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How Oregon State Is Helping Players Prepare for Life Beyond Football

While many universities have student-athlete services divisions, programs this specific to football are extremely rare in the NCAA.

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From 2004 to 2007, Alexis Serna enjoyed a successful tenure as the placekicker for Oregon State University’s football team. In that time, he earned All-American honors twice and won the 2005 Lou Groza Award, given annually to the nation’s top placekicker. After earning his degree in history from OSU, Serna played in the Canadian Football League for three seasons before returning to Oregon with his wife in 2010.

Unsure of what professional direction to take, Serna worked several jobs in the private sector over the next few years including roofing, training to be a police officer, and working as a store manager for Sherwin Williams. In that time, Serna still found himself maintaining contacts within the football program at OSU and regularly volunteering with the Varsity OSU organization (an alumni organization for OSU letter winners).

Six years ago, then-head coach Mike Riley and Varsity OSU director Scott Spiegelberg started the Beyond Football initiative within the program. The initiative aims to transition student-athletes into their professional careers after their playing days are over. In September of this year, Scott Spiegelberg and new head coach Jonathan Smith hired Serna as the program’s new director.

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In his time as the program’s director, Serna has set up networking events on campus to connect OSU football players with potential career opportunities. Serna also brought players to meet with OSU alumni at local employers including Nike, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, UPS and Target’s distribution center in Albany (a short drive from Corvallis). Serna also makes a point to connect current and exiting players with OSU alumni all over the country as some return to their home states after college or give a professional playing career a shot.

Given Serna’s own history with finding his place after football, he feels a personal connection to the mission of the program.

“A lot of former players have stories similar to mine in terms of transitioning from football because the sport is such a huge part of your identity,” Serna reflects. “I was gung-ho about becoming a teacher once my playing days were over, but that wasn’t an option without an education degree. Eventually, I ended up in sales and management with Sherwin Williams and I absolutely loved it. I think someone teaching me a bit more about what career options were open to me outside of what I could immediately think of would have been helpful while I was a student-athlete. So, we want to be a resource for these athletes to talk to them about different careers and help them prepare for the rest of their lives.”

While many universities have student-athlete services divisions, programs this specific to football are extremely rare in the NCAA. People may not immediately think of how high-level college athletes fare after graduating, but the reality that people forget is that roughly two percent of former NCAA athletes play professionally. Finding an identity outside of playing a sport can be difficult and sometimes lead to heartbreak. Serna wants to help OSU’s student-athletes avoid that as much as possible. A big part of that comes from encouraging players to reach out and expand their networks while still in college.

“When you’re young, you don’t necessarily think about a network so much because you’re so focused on your sport, your schoolwork, and your social life. So we’re trying to get these guys to know a lot of people and have relationships with those people. With that, it’ll be easier to transition into the professional world.”

In addition to having a program that serves a great function for OSU’s current student-athletes, it is an important part of the recruiting sell for Beaver football. Eventually, all football players need to find a career. Serna wants to make sure that they do that while enrolled at Oregon State.

“We want our players to be successful, and that doesn’t end with them being here at OSU. It’s very important for the recruits to be able to hear that and understand that this is what we’re doing. We’re not just concerned with wins and losses on the field, we want to make sure that they’re winning off the field as well.”

Serna and the Beyond Football program are also dedicated to connecting with and helping former OSU players that return seeking guidance.

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“We’re very family oriented and we want to make sure to show that, even after their eligibility is up, they’re still always welcome to come back. That’s what I try to emphasize to the seniors that are going to be leaving. My door is always going to be open to help you out because that’s what my role is: to help you out.”

When football is life, the way it is for Division I student-athletes, it can be difficult to see the other side of the horizon and what will come next in life. With the amount of professional and personal resources that exist for power five football programs, it’s somewhat of a wonder that more initiatives like Beyond Football don’t exist throughout the NCAA. Serna and Oregon State look to be a guiding light in this facet for programs hoping to help players succeed at the next level of life.

“It is exciting to think about being a pioneer for programming something that nobody else is doing. We want to become a model for the rest of the NCAA. As we continue to improve the program and keep it rolling, I’m excited to see where we are in the next five to 10 years.”

Joe is currently a freelance marketing professional, writer, and podcaster. His work can also be found on the SB Nation network. Joe earned his bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Louisville in 2014 and a master's degree in sport administration from Seattle University in 2017. He can be reached via email at joe@frntofficesport.com.

Athletes In Business

Trio of NFL Players Work Together for A Dunkin’ Retirement

Ricky Jean Francois, Jordan Reed and Sam Shields are building a Dunkin’ empire in South Carolina and Georgia to better set themselves up for retirement.

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Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to his fifth season, Ricky Jean Francois received a significant lump sum of cash from the contract he signed with the Indianapolis Colts. He knew exactly what to do with it. 

“I needed a retirement fund,” said Jean Francois, a 10th-year defensive tackle who’s currently a free agent. “I had the money but didn’t want to spend all the money. I wasn’t going to be a 30 for 30 subject about going broke. If I had the resources, we needed to get a retirement plan going.”

