Eight in the morning.
St. Louis, Missouri.
Dead of winter.
I’d barely gotten the sleep out of my eyes when, out of nowhere, my girlfriend dumped me.
She called. Did it over the phone….
This was 2017, right around the holidays, a few months after the Bills had decided to cut me from their roster.
I wasn’t in the league anymore. Wasn’t a player. And so I guess she was just like, “I’m out.”
And, somehow, things actually went downhill from there.
I was back home in St. Louis to handle some business, so when I got that call I was actually sitting in the parking lot of a Home Depot about to get to work. I owned a few properties in the city, and the person I had trusted to look after them had decided that she was going to poorly mismanage $80,000 of my money, while also choosing not to fully complete any of the renovations she’d said she would do.
This was someone I loved, someone I had trusted. It broke my heart.
So now me and my uncle, we had to go and handle all that stuff ourselves — painting, carpentry, drywall, just fixing up a bunch of little things. I was getting up at four or five in the morning to do a whole bunch of jobs that I’d already paid someone to do.
And on this day, after the breakup call, while I’m still sitting there in that Home Depot parking lot about to go in and buy some primer, the woman who took my money decides to call me next.
I’m basically a broken man at this point. No NFL job. No girl. Getting up way too early every morning. Freezing cold. Arms sore from painting. And now … this lady is calling me with some story about how she didn’t do anything wrong, even though she couldn’t give me a straight answer as to where the money went.
I just couldn’t. You know what I mean?
At one point, I just shook my head slowly and hung up. I had to get off the phone and, I don’t know … catch my breath.
I was in such a dark place.
Just so … I don’t know how to put it, really.
I was in such a dark place.
Just basically … low.
It was like everything was snowballing on me. Or like I was suffocating and couldn’t come up for air.
I was at the lowest point ever in my life. No team, no girl, no money — heartbroken from three different angles.
So I sat in that parking lot devastated. Defeated. Not knowing if I could even bear the thought of moving on. Then I heard this voice in my head say loud and clear, “You must forgive. Forgive wholeheartedly. And you must do it now, or this may be the end of you.”
I heard God loud and clear.
And even though I was hurting and on the brink of destruction … I knew what I had to do. I said right then and there, out loud, with my eyes full of tears: “Lord, I forgive my ex for breaking up with me. Lord, I forgive that person who stole from me. And most of all, Lord, I forgive myself. Fill my heart with forgiveness, love, compassion and understanding because I’m not perfect. But I forgive.”
At that point, the weight was lifted.
Then I closed my eyes, took a deep breath through my nose, picked my phone back up and dialed my best friend, Jackson … J is what I call him.
“Look, bro,” I remember saying, with a real serious tone to my voice. “We’ve been talking about this for too long. We gotta make this happen. No more ifs. No maybes. I need you to tell me … to promise me … that you’re all in. That you’re ready to give 150% to this thing.”
And, I mean … thank God for what happened next.
J didn’t hesitate. Not for a second.
He promised me.
And that’s the moment when everything changed. That’s when I felt like maybe this thing we’d been calling Politiscope could change the world.
Four years before that early-morning conversation with J, I got drafted in the sixth round by the Cardinals as a receiver out of Murray State.
I really enjoyed the NFL for a while, too. I loved the camaraderie, the teamwork element, the conversations during camp and in the locker room, where you could really get to know people. I moved from the Cardinals to the Jets my rookie year, and played for a few teams the following season. By 2016 I had worked my way into a starting role with the Bills.
At the same time, though, I often felt like something was missing.
I’ve always considered myself a different type of person. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve loved telling stories, and being creative, and just talking to people and learning as much as I could about others. So even when I first got into the league and everything was so new, and it was all about living the life of a professional athlete and getting some VIP access and having fun, it just, I don’t know … it basically got old for me pretty quick.
A few years after I got drafted, I remember my big brother — my mentor and best friend for my entire life — noticing that I seemed unfulfilled and hitting me with a pretty serious question.
“Bro,” he said to me one night on the phone, “what’s your purpose in life?”
It was one of the realest things I’d ever been asked. And immediately after he said it, I realized that I had no true answer for him.
Right around that same time, Colin Kaepernick had started kneeling in protest during the anthem, and I remember feeling as though my job, what I did for a living, was actually holding me back from expressing myself — from being my true self.
I wanted to take a knee. To show my support. I wanted to do that more than anything. But I knew that I wasn’t Tom Brady or some other superstar. I was disposable. I knew that if I kneeled, I was going to lose my job and probably be out of the NFL forever.
