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NFL players prepare for business life

Jonathan Vilma says his suspension last year allowed him to focus on life after football. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

With the season underway, NFL players are now solidly focused on football again. But many of them spent their offseason developing business ventures off the field.

To help avoid the cautionary tales of players who have gone bankrupt despite making millions during their career, the NFL and NFL Players Association have put increasing resources into transitional and second-career programs.

One such program, the Professional Athlete Franchise Initiative and its parent company, the International Franchise Association, hosted the NFL Franchising Boot Camp with the NFL and the University of Michigan in April. Michael Stone, a former NFL player and founder of PAFI, says approximately 25 players and 10 of their spouses attended this year's inaugural event.

Stone founded PAFI after retiring from the New York Giants in 2008. At that time, he felt there was a gap in the transitional experience of a player. He met former NBA player Junior Bridgeman, who owns hundreds of restaurant franchises, and learned about the benefits of being a franchisee.

"I thought franchising could be a good fit for an athlete because it has the support," said Stone. "It's almost like a business with a coach, with a game plan. I didn't have to create the game plan myself. I didn't have to design the plays or market my team -- everything was packaged for me, and all I had to do was execute the plays. I saw the parallels between that and the athlete experience."

Stone says in addition to that natural fit, the franchising industry is heavily regulated, making it a safer bet than some of the other business ventures athletes are approached with.

"A franchisor cannot lie to you about how many stores they've opened and closed or how many bankruptcies they've had," said Stone. "You can reach out to every franchisee and see how happy they are with the brand, how many stores they've closed, and their average revenue."

PAFI prides itself on not making decisions for athletes, but instead providing them with the necessary knowledge to complete their own due diligence and find the franchise opportunity that's right for them.

Everette Brown, who recently became a free agent after being cut from the Philadelphia Eagles, didn't go through PAFI, but he did find a franchise opportunity that fit him: a Tropical Smoothie Café he's opening in Charlotte, N.C., in October.

Brown says he focused on speaking with successful franchisees and used his alumni connections at his alma mater to learn more about the industry.

"I have a lot of connections through [Florida State], so I was able to go back and talk to boosters and go to different events and just network and ask questions and obtain as much information as I possibly could," said Brown.

For Brown, it was important to pick a franchise with a product he could stand behind.

"I had to look at what franchise fits what I'm about," said Brown. "That's where Tropical Smoothie Café stood out to me. I was first introduced to the brand when I went to FSU. The product is healthy and it tastes good. It didn't feel like something I had to force."

Brown says he knew it was important to look into business ventures off the field early on.

"The NFL stands for 'Not For Long.' That's the mindset you have to have."

Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma says he has always understood the importance of developing a career off the field.

"[Developing business ventures] was always a priority for me when I was able to have enough cash saved up first," said Vilma, who's currently recovering from knee surgery. "If I made it three years in [the NFL] I had a certain plan, then if I made it five years I had a certain plan."

Now entering his 10th year in the NFL, Vilma has met those goals for saving money and has started venturing into other businesses in recent years. He owns South Beach bar Foxhole, a Brother Jimmy's BBQ franchise, and now he's a co-owner and franchisor of an app called BarEye.

Vilma is also having to navigate the perils of the business world; his Brother Jimmy’s BBQ franchise and the Marlins are currently suing one another over a failed concessions stand in Marlins Park.

But his BarEye app has been gaining traction.

BarEye allows users buy drinks for others at participating bars. Drinks can be purchased by those who aren't even present, with the recipient showing their phone to the bartender or scanning it at an iPad that BarEye provides to participating bars.

"Someone can log on to BarEye and say I'm at 'Bar X.' Let's say it's her birthday and she comes in with maybe five of her friends," explained Vilma. "Some of her friends can't make it, but they can still buy her a drink [using the app]."

BarEye came around at the perfect time for Vilma. Last year, he was forced to confront the reality of life outside of football head-on when he was suspended for the season for his role in the Saints' bounty program.

"I don't want to say it was a blessing," Vilma said. "But I was able to put more focus on BarEye and my restaurants at the time."

While Vilma appealed the suspension, which was lifted just before the 2012 season opener, he says he worked out for a couple of hours each morning to prepare for whenever he might play again, then he'd spend the rest of his day focusing on his business ventures.

"It gave me a lot of perspective," Vilma said. "Now I can prepare for life outside of football."