His financial manager, Sherard Rogers, suggested Dunkin’ franchises as a potential pathway for his post-career plans. Rogers brought Jordan Reed and Sam Shields, two of his other clients, into the fold, and together the three players started U Donuts, LLC. The business has since purchased territory rights between Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, with the potential to build 26 stores. The company began with three locations and now has nine operational, with four more planned to open this year. Jean Francois said U Donuts is prioritizing steady growth over exploding the number of franchises.

READ MORE: Jake Plummer Carries Quarterback Lessons into the Startup World

“It’s a growing brand that will let us take it as far as we want to,” he added. “Everybody loves coffee. “We thought it’d be smart to get into something a lot of people can’t not start their day with”

Dunkin’ relies on franchisees like the trio of NFL players to continue its growth throughout the nation, said Grant Benson, Dunkin’ Brands senior vice president of franchising and business development. Benson noted Jean Francois, Reed and Shields all demonstrate high confidence in the Dunkin’ model, which makes them easy to work with.

“Many of the skills learned in sports can translate to franchising, and these professional athletes know how to work hard and utilize the operations playbook to their advantage,” Benson said. “We look forward to working with U Donuts to bring great products and an exceptional guest experience to our loyal guests throughout South Carolina and Georgia.”

The trio of NFL players combined their efforts to help other prepare for their post-NFL lives. Jean Francois said the trio could have prioritized individual endeavors but understood early on that combining resources will better prepare all of them for retirement.

“It’s better when you have other people that want to get their post-career started now, investing now,” he said. “I get to learn from them, they get to learn from me, and we all get to make our money work now and see what our money is doing.”

Likewise, Jean Francois said he’s excited to set himself up for other business endeavors, which might start sooner rather than later, as he’s unsure of whether he’ll be on a team this fall.

“We all work together, get on calls with one another and our other partners that are professionals, so I know it as well,” he said. “I’m on the back end of my career, so I have to start preparing and be used to it.”

One additional venture could be real estate. The group is currently purchasing the real estate on which future Dunkin’ locations will sit, provided they don’t get a better offer for the land. 

READ MORE: Chargers’ Ekeler Takes to YouTube to Build His Brand

“I want to look at dirt and not see it as dirt, [but] I see the future Dunkin’ built there,” he said. “Being part of it makes you work, makes you work the brain.”

As the trio of players continue to build their coffee and donut empire, Jean Francois wants more players to focus on building their post-career plans early on, so they can retire and walk gently into a comfortable life.

“When you have the resources, why not set an example for others?” he said. “We’ve all seen these recent deals. If these guys put 10% away, they can own whatever they want and coast.”

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Jake Plummer Carries Quarterback Lessons into the Startup World

After years on the sidelines in retirement, the Pro Bowl quarterback has entered business world by co-founding ReadyList Sports.

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Jake Plummer isn’t ashamed to admit it: The former Pro Bowl quarterback had no idea what he was getting into when he agreed to co-found a startup. He’s just glad his wife gave him a push.

He had been out of the NFL for nine years in 2015, and none of his post-retirement projects had stuck. None of them necessarily had to, either, with the windfall he accrued over 10 NFL seasons. He briefly took up coaching. He dabbled in real estate. He advocated for Charlotte’s Web CBD, a hemp oil. A stint on television with the Pac-12 proved to be short-lived. “That got old pretty quick,” he says.

But he had no clear direction until Chad Friehauf, a friend and former teammate on the Denver Broncos, showed him with a 300-slide PowerPoint presentation at a Boulder, Colorado, coffee shop. The subject was a business venture called ReadyList Sports, a product that digitizes football playbooks and makes them interactive. Plummer returned home and went about his week until his wife, Kollette, urged him to call follow up with Friehauf.

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“’Did you look into that? It looked like a pretty cool idea. If it was to work, it would be a pretty awesome deal,’” Plummer recalls Kollette telling him. “Some men are afraid to admit it, but I’m not: My wife is usually right.”

Plummer signed on, and the two former quarterbacks got to work. As CEO, Friehauf handles the technical aspects. Plummer’s strength, meanwhile, is thinking ahead, not only to where the company is going but who it can partner with to get there.

“He’s definitely a big door-opener for us, whether it’s teams, coaches, investors, front office people, just his network now that his teammates are coaching high school or his teammates have kids in youth sports,” Friehauf says. “He’s great at seeing the big picture of where we want to take this thing.”

For Plummer, that means as high as possible. The product is tailored for all levels of competition, and Friehauf says ReadyList has clients ranging from youth flag football to the collegiate level via the University of Louisville. But its crown jewel is a longstanding relationship with current New York Jets and former Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, who used the system in Miami after Plummer originally approached him during Gase’s time as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator. The next step is to add more clients like him.

“The pro level is where we feel we can validate this,” Plummer says. “Once you can convince a couple of coaches who are influential – and not just influential by making people do stuff, but if they do something, everyone is like, ‘Oh, we better check this out’ – that’s what we’re pursuing.”

Plummer says he’s encountered his fair share of pain points in his first-ever business venture. Among them: business terminology, the ever-changing timetables and updates associated with ReadyList’s technology, and, of course, work-life balance.

