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Visa opens a new path for former NFL players: as Fortune 500 executives

May 9, 2021, 11:00 PM UTC

In his 15-year career in the National Football League as an offensive tackle, Harry Swayne had a specific job: To keep opposing linemen from getting to his quarterback.

Now the three-time Super Bowl winner is gunning for a very different kind of job: As a potential executive for Visa.

The credit-card giant, #137 on the 2020 Fortune 500, is launching a brand-new program for retired NFL players, to cycle through different business lines of the company and come out of it with a full-time gig.

For Swayne—whose post-playing career has included stints as the team chaplain for the Chicago Bears, and as a player-development executive for the Baltimore Ravens—it looks like an ideal opportunity to advance his career away from the gridiron.

“Transitioning from one career to the next is incredibly difficult,” says Swayne, who won Super Bowl rings with Ravens and the Denver Broncos. “You have to learn how to do something totally new.”

Here’s how the program works: Visa is accepting applications from former NFL players through May 21. An informational Zoom session has already been held for initial applicants, with more being planned.

The aim is to take on up to five candidates for a two-year trial run, during which players will spend six months in four different business units such as sales and marketing or product strategy. At the end of that period – or even before, if they are thriving in a particular business area—they will stay on with a full-time gig and a career at Visa.

“This is based on what we have been doing for years with Olympic athletes,” says Mary Ann Reilly, Visa’s SVP and head of North American marketing. “It’s designed to help them with career training, development, mentoring and networking.

“At some point they are going to retire from their sport—then what do they do next?”

For a growing number of Olympic and Paralympic athletes, the answer to that question has been to enter Visa’s corporate ranks. That program’s most recent candidates include taekwondo’s Nia Abdallah, wheelchair basketball’s Ryan Neiswender, and hurdling’s Mikel Thomas.

But it’s an especially tricky question for NFL athletes, since the average career in the punishing sport only lasts three or four years (hence the old joke about the league’s initials, ‘Not For Long’). After that, there are still decades of working life left to go—and up until that point, almost all of their efforts have been directed at making an NFL roster.

So making the transition to 9-to-5 corporate life can be very jarring indeed. That’s where the league’s Player Care Foundation comes in, helping those in immediate financial need, and prepping them for a more sustainable career in the years ahead.

The new Visa partnership is one aspect of that, but the league has also been running annual career fairs to match up employers with former athletes. Its most recent edition—held virtually this year, because of the pandemic—attracted 47 firms and 197 former players.

James McEntee—AP Images for NFL

“We have found that many former players are unemployed or underemployed, so we really need to help athletes connect with companies for long-term financial stability,” says Belinda Lerner, the Player Care Foundation’s executive director.

“Believe it or not, it can be very intimidating for them. Even those with very successful careers can struggle with coming off the field, and finding an identity outside the NFL.”

The first cohort of Visa applicants is slated to start in September, when the new NFL season kicks off. The program will then take on a handful of fresh candidates every year.

Post-football realities are something the league’s newest draftees would be wise to keep in mind. Beginning this past April 29, a total of 259 young men were selected by NFL teams, and many undrafted players were signed as well. Some of them will make NFL rosters, but others won’t—and all of them, at some point, will face a future of life after football.

“Eventually you career will end, and you will go back into the general population,” warns Swayne. “So I would advise them all to continue to grow not just in their football skills, but to grow as individuals.”

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