Gerald Roper played guard for 11 Canadian Football League seasons. He worked much of that time with a teammate at a nearby travel agency in the morning then drove to Surrey and practiced in the afternoons. The pair co-own that business today.
Pat Brady snuck out of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ team hotel early on a game day morning in 1987. He caught a cab to UBC, wrote the Graduate Management Admission Test and made it back in time for the afternoon team meeting.
He learned weeks later that he had scored in the 98th percentile on the four-hour exam.
The long-snapper retired after five seasons and earned a MBA from the University of Western Ontario. He now works at a downtown Vancouver investment firm.
Don Taylor retired from the Lions in 1984 after seven seasons. The former running back studied business in England and these days balances a finance career with serving as the president of the B.C. Lions Alumni Association.
He encourages players to begin thinking about life after football as soon as they enter the league.
“Just like you’re prepared to go out and play your opponent this week you need to be prepared for the next stage of your life – because it will come,” said Taylor. “Those that are prepared, the transition will be a lot smoother. Those that aren’t … it’s going to be a very difficult time.”
Players that successfully transition to a career after football often prepare while still playing by working outside of the sport, continuing their education or networking with alumni.
Those who don’t often lack transferable job skills and struggle without the support network once offered by their teammates and coaches.
The CBC’s The Fifth Estate recounted the addiction and substance abuse issues that led a number of retired players to premature deaths, including former Edmonton Eskimo David Boone who shot himself at his Point Roberts home in 2005.
“We’re a family. Today we all have regrets for not phoning him as often,” said former player Tom Towns to the Edmonton Sun in 2005 of Boone’s suicide.
Financial troubles also are common for former professional athletes.
Almost 80 per cent of retired National Football League players were bankrupt or under financial stress within two years of retirement, according to a 2009 Sports Illustrated article.
NFL players earned an average of $2 million per season during the 2010 season, according to published reports.
CFL players typically pocket much less than their American football counterparts.
It is union policy not to release individual player salaries. Dividing the league’s 2011 salary cap of $4.2 million between 46 roster players produces an average salary of just over $91,000.
That figure doesn’t account for the marked salary disparity towards players at higher-profile skill positions such as quarterback, running back and receiver.
The average CFL career lasts 3.2 years, according to figures gathered by the union since the mid-1990s.
Taylor leaned forward and pressed his arms atop the boardroom table in his North Vancouver financial office. His voice hardened as he described seeing former players reaching into their own pockets to help colleagues who fell on hard times. Witnessing those acts of generosity convinced him to make the alumni more active in assisting retired players into post-football careers.
“Building those relationships is important,” he said. “Finding a job is not necessarily about your resume it’s about who you know.”
Team-based and league-wide alumni associations also provide current and former players with networking and mentoring opportunities.
Taylor transformed the annual Lions alumni golf tournament from an occasion where former players swapped stories and ate burgers, into a corporate event rife with opportunities to meet professional contacts.
The Lions-run Waterboys program links the team and business community through its over 120 members, according to the team website.
Education and versatility
Brady knew when he was playing that he had no long-term career in long-snapping. He chuckled at the violence inherent to his former career from his office, as he surveyed the office towers through the window of his 26th-floor Burrard Street office.
“You get smashed with your head between your legs. It’s not fun,” he said. “The smart teams try to injure you.”
Brady pursued careers in sales and real estate while playing, but fell back on his graduate business degree after retirement to carve out a career in venture capital.
He said his father, former Argonaut and Lion offensive lineman Bob Brady, drove him hard to keep up his studies during his university and professional football career.
“There’s a ton of emotion behind pro sports that you don’t get in any other job. You can’t get wrapped up in that and get too isolated and lose the discipline to make sure you keep developing other aspects of your future,” said Brady. “It’s very easy to fall into the trap of just being a football player and nothing else.”
Working while playing
Office scuttlebutt replaced the familiar support of locker room banter for Roper.
“It’s all about team,” he said. “You all got to like each other.”
The former CFL all-star paced around the office in jeans, a plain white t-shirt and a green vest. He reminded an employee to rest up that night in lieu of his upcoming 21st birthday party.
His business does $17 million-per-year in sales of travel, accommodations and meeting spaces to labour unions for conventions and conferences.
Roper achieved financial and vocational security by splitting time between work and football: a plan he strongly advises today’s players to follow.
“Get a job working just so you understand what it’s like to get up every morning and pack a lunch. Go to work and do like regular people do because sooner or later … you’re going to be a regular person,” he said.
“Nobody is going to remember anybody who played for anyone, that’s the way it is.”