“You learn through business and starting this up that the work’s really never done,” he says. “There’s always somebody I haven’t called or emailed or told about this, so it can be tiresome if you don’t say ‘Alright, it’s 5 o’clock, I’m done. I won’t make any more calls, won’t answer any more emails.'”

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all, however, lies in persuading the often-close-minded world of football to think differently. That was never a problem for Plummer, who famously left the NFL to pursue a career in handball. It can be another matter entirely for coaches who are sometimes used to teaching players in a certain way for decades.

“We’re hoping that this tool can convince coaches, ‘Hey, there’s a better way to teach and there’s a more efficient way to run practices and everything,’” he says. “Kind of streamline that so time can be spent strategizing how to beat an opponent, not just getting kids lined up right.”

But four years of startup life have taught Plummer something valuable. After years on the sidelines following his retirement, he now realizes was more ready to take on a large-scale venture than he ever knew.

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“Being a quarterback, I realize I was already so immersed in business, but I didn’t know it,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to really play a lot of different roles. So as the business side of things has come around, I’ve learned a lot about it. It’s really been an easier transition than I thought, just because, as a QB, you’ve got to know your personnel, right?

“You’ve got to know your guys, how they respond when you push them, how you respond when they’re praising them, and the same goes with business. You’ve got to know when to put the pedal to the metal and when to lay off a little bit.”

Plummer is well aware that the work is only beginning. ReadyList intends to launch a new high school-specific product within the month, while the football offseason represents a prime sales opportunity for teams eager to get their selections in this month’s NFL draft up to speed as soon as possible once they’re signed. It’s been more than two decades since Plummer was in that situation as a first-round pick out of Arizona State. He’s learning to reacclimate to the learning curve.

“As a businessman now, to correlate to playing ball, you have failures,” he says. “You lose games, but you’ve just got to back to the drawing board and figure out what you can do better next time.”

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Chargers’ Ekeler Takes to YouTube to Build His Brand

Building on his own viewing habits, Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler has turned to YouTube to grow his visibility off the field.

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Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler watches a lot of YouTube.

“I subscribe to six or seven channels and find myself watching it instead of TV or movies,” said the 23-year-old, who signed with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2017. “It’s a younger generation thing, YouTube is a big platform, and there’s a lot of good content to figure out how to do anything.”

Ekeler said he’s used YouTube to do everything from learn how to change a tire to educate himself about personal finance and the stock market. He’d also watched people work out. A self-described gym rat, occasionally recorded his own workouts, too, in an effort to watch himself improve and learn.

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Eventually, something clicked. Why can’t I do that? Now, Ekeler is devoting his offseason to building his brand via making a YouTube channel out of his workout routines.

“It was a no-brainer,” he said. “I just started posting them for fun, I’m not trying to make money, it’s just something for me.”

That doesn’t mean he can’t try to draw an audience, though. The channel isn’t large by any means and boasted fewer than 300 subscribers prior to being shared last week by the NFL’s Instagram account. For now, Ekeler says, that’s a start.

“It’s building a brand,” he added, before noting he may try to actively grow the site down the road if he believes it provides revenue potential. “It’s amazing, people can get behind the scenes and find out who you are and not just playing on Sundays and in interviews.”

According to David Artzi, founder of DA Athlete Marketing, which handles Ekeler’s marketing efforts, it’s a strategy in line with where brand-building is going in a time when younger generations and their shifting consumer habits begin to play a greater role in an athlete’s fanbase. Artzi believes it’s more important than ever for athletes to establish themselves as their own brand and connect with fans on a more personal level if they aspire to grow off-the-field income sources.

“There’s a misconception with athletes I’ve worked with before that, just because they’re in the league, they’re entitled to getting partnerships and sponsors,” Artzi said. “They need to build their own brands. And with guys like Austin, they’re finding more creative ways to build their brands off the field.”

For Ekeler, perhaps the easiest part is that it’s not forced. YouTube was an obvious extension of his own consumer habits, as well as a natural platform considering he was already recording his workouts and occasionally posting them to Instagram. He believes the organic nature of the content plays a major role in his desire to create it.

“YouTube is something you can’t force,” Ekeler said. “It has to be something you can put up with. It’s like if a rock star writes a song — they better like it because they’ll be playing it for 20 years.

“You can’t be dreading the content.”

That authenticity can also be a valuable audience growth tool when it does come time to grow the product. Gen Z and younger audiences are more likely to relate to athletes on a personal level as well as trust the more implicitly. To that end, they desire a more genuine connection to brand incorporation, too. 

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Artzi believes a natural next step would be to leverage Ekeler’s passion by organically including a brand within future videos.

It’s just one way to grow the channel, which Ekeler expects to continue into next offseason. Another could be to hire a video editor, which would both save himself time as well as facilitate a more consistent style between episodes. Stretching the channel beyond workout videos also isn’t out of the question, perhaps through a vlog to further allow fans into his life.

No matter the trajectory, though, don’t expect Ekeler to stop using YouTube in his daily life any time soon. After all, flat tires don’t fix themselves.

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