- In February and March, 29 NFL players took part in the ATU business combine, a week-long event designed to help them find post-playing careers.
- In the midst of attending panels, conferences, and networking events with CEOs and business leaders, the players formed a bond through a group text.
- Weeks later, the group text is still going strong, with players sharing business ideas, deals, and contacts, as well the occasional jokes and GIFs.
In late February, Kaleb Thornhill sent a text to 29 NFL players informing them of the plans for the week.
These 29 NFL players would soon descend upon New York City for the Athletes Transition U (ATU) business combine, a week-long event designed to help players find interests outside of football and make contacts for possible post-playing careers.
Thornhill wanted to keep everyone in the loop for the week. New York can be overwhelming on its own, let alone when organising a packed schedule with a massive group of players. But that text designed to lay out logistics would soon evolve into something more significant – a bond amongst the players, many of them usually competitors.
“Kaleb started it. Just kinda linked everybody up so we could have a place where we could all receive information and talk things out, let everybody know where everyone’s going or schedule’s gonna be,” former NFL running back Justin Forsett said, adding, “It kinda took a life of its own.”
The group text and friendships blossom.
Thornhill, the director of player engagement for the Miami Dolphins, ran a similar business combine last year with the franchise, initiated by the team owner Stephen Ross. The combine was popular among players who participated.
Chicago Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara first heard of the combine from former Dolphins linebacker Spencer Paysinger, who raved about the experience.
“I really brushed it off like, ‘Yeah, yeah, ok, cool,'” Amukamara said. But when former Dolphins defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh similarly glowed about it, Amukamara took note and wanted to participate in this year’s combine.
Thornhill formed ATU as an umbrella for the combine and this year, expanded the model to include players from all NFL teams. He packed a morning-to-night schedule with speakers, panels, conferences, exercises, and networking events with CEOs, founders, and companies in finance, tech, real estate, marketing, media, and more.
The 29-man roster included players like Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril, Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, New England Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham, Oakland Raiders quarterback E.J. Manuel, Forsett, Amukamara, Suh, Paysinger, and many others.
Because of the program’s infancy, players had to pay a $US5,000 fee. Thornhill hopes that one day it will be fully funded.
As the itinerary unfolded, the group text sprouted legs. Players shared photos and videos from events that they liked, such as a session on athletes’ branding, with speakers like Uninterrupted CEO Maverick Carter. There were also panels about venture capital and investments, real estate events with companies like Compass Real Estate, and “deep dives” in which the players job-shadowed different companies and took part in one-day internships.
“I would say Wednesday, Thursday is when we broke loose and were going back and forth, chatting about jokes or contacts or ‘What’s next?’ or ‘Man, I’m really interested in this,'” Thornhill said. “That’s really what we wanted to create is its own ecosystem that lives and breathes and has its life of its own.”
After events, players would share the contacts they made, aiding participants who might have failed to secure a number or business card of someone they wanted to talk to.
Thornhill said it was fun for him to see players break off into different sub-groups with their group chats. The players who took part in the “deep dives” together formed groups, sometimes relaying pictures and videos from their experiences back into the main group text.
Morgan said having 29 business-centric athletes in the same group had its benefits. They share ideas and “deals” with each other, with different players weighing in and lending their expertise.
“If somebody’s presented with a deal,” Morgan said, “just shoot it in there. ‘Hey I got this real estate deal, are you interested in that?’ Boom, open it up, whatever it is. I think that’s the purpose of it moving forward.”
Of course, the group also strayed from strictly business as they it closer. Forsett drew laughs when he sent a picture in the group chat mocking Avril for wearing Louis Vuitton slippers with his suit.
Amukamara gained a reputation as one of the most vocal and funny members of the group, known for cracking wise and sending timely GIFs.
The group text didn’t stop at the end of the combine. Two weeks later, players say it’s still going strong.
“It’s just nonstop blowing up each other with ideas and talking,” said Suh. “It’s super cool, and I never thought I’d have the opportunity to really see some of the other guys that are interested [in business].”
