Former three-time Pro Bowl NFL linebacker LaVar Arrington should be a model for how pro athletes can excel in their post-athletic careers. He is a popular sports journalist, a family man with young kids, and an entrepreneur who is on a crusade to develop the next generation of football players with his cutting edge training system that focuses on safety and the fundamentals. We previously profiled Arrington’s burgeoning company, Xtreme Procision, on Access Athletes.
Somehow, Arrington, the legendary Penn State All-American who was drafted No. 2 overall in the 2000 NFL Draft, still finds the time to educate elite athletes. Last month he was a guest speaker at the NFL’s 16th annual Rookie Symposium in Aurora, Ohio, marking the second straight year he was invited to share his story and advice to the league’s newest draftees. The four-day orientation introduces the rookies to life in the NFL by emphasizing the sport’s legacy, tradition of character and leadership, as well as social and professional responsibility. Whether he is speaking to incoming rookies or current college players, as a respected broadcaster who has fine-tuned his public speaking skills, Arrington is able to captivate younger athletes with his words of wisdom.
As part of the NFL’s transition program, Arrington was recently certified as one of twelve “transition coaches” who will be working with former and current NFL players toward preventing some of the problems that frequently surface when it’s time to retire. For 8 months, LaVar underwent extensive training on career transition, mental health, suicide intervention, conflict resolution, and relationship-management skills.
Arrington spoke to Access Athletes about his advice for how rookies can make a successful transition to the NFL and maximize their careers, both on and off the field.
Matthew Allinson: What advice would you give to the incoming rookies on how to make a successful transition to the NFL?
LaVar Arrington: I think that the advice that remains consistent and remains true is “Don’t lose focus.” You actually have to be more focused, someway, somehow. When you find yourself going into the NFL, it’s easy to lose focus on the game. Now, it’s cars, it’s a home, it’s women to a different capacity. It’s a whole lot of different things that can turn into your main focus. And I think that when a guy is humble enough to continue to be hungry, to be focused on being a better player than what they were when they played in college, that’s the biggest key. Learning and being open, and understanding that you’re playing against grown men now. It’s not college, where you may have an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old, or a couple of grown people who come back to play. It’s a league full of hard-nosed, prepared individuals who are making money to “whoop” your tail or vice versa, whatever it may be.
I think a lot of times, young guys get it; but, they don’t really really get it. I think that they understand that they’re going to have to work harder. I think that they understand it’s a different game with you being paid to play now and there’s a lot of glitz and glamour that goes with being an NFL player. I think they get that, but I don’t think they fully understand that what helped get them there are the things that they have to do even more. So, you got to work harder.
Say you listen to me, and I helped you get there. You don’t just stop listening to me now that you’ve made it: “Oh, I made to the NFL. I don’t need to listen to LaVar anymore.” You have to continue to listen to those people. I think that guys kind of lose sight of that. I think that would be the biggest advice that I could give to a young guy without going into too many different places. I think that guys have got to remember what helped them and what molded them to get there. Now that chapter of college is closed. But this next chapter, it takes more work. It’s harder work. And if you don’t approach it that way, you stand a great chance of not being successful. It’s a very unforgiving league. It really is. Better that you believed it and go into it understanding that he may know what he’s talking about by telling you this than you finding out the hard way—because then it may be too late.
Allinson: Looking back at it, was there a particular lesson you could really draw on from the temptation and adapting to the NFL lifestyle?
Arrington: I just lost focus on being the best player I could possibly be. You know, I was the #2 pick in the draft. A lot of people were giving me attention. You’re meeting people that you never met before—people that you’ve watched on television and seen singing or whatever it may be. And it’s difficult… It’s difficult when you don’t have someone in your ear that has been through it, telling you to do it differently than what you’re doing. I had to learn it—I was a crash-test dummy.