It was agonizing. It weighed on me. I felt super guilty about it. And that feeling didn’t pass. In the end, I just felt….
I felt like I didn’t have any control over my life.
I kept playing, though. I mean….
How could I not?
When the Jags made that crazy playoff run during the 2017–2018 season, it was right around the time when I was doing those Home Depot runs and getting dumped by my girlfriend. Almost out of nowhere, the team called me up and added me to their roster in January.
Looking back on it now, that was the beginning of the end for me and football. But at that moment, I could’ve never predicted what would happen next.
I’d been doing my best to follow politics at the time, but I often found myself confused or overwhelmed by all the information about various bills and proposals. I’d always ask J to explain the nuances to me, and he was really good at breaking everything down.
At one point, a few weeks before the Jags brought me in, I remember going to J for an explanation of a bill that had just passed, and then being like, “There should be an app for this.”
We were living together at the time, and we immediately hopped on our phones … and then on our laptops. We came up empty. There really wasn’t anything that did what we were talking about.
Right then, out of nowhere, I had this vision for an app. I could literally see it in existence, and what it would be like 10 years into the future.
“Hold on a sec,” I told him. “I’ll be right back.”
I threw on some shoes and a jacket, ran to the front door, hopped in my car, and took off for CVS. I bought a pack of paper and then came home and started drawing what I was seeing in my vision — a nonpartisan, easy-to-use app that would allow people to learn about bills, and policy debates, and where their representatives stood on issues … basically everything I was seeing in my head. J put his political input into every page, and then bam, it was finished … Politiscope. I had never felt so empowered in my life. That feeling that I had always sought from football was finally there.
I had never felt so empowered in my life. That feeling that I had always sought from football was finally there.
From that point, things kind of took off.
I spent almost every waking hour thinking through how to make Politiscope a reality. Since I’d been released by the Bills (and my girl), I had the time to really dig in.
When the Jags called, I knew I couldn’t turn down that check. But I also had this weird thing going on in the back of my mind, like maybe my priorities had changed. When I arrived in Jacksonville, that feeling was confirmed.
I found myself just sort of … going through the motions. And one day, during a team meeting, I just looked up and realized I didn’t want to be there.
Right then is when I knew that football may have been my passion … but it wasn’t my purpose in life.
I don’t want to do this anymore.
Once that season ended, Politiscope became my world.
We got some graphic designers onboard and worked up a prototype. I was still training and working out, but in my mind I was ready to move on. I had a new passion, and I had found my purpose in life.
I met with my agents at Vayner Sports and, to their credit, they pushed me towards Politiscope. They saw my passion and believed in what I was doing. Since I didn’t know that much about tech, or how to run a startup, my brother introduced me to attorney and tech entrepreneur Israel Lopez. Israel taught me the tech game, how to build a product, how to raise investment capital, and how to build a scalable technology company. Once I had the tech game playbook, things came naturally to me. My new mentality wasn’t much different, I was just playing a different game now. Israel became my right-hand man and the CEO of Politiscope. I took on the role of chief branding officer and basically set up a zillion meetings. Together with J, we hit the road hard. Meeting after meeting, all over the country.
And everyone seemed to be loving what I was saying, loving our idea for the app.
Within a few months, we’d raised half a million dollars.
One morning a few weeks after we got that first half a million invested, my phone buzzed.
It was a familiar number — my former receivers coach from the Bills and the Jets, Sanjay Lal.
This was right when teams were signing guys prior to camp, and he was with the Cowboys at that point. He told me they needed more depth at receiver.
“Come down to Dallas,” Sanjay said in his message. “I think you’d be a great fit.”
It was such a kind, thoughtful thing for him to do. It was an amazing offer. And I prayed on it for a day or so, really gave it some focused thought. But in the end….
I just couldn’t go.
In my head I was like, We’re rolling right now. Investors have shown they believe in our vision. We can make history with this thing. And what I’m doing now will last way longer than an NFL career.
So I texted him back and, in the most appreciative way I knew how, declined the offer. I remember saying….
“Sanjay, I love you, man. But I can’t do it. I’m good right now. I’m just super focused on my company, and I believe I’ve got something that’s really going to make a difference.”
After that, it was almost like my resolve and passion were being put to the test daily. The very next week, I got calls from five more teams. It was like God was saying, You sure? Are you really all in?
And each time a team reached out, my answer was the same.
“Thanks so much for thinking of me, but … I’m good.”
I was sure.
