Story originally appeared on USA Today.
Thursday was graduation day in the football business, time for the best and the brightest from the college crop to start making a living.
But in the back of my mind, as I watched one first-round pick after another bear-hug Commissioner Roger Goodell on the stage at Radio City Music Hall during the NFL draft, I wondered: How many of these guys will wind up broke?
We've heard too many cases of instant football millionaires who wind up bankrupt for assorted reasons: Squandering cash on an extravagant lifestyle. Bad investments. Child-support issues. Extended obligations for family. A career-ending injury.
"Throughout the league, if you knew the number of guys in financial trouble, it would blow your mind," former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs told USA TODAY Sports.
Although the NFL and players union don't have concrete numbers, in 2009, Sports Illustrated contended that 80% of former players face financial difficulties within two years after retirement. With the average NFL career spanning roughly three years and the inherent risk that the next play could be the last, sound financial strategy is as important as the new playbook.
Two years ago, Gibbs partnered with Strayer University and conducted a financial seminar for 115 rookies in Orlando. In December, they held a seminar at Redskins headquarters, drawing about a dozen players. He has talked with players union chief DeMaurice Smith about developing a broad educational program.
In lieu of that, I've formed a panel. Some of their straight-talk advice for rookies:
Plan for your post-football careers now
"In your 20s, you think it's going to last forever," Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton said. "I don't care how much you make. If you retire from football in your 30s, you'll still have to live for another 40 to 50 years."
Tarkenton, 73, is a product of a different era — he got a $3,500 bonus and $12,500 salary as a first-round pick in 1961. But he also developed an entrepreneurial spirit and has started more than two dozen businesses — and has launched a self-help website with Office Depot geared to small business owners.
He says time management is key for players.
"They've got to work out, but they've got to get their minds going, too," he said. "So, they've got to read the right things. None of us are too busy."
Write your own checks
"The best thing I did was managing my own finances," said Keyshawn Johnson, drafted No. 1 overall in 1996. In NFL retirement, he formed a group, which includes approximately 10 active and former players, that has invested in Panera Bread franchises.
Some hard-luck stories include players who granted advisors power-of-attorney or other means to act on their behalf when dealing with their money — leaving them vulnerable to being ripped off.
"It's always going to be a difficult transition, when you go from making nothing to something in an instant," Johnson said. "And when that happens, you take on a lot."
Johnson also preaches the need to understand tax implications, seeking mentors from the business world, appreciating modest growth.
"They also need to know that sexy investments aren't the right investment," he said. "Sometimes, guys are like, 'I'm going to support my homey (in a music project), who I've known since he was doing tracks in his garage.'"
Cap your investment.
"If you invest $10,000, okay," Gibbs said. "Understand that you could lose it, although you'd like it to grow. Just don't sign on for something that's open-ended."
Gibbs learned this the hard way. During the early- to mid-1980s, he lost a bundle in a simple partnership. It took more than four years to financially recover.
"Eventually, everyone was gone and I was the only partner left," Gibbs said.
The $40 million lost by financial adviser Jeff Rubin — money invested by 31 former and current NFL players in an illegal Alabama casino project — is a classic example. At least 18 of the players who lost money were at one time clients of prominent agent Drew Rosenhaus, whose role could prompt discipline from the NFL Players Association.
"Those deals out there, it seems natural," Gibbs said. "You have the money, and you trust somebody."
Last week, Yahoo Sports revealed that Miami Dolphins defensive end Jared Oldrick has filed lawsuit against a financial firm, Success Trade, and an adviser with Jade Management for their role in an alleged Ponzi scheme.
Odrick is said to be among 30 athletes who invested.
Said Tarkenton, "There are no silver bullets."
Since taking over the players union leadership, Smith has emphasized personal finance. It's an ongoing challenge.
"I guarantee you every head coach in the NFL is sensing it," Gibbs said. "You see a guy in your office who's unhappy, and as you get to talking to him, it comes out. Financial stress is not conducive to playing your best ... and it hurts everything around you."