This past week all of the members of the group spoke up to wish Houston Texans linebacker Jelani Jenkins a happy birthday, sending more GIFs, photos, videos, and well-wishes.
“I’ve been in a whole bunch of group texts, and it dies down for a little bit,” Amukamara said. “But this one is like fully alive.”
More than just a group chat.
While players enjoyed socialising with one another, the combine was much more than a group text.
Amukamara said early in his career when he played with the Giants, that veteran players encouraged him to network with local business and community leaders at team events. He followed their instructions but was never quite sure where to go from there.
“Once I got those business cards, I never knew what the next step was,” he said. “How do I follow up? What does my follow-up look like? Do I call them, do I email them, what do I say?”
He added: “I think the combine for me, it really just affirmed that I was on the right track and that what I was doing was pretty good. Of course, I learned a lot. Even though it was like information overload within those five days, it was definitely information needed.”
Forsett was particularly attentive at the combine, as his football career is already over. Forsett has ingrained himself in the business community since retiring, appearing on “Shark Tank” in 2018 to pitch his business, Shower Pill, a disinfectant wipe. Forsett said he focused on what would come after football throughout his career, motivated, in part, by being cut six times during his playing days. The end of football was never far away.
Forsett enjoyed listening to Jesse Itzler, an entrepreneur, co-founder of Marquis Jet, and part owner of the Atlanta Hawks, speak at the combine. Forsett hit it off with Itzler – another favourite among the players – and according to Thornhill, plans to re-connect with Itzler over dinner sometime soon.
“There are so many takeaways just as a businessman, as a husband, as a father,” Forsett said of the combine experience. “I was able to grow from this event.”
Morgan appreciated the opportunity to network with business leaders after the events. He also benefitted from meeting like-minded players around the league. He and Suh share an interest in real estate and have some future projects planned.
“The more and more I’m in this league, I’m realising how important your network is and how valuable that is,” Morgan said.
“We can really create something with purpose.”
The ATU business combine is a passion project for Thornhill with real stakes. He believes the program, which he hopes to expand to all 32 NFL owners and their teams, and possibly to universities, can be life-changing.
“I just don’t want to get another phone call with a guy either saying he’s held a gun to his head or he’s staring at the wall aimlessly with nothing to hit every day he wakes up,” Thornhill said.
“They haven’t been given the skills to bridge the gap to be able to attain that next purpose in their life. I think that drives me is knowing that I can help people find their passion potential and really their earning potential within that. We can really create something with purpose. And I think that if you create purpose, they have their finances intact, that gives you options.”
Thornhill said when the combine ended, a player whom he declined to name approached him in tears.
“It was almost like an ‘ah-ha’ moment in his life where he was just so thankful for the opportunity and really didn’t know what was next but knew there was a possibility … He no longer had to be stressed about what was gonna happen after [football] because he knew the process of what he needed to do right now,” Thornhill said.
Morgan noted that good football careers typically only last 10-12 years. A typical career only lasts three years. “Even if you fall somewhere at the end of that spectrum, you’re still gonna be 31, 32 years old.” He has been active in trying to prepare for life after football.
Said Forsett of his post-playing career, “I wanted it to be a smooth transition after hearing some of the horror stories.”
The participants are like a fraternity now, linked through a group text that’s still going.
“I actually feel like it’s like a team of our own in a sense,” Amukamara said. “And yeah, guys are throwing ideas left and right, and I think that’s more what it was about. Even though we were networking with the CEOs and other people from the companies, this also helped us network with each other. Guys that we wouldn’t necessarily know or be talking to.”
“That was what we really wanted to create was just a team beyond the team,” Thornhill said. “This team will never go away. This team will be an infrastructure that will support them.”
Forsett called the five-day event “life-changing.”
“That event was a game-changer for me,” he said. “I’d even say just a life-changing event, just in terms of the relationships, the type of information that was given to me.
“I feel like every pro athlete needs to go through something like this, go through this program.”
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