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With average NFL career 3.3 years, players motivated to complete MBA program

MIAMI -- As a van drove students with current and former NFL players back to their Coral Gables hotel, there was silence. They had just completed the initial day of a new MBA program at the University of Miami and, for some, it was too much.

That first day produced the sort of weeding-out period organizers of this class had intended. The players were drained. They were dazed.

"It was like they had just lost a game," said Michael Lythcott, who helped launch this program and was a passenger in the van.

Their experience: Working out at 6:30 a.m., sitting in two classes for nearly nine hours combined, and now heading back to the hotel for a study hall that would last at least two hours. The worst thought for some: Five consecutive days of this routine were on deck, followed by a day off and then four more days of classes. The cycle would repeat itself twice more that offseason followed by three more two-week modules the next year.

It wasn't for everyone.

"That first week we lost about seven or eight guys," said Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Carlos Dunlap, who was among the first class of graduates on July 1. "They saw how it was going in the first two days and thought, 'I'm not paying for this.' We lost a lot of notable guys."

"The average NFL career lasts 3.3 years, according to the NFL Players' Association; 78 percent of players go broke within three years of retirement and 15.7 percent file for bankruptcy within 12 years of leaving the league, according to a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research."

But those who remained in a class that featured six, two-week sessions over an 18-month period, culminating with that first class graduating July 1, did so for a reason.

The statistics are well-known and oft-stated: The average NFL career lasts 3.3 years, according to the NFL Players' Association; 78 percent of players go broke within three years of retirement and 15.7 percent file for bankruptcy within 12 years of leaving the league, according to a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The logic in Miami: The more you respect that first number, the more you can improve the others.

Their participation wasn't about the recent emphasis on concussions and their long-term impact; this wasn't because of early retirements by players such as Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Corey Wootton or Rashard Mendenhall. Some had been stung by unscrupulous business partners in the past, or deals gone south. Former NFL receiver Santana Moss, for example, was part of a $53 million lawsuit filed three years ago over money illegally transferred from his account. But that's not what led him to this class.

Most players interviewed already knew their shelf life the minute the NFL clock started ticking. This was about something more. For the most part, the players knew they already had a seat at the table. They wanted something else: a voice. And they wanted it to be heard. This also was a chance to surround themselves with like-minded athletes.

"After that first year [in retirement], I was so bored at home," said Moss, who graduated July 1. "There was plenty of stuff I considered and I wanted to get out and do. Knowing I have a master's behind me, I’m going to the table stronger."

The program began during the 2015 offseason, with some changes that made it more desirable than a similar one at George Washington University in 2011. The biggest change: access to trainers so they could work out each morning. Before, Lythcott would hear from teams reluctant to let their players participate out of fear they couldn't stay in shape.

Because of this program, the number of players who returned to the classroom has spiked. For most of the past 10 years, that number of current players taking graduate or undergraduate classes was around 125 each offseason. This past year, it was 181, according to the NFL's Player Engagement Department. Helping players land degrees has been a focal point for a while, whether through prodding or various programs designed to spark interest.

The NFLPA helped the MBA students, paying up to $60,000 of the $105,000 cost of tuition. All told, 31 players received their degrees earlier this month (Will Smith's was given posthumously); 30 others finished their first year.

But taking classes meant giving up parts of their offseason.

"When you focus on football so much, you get blinded to the outside world and what's going on around you," said New York Giants backup quarterback Ryan Nassib, a first-year student. "That's why you keep your mind sharp on other things so that when football is over, you have that foresight to where, 'OK, now I don't have to start completely anew.' "

In most cases, the players either are involved in a business or have plans to do so soon. Dunlap, who trains in Miami, promised his mother he'd return for his degree after declaring for the NFL at age 20. When he learned of the Miami program, he signed up for that, too. Earlier this offseason, he received his undergraduate degree and followed it up with his MBA. His goals are solid: Dunlap wants to keep his father's bail-bond business in Charleston, South Carolina, running -- maybe allow his father to retire sooner rather than later. Dunlap also wants to dabble in real estate.

At the same time, Dunlap had another goal: the Pro Bowl. He accomplished that this past season as well. So, in the last year, he has made a Pro Bowl, earned an undergraduate degree, and completed his MBA.

"Going back to school helped me get to the Pro Bowl," he said. "It kept me busy. It challenged my knowledge every day so when it came to football, it seemed so much slower."