For me, my biggest challenge was the lifestyle. It’s almost impossible not to find yourself involved in it. You’re young and you get exposed. I could see for my children that that stuff won’t bother them. They’re already exposed to it. Their uncles are some of the most famous people in the world and their exposed to so much. But if you’re not exposed to it and you’re not prepared for it, you got to learn it. You got to figure it out.
For me, that was quite an experience—getting acclimated. And I did. I got reeled back in and really got focused. I started off really slow my rookie year—I wasn’t in shape like I should have been. I wasn’t prepared the way I should have been early on, and I paid the price for it. I didn’t start and didn’t have quite an impact the way I thought I’d come into the league and have an impact. And that was my wake-up call. It was like “Oh no, I’m not going to be a bust.” There were a lot of veterans around me that kind of took the mentality that “We’re not going to let this go down that way.” They kind of reeled me in and got me going, and got me on the right foot.
By mid-way through my rookie season, I started to get it, started to understand it, and really started to apply it. And [I] really almost played well enough to make the Pro Bowl my rookie year. It didn’t happen because you have to unseat Pro Bowl players to make it into the Pro Bowl. But I came back that next year with the focus of being a “one-man-wrecking-crew” in my own right and contribute the way I needed to contribute to the team and actually step into a leadership role onto the team. Really work myself into being respected as a leader. That was the biggest challenge—was just coming in and maintaining the focus you had to get there. You got the eye of the tiger to get to the league.
Allinson: It’s like you made it and then you let your guard down.
Arrington: Yeah, you take a deep breath, and during that deep breath, do you bring yourself back to the realization that I got to do this all over again, or do you just keep thinking, “I made it?”
Allinson: Who were some of the older guys that kind of took you under their wing?
Arrington: Bruce Smith, Shawn Barber, Kevin Mitchell, Darrell Green was a vital part, Sam Shade, Marco Coleman was an awesome guy, and Derek Smith. There were a lot of guys that really took a very active interest in my development and I’m so thankful that they did.
Allinson: And you were receptive to it. There are some guys who don’t really want the feedback.
Sports Illustrated estimated in 2009 that 78 percent of NFL players have gone bankrupt or are facing serious financial stress because of joblessness or divorce within two years of ending their playing careers. In light of the seemingly never-ending stories about NFL players going broke, could you talk about how you approached the business aspects of the game while you were in league and also what you think can be done to curb this systemic problem amongst NFL players?
Arrington: I think it’s the same thing that applies to the football aspect of it. You got to apply yourself and really be open to understanding that, you know, everything isn’t what it appears to be. I’m not one to tell someone that they can’t live life the way they want to live. If you worked hard enough to achieve high enough where you make the type of money to do some of the things that you do, who am I to tell you not to do it. But I would say that being responsible over yourself and how you do things… The one thing I would be is wondering how many of those individuals went broke based off of being unselfish. So many times people assume that guys go broke based off of spending habits and stuff like that. But it could have been…like for me, I know I took care of my family—took care of my mom and my dad, took care of my brothers, and at one point, took care of affairs with my in-laws just because I wanted to help.
Allinson: You were generous.
Arrington: Yeah, sometimes you have to make decisions that you might not necessarily want to make. Like for me, I’ve taken chances. I’ve taken risks doing business. A bad investment is an investment that goes bad in my book. Sometimes people make bad investments, where it’s like you buy jewelry and it didn’t make any sense for you to buy it, like a medallion or charm that covers your entire chest. That could be considered a bad investment.
For me, the reason why I say a bad investment isn’t a bad investment until it turns out not to be a good investment is because I’ve done things like invested in groups that go in and invest in island projects and different things. I’m a part of an investment group that went over to Turks and Caicos and I still to this day don’t know if it’s a good investment or bad investment because it’s still out there. It’s pending. Did we do the studies? Did we look at it? I mean I got married in Turks and Caicos. I love Turks and Caicos. It all depends.
I would always say, “Look if you can make money one time, you can make money two, three, four times.” So if you’ve made so many mistakes with what you’ve done while you were making a check in the NFL, I would ultimately say you got to take a good look at yourself and the same way you applied yourself to be able to make that type of dollar playing ball, you got to apply yourself to do it in other ways. Now it’s easier said than done, but that’s the reality of it. And I think the reason why guys go broke is because they don’t apply that.