We’re rolling right now. Investors have shown they believe in our vision. We can make history with this thing. And what I’m doing now will last way longer than an NFL career.
Lots of other people around me, though — family, friends, former teammates — not so much.
For so many folks, football was what they knew me as. It was like, I was Walt … “the football player,” “the NFL guy.”
So me getting cut and then turning down multiple opportunities to get back into the league was a total shocker to pretty much everybody. My family was looking at me crazy. I lost a bunch of close friends. Some people who I’ve known my entire life, and loved more than anything — people who shall remain nameless — just straight up turned their backs on me.
It still does.
But you know what? Sometimes that’s just the way it goes.
Not everyone is going to be along for your whole journey. You know what I mean? And at the end of the day, I know that I’m doing something that I love, something that makes me truly happy. I’m learning new things every day and feel inspired.
If you can’t get down with that, and be supportive of someone feeling that way, well then I guess … so be it.
But I’m not gonna stop now. I’m having way too much fun.
I’ve connected with people all around the world — including more than 200 potential investors — over the past year and a half, and to be able to go into those meetings with VCs and other successful individuals and feel comfortable and confident and … actually know what I’m talking about? That has been one of the dopest, most empowering experiences of my life.
It’s definitely been an uphill climb for us, but to be honest that’s part of what makes our success so gratifying. The reality is that the tech space is like 99% white. So being a minority-owned company, it hasn’t always been easy to gain the type of access to VCs that we’d love to pitch. And, just personally speaking, sometimes it’s been a challenge knowing that I worked my whole life to reach the highest level of my craft, and to be respected, and to have people support me … and then to go all the way back down to the bottom of the totem pole in an entirely different field.
But I wouldn’t trade what I’m doing now for anything.
And, on the positive side, I feel like having played in the NFL has helped me in a lot of ways with this new venture. When you play a ton of sports, you learn all about what it takes to be a great teammate, and how to work alongside others in trying to reach a mutual goal.
That and, well … adversity.
Learning how to fail and lose, and then grow from those experiences … that’s something that sports will teach you. And it definitely comes in handy when you’re trying to raise VC money.
Learning how to fail and lose, and then grow from those experiences … that’s something that sports will teach you.
My view on it all, though, and why I think we’ve been successful, is that people who invest for a living — the ones who are good at it — can quickly tell the difference between a passionate team that knows what they are doing and a team that is still trying to piece it all together, with the emphasis on passion.
Honestly, I used to feel nervous at first because it was like, “Oh wow, I’m in a room with so and so. I’m in a meeting with this person or that multi-millionaire” and I have to convince them that I’m Walter Powell Jr. the tech founder … not the NFL player.
But what got me through the initial nervousness is that I have always been so completely confident in what I’ve been pitching — the core idea of Politiscope, and helping people get up to speed on politics in a way that is accessible and easy to use. Everything I say, it’s coming from the heart, and from the purest of intentions.
I never feel nervous now, because I know myself, I know Politiscope, I know our mission, and I know that we are doing something important.
And I hope that maybe me doing this can have an influence on other athletes, especially in the technology space. I hope that seeing me chase something that makes me truly happy can really unlock a lot of things for other players who might be feeling unfulfilled as professional athletes.
I’d love nothing more than to inspire people to figure out what they love, their purpose in life, and then … go do it. Because life doesn’t end when football ends, I can tell you that much for sure.
We launched the Politiscope app January 17 of this year. We now have more than 30,000 users, and as I sit here writing this, we’ve raised more than $1 million. We brought on another co-founder in Nimish Desai, who has exited multiple tech companies and is playing a vital role in setting us up to provide our investors with a substantial return. Oh, and Gary Vee even invested in us, which was cool having it come full circle with him. We have a long-term partnership deal with The Young Turks, have our version 2.0 ready for release, and Politiscope is ready to became America’s No. 1 tool for political media and information. We have big dreams. We’re doing our thing, for sure.
And it blows my mind. All of it.
It’s sometimes fun to sit back and think about the fact that tons and tons of people are up in Stanford or Harvard or MIT trying to figure out how to do what I’m doing — brainstorming tech ideas, learning how to pitch, all of the ins and outs of starting a new venture.
And I’m basically just out here doing it. You know what I mean?
My secret? It’s nothing crazy or complicated. It really isn’t. I just truly believe in what we’re doing, I’ve dedicated my life to learning and getting better at the tech game every single day, and I try to give off as much positive energy as possible at all times. When I’m done talking with somebody, I want them to feel excited. I want them to feel empowered. I want them to feel….
I basically want them to feel … like I do.