Broadway George

You know Eddie George: Heisman Trophy winner. You know the Pro Bowl running back. But how about the landscape architect? How about the entrepreneur and MBA-holder? How about Eddie George: Broadway actor?

This is how I got here …

You never know exactly when you’ll leave the game. Like plenty of other guys, I just figured it would be a lot later than when it actually happened. But after nine years, I retired and my career was done.

I wasn’t prepared for it. I was in a place where I was really depressed with how it ended, why it ended. And I was left asking myself, “Who am I at this point in my life?”

All you can do is eventually ask yourself, What do I want to do?

This is a difficult question for anyone, but if you’ve been defined by football for nearly your entire life it can be next to impossible. But while I might not have been prepared mentally for leaving the NFL, I had, for a long, long time, been putting in the work to make sure I had a life after the league.

A couple years before I stopped playing, I founded my own business, The EDGE Group, which is a landscape architecture firm. Yes. You read that right. Eddie George: landscape architect. I had actually studied landscape architecture at Ohio State. I had really wanted to study building architecture, but because of my schedule between football and class, there was no wiggle room for me to get it done. I’d practically have to live in the studio. But landscaping offered the same creativity, critical thinking and design work.

I took this course my freshman year, and one of the projects I did for it was to take this area of campus that was desolate — a place that you just kind of passed through going from class to class. We had to turn it into a space where people would want to come and hang out and that was safe at night. I fell in love with the whole process, and the next thing, I applied to the engineering school to major in landscape architecture.

When I left school in 1995 to enter the NFL Draft, I was 17 hours shy of my degree. I trained during the offseason at Ohio State anyway, so I decided that I would be proactive and take classes one spring semester. You know what? I fit right back in. I didn’t feel awkward or out of place because I was on a mission. I was there on my own dime, so I took it seriously and finally got my degree in 2001.

With my degree, more people and opportunities came my way, even as I balanced life in the NFL. But I realized that, rather than just putting my name on things and picking up a licensing fee (which — great!), I wanted to do something more. I had access to so many different people, from developers to investors, but more importantly, I also had ideas to really make projects work. When I’d go to different stadiums to play, I would take time to check out the various venues. I would look at the spaces and think: What would I do differently? The player stadium experience is very different. You literally go from your hotel room to the locker room, so to go outside and really experience NFL stadiums was incredible.

Towards the end of my NFL career, one of my professors introduced me to the two guys who would become my partners. We founded EDGE in 2003, two years before I retired.

Owning my own business didn’t make leaving the league any less painful. You think, having seen so many other guys go through it, that you’d be better about your own transition to “normal life.” But you go from thousands of fans screaming your name to waking up on a Sunday and wondering what your life is about. If I’m honest, it was not a great time for me or my family. I struggled with depression. I went to counseling. I really had to start building back a new life.

And that’s probably when I realized how important starting EDGE had been. It wasn’t just a new way to make money. It was my new life, my new journey. And what’s more, for the first time I was working on something that wasn’t football, something that I loved, something that challenged me. I wasn’t just sitting back, handing my money over and hoping for some good return. I had a business — one that fit my experience and passion.

So I got to work.

Guys will always talk about how much you learn from the game of football, and I know all that, but running a business? Now, that was eye-opening. We started off as a really strong four-man firm and then grew quickly to over 30 employees. But once the financial crisis hit, I learned just how tough it was to cut back. We had to let people go, cut back salaries. Business got really, really tough for us. And that’s the one thing that really inspired me to get my MBA, because sitting behind a desk doing design work wasn’t enough anymore. I needed to learn how we could grow our business, how we could become more profitable, how we could get more business to come in the door.

It took a while for me to finish some required courses, but I was accepted into the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern in 2007. I quickly realized how difficult actually completing the two-year executive program was going to be. Kellogg really took me out of my comfort zone. I met people from different backgrounds, different industries — really smart people that had been in their own fields for years. And here I am, the former athlete, jumping into this world of heavy finance.

For two years, I went to campus every other weekend. I was working as a football analyst in L.A. as well, fitting in studying whenever I could. I’d be doing homework on my program’s set, and I’d sometimes take a redeye to Chicago to attend class the same day. I also helped care for our two-year-old son. Oh, and my wife competed on Survivor that year. One weekend, I flew to the Amazon basin to visit her and I remember thinking, This is so crazy, I’m in the middle of the jungle studying statistics. But there were other students flying in from China, Russia and India, so yeah, for all of us, it was a grueling, grueling, grueling schedule. I knew I had no excuses.

Sure, self-doubt crept in. O.K., here comes the athlete, how much does he really know about business? He’s only here because of his name, not his brain. But then I told myself, Nope. I’m here on my own merits. I’m here on my own experiences, and I do have something to bring to the table. And I got it done.

Yet even after getting my MBA in 2009, I still wasn’t fulfilled or content with just my success in business. I needed another outlet. It might sound funny, but for the past ten years, I have been taking acting classes. At first, it was to help with my broadcasting career. But it soon turned into table reads, stage work and Shakespeare. This month I made my Broadway debut as Billy Flynn in Chicago.

Yes. You read that right. Eddie George: Broadway actor.

I’d seen the touring production when it came to Nashville last year, and jokingly said I’d be up for playing Billy. Well, they called my bluff, and last November I found myself standing on the stage for an audition at the Ambassador Theater in New York, singing my butt off — and cracking notes everywhere. Surprisingly, they still said yes, so I spent all of last year focusing on my voice, my body movements and my acting to get ready for this opportunity.

So how does all of this come together?

Well, the one thing I wish I had when I came into the league was someone telling me what to be prepared for. There’s so many guys I talk to who don’t know what they’re doing with their money, don’t know what to expect after their career ends.

It started for me with education and and that’s where I begin again. I helped create a course last year at Ohio State called the Business of Professional Sports. We actually take my own NFL contract and extract the numbers out of it and go through it. We teach student-athletes that what they think is a million dollars is not really a million dollars. We teach them the difference between an agent, a CPA and a financial adviser. It empowers the athletes, not just for their careers, but also for when their playing days are over. I bring my education, my entrepreneurial skills and yes, even my entertainment career, into the classroom so that these student-athletes are better prepared than I was.

It’s so hard to see life beyond the field, especially if you’re getting ready to commit to a college, or declare for a draft. It’s hard to tell someone at the peak of their athletic career to find other passions that will last long after their playing days are over. I think too often people talk about this as, What do I need to fall back on? It’s not falling back. The mindset really should be, What are you moving toward?

Leaving the NFL, I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew that I wanted to follow my passions, follow what resonated with me. I think this allowed me to be a person who wasn’t defined by a box or one role: Oh, you’re a landscape architect. Oh, you’re a wealth manager. Oh, you’re a teacher. Oh, you’re an actor.

Yes. I’m Eddie George, and I’m all of these things.