So now you’re living off of savings and you learn a lot about money. You learn a lot about how $60 million doesn’t really mean $60 million. You learn a lot about how maintaining an “upkeep” is a large part—it doesn’t go anywhere. Your paycheck went somewhere, but if you have a lot of things, that “bill” doesn’t go anywhere. You got to be watchful over those things and, if you’re not, you have to at least be able to figure out ways to supplement your income. And that would be my advice.
Look, I’m not one to tell anybody, “Don’t live life like today might be your last,” because it could be. I’m not one to sit there and tell someone to “save all your money for a rainy day either” because you know what—if you worked that hard to make it you should be able to enjoy it. The trick is to balance it. That’s ultimately what I would tell people—you have to find a balance. If you can find that balance while you’re playing that’s wonderful. Because if you don’t find that balance, that’s where I think the whole marriage issue becomes a big thing. Guys don’t know how to balance their lives.
Once you don’t have that rush and that feeling of playing football anymore, you can’t find quite that rush and you get caught up in violence and things you wouldn’t normally be doing because you’re acting out of character. You’re lost. I was always taught by my parents and people that cared about me, never totally lose yourself in whatever it is that you are doing. Always be willing and able to do other things. Be open to do other things. That’s kind of contradiction in terms of how some people treat the game, how coaches may treat the game, how universities and institutions may treat the game, and how the NFL may treat the game. It’s almost a contradiction. They want you to make this your life. And then it’s your life and you don’t have it anymore. It’s an injury and you didn’t even really have time to prepare yourself for the end. It’s over now. Over.
They take you when you got a runny nose. They take you when you break your foot. They help you out when someone isn’t right. But now you’re gone. Sometimes I don’t think that women understand it and I don’t think that the player understands it either. If you can’t balance things out and figure out how to work through it, you will be divorced. You’re going to have those moments whether you’re a professional athlete or not—those "Are we going to stay together moments?" You have two solitary organisms that got to live together. It’s tough, no matter what the situation is. And being a player adds a whole lot of drama to it.
Allinson: I want to go back to something you said about the “rush.” When the end came for you, have you been able to find a similar feeling?
Arrington: I was riding a motorcycle and that was my sobering moment. I don’t need the rush anymore. [laughs] I’m good.
Allinson: But I guess the question is whether you were able to find something to replace your passion for football in your post-athletic career?
Arrington: No, I don’t think anything will ever replace it. And I think that’s the mistake. The mistake people make is that they try to replace that. You can’t! How can you replace a hundred-something-thousand people cheering for you when you make a play? Or [when] you come out of the tunnel for a game. How do you replace that? That’s the mistake people make. You can’t try to replace it; you have to move on from it…and that’s the reality of it. It’s a challenge.
But I always tell people that “I’m not a football player. I’m LaVar Arrington.” I’m a person first. I think that [for] some people, they’re the number and they’re the football player—and they’re okay with that. And so when they don’t have that jersey number anymore and they don’t have the jersey to put on, they don’t know what to do. They’re scared to death. The toughest man that you’ll ever see on the football field is scared to death. It’s an interesting and it’s a crazy dynamic, but it’s something we all got to go through. You play the game and you’re in it long enough to go to the league, you have to go through it. College players go through it when they don’t make it into the league. That’s why you see so many other leagues. Because they can’t do it.
Allinson: They’re trying to hold on to the dream.
Arrington: Chances are if you didn’t make it the first time around, the statistics and odds are totally stacked against you because you got a whole another group of guys coming out [of college]. But you got to chase your dream. You can’t say, “Don’t do it, the stats are against you.” You got to figure it out on your own. I would always say though, you just got to be realistic. If it’s to the point where you’re losing everything—you’re losing your life, you’re wife, you’re losing kids, you’re losing so many things trying to chase football, you got to sober up and you really [need to] go about your life in a more responsible way.
