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A blindside hit

When their NFL careers end, many players scramble to recover from losing big paychecks.

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN
Published January 12, 2004

photo
[Times photo: Ken Helle]
In order to bring in the same amount of money he made as a rookie, Jorge Diaz, right, holds down four jobs, including analyzing football games with Chip Carter on Chip Carter's Tailgate Sunday. "The NFL is just an opportunity to make a lot of money in a short period of time," Diaz said. "Then what? You're left to figure it out on your own."
[Times photo: Thomas Goethe]
Randy Crowder now works for the city of Tampa's real estate department. "Football is fun, but that degree sticks with you," he said.
  photo

At the height of his career, Jorge Diaz made $800,000 a season.

He drove a Mercedes, paid his parents' bills, treated friends to steak dinners.

Life was a fairy tale, said the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive lineman. But that fairy tale lasted just five years, then Diaz's career ended in 2000.

The invitations to parties in luxury suites ceased. His agent wouldn't return his calls. And the money stopped pouring in.

Diaz said it took him two years to finally come to grips with the fact that his life as a professional football player was over.

At 27, he had to join the ranks of the average Joe. He had to find a job.

Today, in order to bring in the same amount of money he made as a rookie, Diaz works four jobs.

The 30-year-old father of two analyzes the Bucs games on a local television station, yaks it up on sports talk radio, sells mortgages and plays arena football.

Contrary to what some might think, he's not a millionaire passing the time swinging at golf balls. And former National Football League players aren't all rich.

"That's the biggest misconception of all," said Diaz, who, like most Americans, watched his nest egg shrink after 9/11.

The average football player does not make Warren Sapp money. They're athletes making enough to drive fancy cars and live in big houses. But without proper planning and saving, golfing every day after retirement is not an option.

Life after football can be a difficult adjustment for men who have spent their younger years pursuing a dream. They were raised playing the game. Many played all through high school and college in hopes of making the pros.

"Careers are what doctors have, what lawyers have," Diaz said. "The NFL is just an opportunity to make a lot of money in a short period of time. Then what? You're left to figure it out on your own."

Jason Maniecki is a real estate agent. Martin Mayhew is a lawyer. Randy Crowder works in the Tampa real estate department. Throughout the Tampa Bay area and beyond, ex-players work alongside the same people who once cheered them on. In some cases, their former fans are their bosses.

* * *

According to the NFL Players Association, the average career span of an NFL player is about 3 1/2 years. The average annual salary is about $1.3-million.

The player's union now requires all rookies to attend a workshop on preparing for life after football. And one Denver Bronco has started a company to help former players from all sports succeed in their second lives.

"The majority of professional athletes kind of have an idea what they want to do but don't know how to go about doing it," said Ryan McNeil, who founded the Professional Business and Financial Network, which offers former players the tools they need to become successful.

McNeil said one of the biggest problems is that in the beginning, players are surrounded by people advising them about their careers. There are no exit strategies.

Diaz can attest to that. He recalled the living room scene in the movie Jerry Maguire, in which agents scramble to sign a star quarterback.

"They sell you a spiel, tell you they'll turn you into a superstar," Diaz said. "Agents don't prepare you for life after."

McNeil's network is planning a conference in June in Miami. The staff is compiling data on former players and their successes.

The earlier you prepare, the better, he said. Professional athletes, with their handsome incomes, make for good victims.

When Diaz was picked up by the Bucs as a free agent, relatives he hadn't heard from in years emerged, all begging for money.

"Even your sister's husband's 18th cousin," joked Crowder, who played nose tackle for the Bucs in the late '70s.

Crowder earned $19,500 the first year he played. Crowder, who spent seven years in the NFL, bought a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a pool in Carrollwood, the up-and-coming area at the time.

"I never saw a million dollars in seven years of playing ball," he said.

He now has bad knees and is a real estate contract specialist.

Crowder's son, Channing, was recently named the University of Florida SEC Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. One would think that Crowder would be full of advice for his son: ways to be a better player, stay fit, play smart.

But Crowder tells him just one thing: "Football is fun, but that degree sticks with you."

Maniecki, a former Bucs defensive lineman, graduated with degrees in marketing and administrative management, with plans to work in finance when his career ended.

When injury curtailed his football playing days, he used his football contacts to build a new life. Today, he's a successful real estate agent who has found a niche selling the homes of football players.

With players constantly coming and going and losing their jobs and taking new ones, Maniecki stays busy. His first year selling real estate, he was told that he would be lucky to break $1-million . He closed more than $3.5-million.

Mayhew, a former defensive back, went to law school when his playing days ended. He is now vice president of football administration and legal affairs for the Detroit Lions.

"One characteristic of a successful athlete is they think they're invincible," said Mayhew, who played cornerback for the Bucs in the '90s. "They are very confident individuals who believe in themselves. Very rarely do they see the end coming. The end sort of comes out of nowhere."

Mayhew was training to be a bank manager when he was drafted in the 10th round, so he already was on a career track.

But for others, all they know is football.

"They've played four, five, six years, they're 28 or 29 years old and they have the rest of their lives to live," he said. "It's a frightening transition to get out of the pro-athlete mode and step into a 9-to-5 job every day."

[Last modified January 12, 2004, 07:17:12]


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