retirees have either declared bankruptcy or experienced extreme financial stress. Can you speak to that?
That [statistic] is unfortunate. I think they're taking it from guys who played one year, two years, three years. I'd be interested to see what that stat looks like from guys who played more than four years, because they make more money and sometimes they are more sophisticated with their money if they are playing that long.
I think over the last few years there are more people getting their MBAs after their career, or even during their career. So, I think that statistic, when it gets updated, will change. Because what I've seen and what I've been a part of is that the guys are conscious about that stat and making sure they've prepared themselves after they're finished playing football.
During your NFL days, you took advantage of education and internship opportunities the NFL provided. Can you tell me a little bit about those internships? Is it normal for players to participate in these?
Yeah. It's funny, and it's sad, that though the NFL does a do a good job providing opportunities, they aren't taken advantage of enough. I was a part of an executive education course at Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania, and we had very intensive, week-long sessions…Also through the NFLPA [NFL Players Association] they were supporting me in an MBA program out of George Washington University. So I [finished] my MBA after I finished my career.
But you were recruited right after college, right? So you already had your degree?
Yeah. I finished college before I started in the NFL. I went to Rutgers University. I have a business and economics degree.
That was probably helpful.
It's extremely helpful. I [took] some marketing, business, accounting, and statistic classes, so I had a pretty good understanding of finances. However, I've also been a life-long learner. I have a passion for reading and anything I could possibly do to better myself. I've met with several CEOs just to pick their brains on what they attribute to their success and try to model myself that way.
Why the restaurant business?
Working at a restaurant was my first job. I was a dish boy, so I had a good understanding of the back of the house and how to put it all together…The restaurant business was something I could understand. Like football, restaurants are a team sport. You need support from the whole staff—the bartenders, the servers, and the back of the house—to be successful, just like any other team. So that really fascinated me, along with the serving people aspect of it. If you do a good job, you get rewarded.
Do you run your restaurant like a football team?
No question. Coach [Tony] Dungy [Colts head coach from 2002-2008] did so well, and a lot of the leading styles he had I try to emulate in my world. One of the big things he always preached is that the speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack. I look at my general managers, and they're the leaders of the restaurant. I'm relying on them to be very efficient in what they do, and have good energy and high integrity. If they do that, the staff usually follows suit.
So aside from teamwork, what are the main things the NFL taught you about running a business?
I'd say overcoming adversity. During a football game, there's a bunch adversity you overcome. So you just have to be able to really be steadfast in your approach, learn to rely on yourself, and continue to work your plan... [In a restaurant] You have to keep staff engaged and inspired. There's a bunch of other things, [one being] discipline—like your work habits. In order to be successful in the NFL, you learn to keep [certain] habits: When you wake up in the morning, how you prepare yourself. All that stuff bodes well for being in a business.
How does your philanthropic organization, the Impact Foundation, work? What are the ultimate goals for the program?
The Impact Foundation helps 200,000 Indiana residents. We work with critically ill children and their families by providing different things [during their hospital stay] and helping with their well-being outside of the hospital. In addition to that, we prepare youth to enter into the job market. We give them seminars about what they should be ready to enter into when it's time to get themselves a job. We also provide internships for the youth in our restaurants during the summertime.
Last question. You said you loved reading. What are you reading right now?
I am reading a Jim Sullivan book called Fundamentals, about leadership in service and retail units. Now that I'm managing 10 [restaurants], I'm always looking at best practices and what we should do as far as managing our time and effectively serving our managers and giving them the support they need to be successful.
Yeah. No doubt.