An ex-NFL star delivers

March 30, 2015, 10:00 AM UTC
Portrait: Tony McGeePortrait For SI and FortuneIn a warehouse in Orlando, FL/Orlando, FL, USA3/5/2015X159332 TK1Credit: Ben Van Hook
Portrait: Tony McGee Portrait For SI and Fortune In a warehouse in Orlando, FL/Orlando, FL, USA 3/5/2015 X159332 TK1 Credit: Ben Van Hook
Photograph by Ben Van Hook for Sports Illustrated

Tony McGee never took the straight route. When he retired after 11 NFL seasons in 2004, he planned to spend his time on standard wealthy-athlete endeavors: a sports radio program in Orlando, a gig with ESPN’s Cold Pizza talk show, stakes in a restaurant and sports complex. But a few detours later, he came to realize he needed to focus on a single task. “When you have all this stuff going on, you can’t concentrate on any one thing,” says McGee, still fit at 43, over chicken tacos at a lakeside Orlando restaurant. “I was the quintessential jack-of-all, master of none.”

Today McGee runs an unusual enterprise for a retired jock: He’s the founder and CEO of four-year-old HNM Global Logistics, a freight forwarder that arranges import/export, warehousing, and distribution for corporate clients that need to move goods.

It wasn’t the first unexpected destination for McGee, a man who has confidently grabbed opportunities even when they weren’t the ones he had planned for. Growing up in Terre Haute, Ind., McGee played basketball. He excelled enough to attract scholarship offers from Indiana University, among others. But he was a power forward whose six-four height made him more likely to play guard in college; McGee knew his football prospects were better. He accepted a scholarship from the University of Michigan, where he played tight end and studied communications. For his first three seasons, however, McGee spent most fall Saturdays as just another spectator. He took internships in marketing and sports information, imagining he’d take a regular job upon graduating. “When you have three catches going into your senior year,” he says, “you’re not trying to sign an agent.”

Then plans changed. As a senior, McGee was second on the team with 38 receptions and six touchdowns, including two in a Rose Bowl win. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted him, and he became their starting tight end for nine seasons. The Bengals’ constant struggles forged an inward focus. “There are so many things surrounding the team that you can’t control,” he says. “You had to say, ‘As an individual, how am I playing?’ ”

Cut by the Bengals after a knee injury in 2001, McGee spent a season in Dallas before the arrival of future All-Pro Jason Witten made him expendable. The Giants called a few months later when their starter got hurt, offering McGee one last slot and a major shift in perspective. “I remember [in Cincinnati] we would look at the veteran that comes in halfway through the year and be like, ‘Man, I never want that to be us,’ ” he says. “Then that’s you.” As the season wound down, he knew he was done.

McGee making a catch in his playing daysJohn Sommers II—Reuters
John Sommers II—Reuters

There were some restless mornings, times when McGee would wake up and work out and then not know what to do with himself. “The hardest thing is to find a process and a structure,” he says. “In the NFL your schedule—everything—is done for you. All you do is show up ready to play. Everything’s lined up. So when you finish [with football], you’ve got to figure out how to balance your time, how to manage, how to allocate certain times to certain tasks. It took a long time to … find the focus.”

His daily sports talk show on a local ESPN Radio affiliate proved a grind: “You do a radio show in Orlando in June when the draft is over, NBA playoffs are over. That third hour was a struggle.” But McGee soon discovered easy money in the booming real estate market, flipping a half-dozen houses for $1 million in profit. At that point, McGee says, the plan was, “I’m just doing this forever.”

That fantasy collapsed along with the subprime mortgage industry. So McGee launched a roofing-supply company with a partner, who suggested McGee attend a meeting about FF&E to drum up business. Without even knowing what the acronym stood for (furniture, fixtures, and equipment), McGee charmed and wangled his way onto a team that successfully bid to outfit the suites at Orlando’s Amway Arena. More contracts followed.

Then one night at dinner an acquaintance mentioned she had granted a $93 million contract to a logistics company. McGee’s ears perked up. “What’s that?” he asked. Within months he was launching a business in a field he had previously not even heard of. “I just figured it out,” McGee says. “You get on the phone, start calling, networking, tapping your re-sources … You don’t think why or how. It’s just, I’ve got to get this done.”

Inspired, he earned the necessary certifications from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration, working the phones to learn the market, and prepaying for credit with Florida freight carriers. In 2011 he landed his first contract, providing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement the means to move seized contraband. “He’s got a charismatic personality that lends itself to the industry,” says John Jordan, owner of Total Logistic Services and a mentor to McGee. “And he’s not afraid.”

HNM—the name is a dual reference to his old real estate venture, “home notes and mortgages,” and the initials of his daughter, Hannah Nicole—now generates eight figures in annual revenue, he says, and 25% gross profit margins. McGee has 25 employees, and clients range from fireworks retailers to cruise lines to German motorcycle tours. And McGee is expanding: He has launched a second company, HNM Express, that provides trucks and freight moving, and he’s in negotiations to open a group of Dunkin’ Donuts franchises back in Indiana. (Key to his research: daily taste tests at Orlando locations.)

McGee remains as active as he is ambitious, rising daily before five to hit the gym. The toll of his NFL career is, at least for now, negligible compared with many of his peers’: pronounced thumb joints, ankle inflammation, an inability to ride roller coasters without becoming disoriented. He sees his successful present as directly tied to his past, not only in the discipline it instilled but in the financial security he needed to enable the years he spent figuring it out. In his case, the winding route left him open to catch what came his way.

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This article first appeared in the April 1, 2014 issue of Fortune.

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