Allinson: A lot issues that athletes encounter result from making bad decisions as to whom they allow into their inner circles. How did you go about selecting those individuals and what impact did they have on your career? And what is the best advice you could give for how pro athletes should choose their inner circles?
Arrington: I would say keep your inner circle as small as you can for one. And as far as who you choose to work with you, it’s tricky. It’s very tricky because who knows how to pick someone to handle millions of dollars. Who knows how to decide you’re going to be the perfect agent for me? You’re throwing the dice. I would say that the biggest thing that you have to do is that you have to be very in tune and very vigilant about your business. Don’t rely on everyone else to take care of stuff for you.
Allinson: So be in the driver seat over your own affairs?
Arrington: No matter who you hire, it’s a double edged-sword sometimes because you can’t go in and do your own contracts.
Allinson: Well you can if you’re Daunte Culpepper.
Arrington: Theoretically you can, but you probably don’t want to do that. You got to have that buffer in between, especially when it gets down to the nitty gritty. I would say you need to be involved. You need to know what agents are trying to get, what they’re trying to do. If a contract negotiation is being held up, is it being held up for something you’re okay with or something you’re not okay with? The same thing goes with CPAs and different people.
To me, honestly if I had my druthers, I would tell players get a lawyer—a very, a very educated lawyer and pay them by the hour to do your NFL contract. If I had my choice, get a tax person and that’s it. Just have your taxes in order. Don’t deal with anybody who says we want to take your money here, we want to take your money there, we want to do this with your money.
Just let your money sit. Take care of your taxes and just let your money sit, because, at the end of the day, after you’re done playing ball and you really have the opportunity to sit down and not worry about going to work out or make plays, then you can go and do it as much as you like to do it. I would tell people don’t be in such a rush to have people handling your money.
Allinson: That’s really great advice.
Arrington: Have someone take care of your taxes and once you get done with the game, you can look at things that you’re interested in. And if you’re interested, then start looking for the right outlets to go about doing it. That to me would make the most sense.
Allinson: Did you use a financial advisor during your playing career?
Arrington: Yeah, I fired him after I came to the realization like, “What am I paying you for?” You’re investing and you have my money tied up in this, this, and that. Okay, if I want to take that money out, I have to pay taxes on that. I might not have necessarily wanted to be in that situation. And I got to pay fees on it to take it out. And that’s how they make their money—they have to move your money. Are your best interests at mind? They do have your interests, but the best interests lies with them. If they tell you anything different than that, they’re full of stuff. Real talk. I’ve never met or never heard of a financial planner who was okay with you putting your money into whatever it is you want to put your money into because they don’t make any money off of that. They didn’t bring that to the table. Hold your money. Sit on your money unless you feel like [there is] an opportunity that you just can’t pass up. If you feel that strongly about it, take a chance. But if you don’t, let your money sit man. You got plenty of time to figure out what to do with it.
Allinson: Did you take advantage of programs like the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program?
Arrington: No, because I didn’t feel like I needed them to guide me. I think that some guys really need that help. I didn’t feel like I ever needed that. I felt like if I was going to go back to school, I’m going to go back to school. I was probably wrong for feeling that way. I probably should have exploited those programs to a much deeper degree, but I didn’t. I probably regret [that] a little bit. I just felt like I could do it myself, which I did. But maybe there were some things I could have avoided having learned myself. I feel like I’m battle-tested now.
Allinson: Which one do you think has less job security—being a broadcaster or a professional athlete?
Arrington: You know I don’t know. They both have their moments. I would say it meant more to not get the axe in playing football. I think that in entertainment you know if you’re good and you know if you’re bad. So it’s kind of like if you’re not getting good ratings, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you if you’re not in there long. I’ve been able to leverage who I am, leverage my brand, and build a really entertaining show. I don’t really worry about that. To be honest, the biggest thing I kind of concern myself with is “How do I continue to do it with everything else that I have going on?”