Making up for lost time

The students take a two-week class followed by a couple of weeks off and then another one. After minicamp, there's one more class. Occasionally, they'll take trips to other cities -- New York and Los Angeles to name two -- and meet with experts involved in classes they're taking. That left less downtime and a sharper focus for Dunlap on his activities.

"Balancing the two of those was not an easy task," Dunlap said. "You just had to stay dedicated. To get a degree and a Pro Bowl in the same year ... it was surreal. The toughest thing was staying dedicated to going back to school after you work so hard that, financially, you don't have to go back to school. A majority in the program are very financially stable. So it took a lot of dedication. I would never compromise my football offseason to get my degree. The fact that they made it work with the offseason program made it easy."

"When you focus on football so much, you get blinded to the outside world and what's going on around you. That's why you keep your mind sharp on other things so that when football is over, you have that foresight to where, 'OK, now I don't have to start completely anew."

Giants backup quarterback Ryan Nassib

It's also a way to make up for lost education time. In college, players devote extra time to studying football -- probably surpassing the maximum 20 hours per week as stated by the NCAA. John Mezias, who taught the MBA students strategic management, remembers once sitting with the University of Miami football team's offense during a film session. The coaches would start the film, then stop a split second later -- and the players were asked what they could glean based on the defense's movement.

"That was their job," Mezias said. "I'll bet a lot of guys had to invest so much when they were undergrads in a football program that some of them maybe would have liked to be in a position to get more out of their courses.

"[But] in terms of the mental discipline, you can't underestimate that. This is the most intense [MBA] program we have. But these guys understand training and commitment."

They also understand money -- and they don't want to lose it. Moss was part of a lawsuit filed three years ago against financial advisor Jeff Rubin. Money that had been illegally transferred from his account eventually led to his home being foreclosed. But, Moss said, there was only a small correlation between that and his desire to get a degree.

"A little," he said. "But I really can't say it did. The real reason is that so much of the things we do, we always have to be the third party. I wanted to be the guy involved myself and understand the language."

As Buffalo Bills safety Robert Blanton, entering his fifth season armed with an MBA, said, "Everyone [playing] can tell you everything you need to know about football, but can they tell you something about real estate? Probably not. And then someone wants you to invest half your money in something where you don't know what you're doing?"

Setting an example

Former NFL player Jack Brewer seemed more like an assistant professor in some cases. During a real estate class last month, he helped by answering questions or providing deeper insight. That's not surprising given his background of wealth management, investment and entrepreneurship -- among other things -- and participation in executive business programs at Harvard and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania a decade ago. "You get paid more for the risk you're taking in the bond market," he tells the class during a talk about the cap -- involving rates, not salary. "It's no different in real estate."

"You can be a successful business person with or without an MBA," said Brewer, another July graduate. "But for a player ... you lose the work experience of the 20s by playing in the NFL and then you try to go into the work force without additional education. It makes no sense."

Moss also learned another reason he's glad he listened to agent Jason Rosenhaus, who suggested pursuing the MBA. That lesson occurred on a car ride to a graduation with the rest of Miami's students in the spring, when the MBA students also walked across the stage, nearly three months before their official graduation. En route to the ceremony, Moss asked his daughter Saniya, who turned 12 in June, what she had learned from this experience -- and from her mom, who was in nursing school. Saniya Moss told her dad after a long pause: "That I want to learn more." The degree was nice; the voice at the table is huge. But this tugged at Moss' heart.

"I said that I hope down the road whenever you're faced with something, whether it's school or anything in life, that you can look back on this moment and say, 'Mom and Dad accomplished so much, but they were still trying to do more to get better,' " Moss said. "I was proud to share that moment."

There's another reality that sums up the desire. Former NFL defensive lineman Shaun Phillips said he knows that at some point he'll have to raise money for whatever venture he undertakes. He wants more on his resume than some past projects. The piece of paper with an MBA degree speaks to a journey few make.

And that journey included daily van rides seated next to exhausted players, to early morning workouts or back to the hotel for late-night studying. But that trip proved to be worth it for those that stuck around.

"They can all see ... I'm in the driver's seat; they know I'm serious," Phillips said. "Yes, I'm an ex-player -- that was my favorite thing in the world to do. But now I'm a businessman."