By AVERY BRAXTON (@Ave_Braxton)
Josh Vaughan carries the ball for the Atlanta Falcons in a 2014 preseason game against the Houston Texans. Courtesy of Josh Vaughan.
For many players, the game of football is a lifelong dream. The vast majority have spent nearly the entirety of their lives, since at least the beginning of high school, focusing on playing professionally.
But every player knows the game ends one day. The bright lights turn off, the stadium cheering is silenced and the pads get put away for the last time. But for many, the question that remains is, “What’s next?” What happens when the game of life is no longer the game you’ve known most of your existence?
The average NFL career lasts 3.3 years, according to the NFL Player’s Association. Those lucky enough to avoid injury and skilled enough to last beyond those three years are often the ones who can afford to live off of what they made in the league, but even then it takes careful planning to make the money stretch a lifetime. There comes a moment in every athlete’s career when he has to start thinking about life after football.
The NFLPA has taken notice of this and is attempting to prepare players for post-career life. For a long time, the magic number among players who were “bankrupt or financially stressed” post retirement was 78 percent. That number came from a Sports Illustrated article written by Pablo S. Torre in 2009.
Since then, another magic number came out in 2015. A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that 16 percent of players will declare bankruptcy by their 12th year of retirement. Regardless of which number you abide by, there isn’t a player in the league who wants to declare bankruptcy.
Josh Vaughan is one of the players who has figured it out. The six-year veteran of the Carolina Panthers and, more recently, the Atlanta Falcons, has been out of the league for a few years and officially declared his retirement in 2014. The 29-year-old knows his days of football are behind him. Instead, he has turned his eyes on a new game.
“It was a challenge,” Vaughan said when asked about the decision to pursue a new path. “A lot of guys don’t get to walk away when they’re ready. A lot of times it’s, ‘Hey, the phone just stops ringing.’”
The choice to walk away was a difficult one for Vaughan, who described being away from the game as “kind of depressing.
“Not having the game, not being in the locker room, not doing what you enjoy doing even though you feel like you still have the ability is rough on the mind,” he said.
But the path to post-football life was one Vaughan thought of a long time ago. The former running back got married in 2012 to his now wife, Amber. After the wedding, Vaughan knew football wouldn’t last forever and began reading up on finances and the corporate world. He sought out tools that the NFL and NFLPA had to offer.
Josh Vaughan with his wife, Amber, in January of 2014. The couple was married in May of 2012 and has two sons, Levi and Caleb. Picture courtesy of Josh Vaughan.
Vaughan said the league offered classes on financial literacy as well as internship and externship programs. There is also a trust that allows players with two or more years in the league to gain access to medical exams, financial case management and opportunities to go back to the school.
The tools are there, but unfortunately a lot of players don’t take advantage of what’s offered, Vaughan said. So many players are hard wired to think about nothing but football. When the time comes to retire and think about life after the game, it’s too late for many.
“All they’ve known is football their whole lives. It’s kind of a naive thing, but you can’t blame them,” he said. “You love the game. You’ve played it your whole life, so that’s what you see yourself doing.”
The NFLPA began an externship program in 2014. The three-week program occurs during the offseason when players have a chance to unwind after a hard season. Many will take the time to vacation and spend time with family, but others use the opportunity to get a taste of what life after football is like.
When it came time to do so, Vaughan searched through the a stack of corporate sponsors, which included jobs in everything from political work on Capitol Hill to broadcasting with ESPN Radio and Comcast. He found one he liked in Merrill Lynch, a wealth management company headquartered in New York.
The company has a branch in Atlanta. Vaughan said he wanted to apply for the externship in the summer of 2014, but it didn’t work out. After getting cut from the Falcons in 2014, Vaughan decided to intern with Merrill Lynch in the fall.
“I only got one season where I had a full year’s (salary), so, you know, I wasn’t in a position where I could afford to wait around,” Vaughan explained.
Vaughan interned for six months with the Atlanta branch of Merrill Lynch. The company had him sit in on meetings and work alongside clients to figure out their own financial futures as far as retirement planning, investments, saving for college and other financial ventures.
“It was tough -- getting used to being in an office, getting used to work that’s not football. It’s a completely different dynamic than what you’re used to,” Vaughan said. “You realize like, ‘Hey, this is something that I can do, and it’s something that I need to do to provide for my family.’”
Vaughan completed the six-month program and was brought on to Merrill Lynch full time. The running back turned financial advisor is now Series 7 certified and helps sell insurance. He is studying to obtain his full financial planner certification.
Vaughan’s day-to-day looks much different now than it did in his playing days. He creates client financial projections, constantly updates himself on the financial climate and helps his senior partners set up trades and client investments. He said the game of football helped him to develop into the financial advisor he is today and that he wants to eventually get into helping other players with their own financial futures.
“One of the reasons I got into financial advising was because I wanted to ultimately help players with their finances and help with that statistic,” he said.
The NFL taught Vaughan how to be a consummate professional, but he thinks the league can offer even more. He would like to see the NFL, colleges and universities teach football players the importance of life after football earlier in their lives so they don’t end in financially-stressful situations.
“We’re going to be citizens of society a lot longer than we’re going to be football players," Vaughan said.