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A Second Wind

Every professional athlete faces retirement. But after these four bowed out, they found success in new careers, applying the same talent and work ethic that made them sports stars.
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005

(continued from page 6)

Our fantasies have made it the ideal existence, a dream made real beneath the bright lights. Imagine a decade or more spent playing professional sports at the highest level. A city cheering, America knowing your name, money and adulation everywhere you turn. "There are few people in this country who wouldn't trade places with me, right now, for the life I've lived," says National Football League Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent. But when the career of a professional athlete ends, half a lifespan and more usually remains. What kind of life will it be? Nothing most of these former heroes will ever accomplish will compare to that last-second shot, that clutch hit or that 80-yard run. Not in the minds of others. And, all too often, not in their own minds.

Some are content to spend the years signing autographs at card shows, commentating on television or trading on their names and glories even as their achievements fade. Or they live off investments, stay out of the public eye and golf in the sunshine. Others accept new challenges and start again. They take the same ambition and competitive drive that led to Super Bowl stardom and World Series rings and carry them over into life after sports. "All those lessons learned as an athlete were transferrable," says National Basketball Association Hall of Famer Dave Bing. "I just had to find a way to transfer them."

A few former athletes even manage to become better known for their second—or even third—careers than they were for their first. Will history remember Arnold Schwarzenegger the competitive bodybuilder, or the action hero, or the California governor? Byron White the football star, or the Supreme Court justice?

Here are four sports achievers—three Hall of Famers and a world heavyweight champion—who created second acts for themselves after the cheering stopped.

Larry Holmes
Former heavyweight champion/Real estate investor

"I didn't get into boxing because I wanted to become heavyweight champion of the world," Larry Holmes says. He sits in his office at his Easton, Pennsylvania, business compound, nibbling at a fast-food french fry and waiting for the surprise to register. "I didn't get into boxing because I wanted to beat people up. I got into boxing to make money."

The walls around Holmes are covered with souvenirs of a career that included victories over Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks and Ken Norton, and 20 successful defenses of the world heavyweight championship during his seven-year reign, history's second longest. But the real souvenirs, the ones that matter to Holmes, were real-estate investments spread throughout his hometown of Easton, located an hour's drive north of Philadelphia, just west of the New Jersey border.

The most noticeable among them is this two-building complex overlooking a waterfall at the confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers, the most picturesque spot in a downtrodden town. Holmes has his headquarters, a five-story office tower with rent-paying tenants, and his restaurant there. At one point, he was rumored to have owned half of Easton. "You came in on I-78?" he asks. "I used to own that land. I bought 35 acres for $75,000. Then the highway came through. Sold it for about three million."

Now 55, Holmes is beyond comfortable. He lives in a $2 million house in Easton with an indoor pool and an outdoor pool, "a gazebo and a cabana and steam rooms and saunas and everything else," that he bought as another $75,000 investment in the late 1970s, right about the time he whipped Norton to win the WBC heavyweight championship. For each fight that followed, he helped motivate himself by earmarking the cash he would earn for a specific purpose. Occasionally it was a reward—a new car or diamonds for his wife—but often it was an investment for the future.

"I bought a hotel after I fought Randy Cobb," he says, referring to a property over the New Jersey line that he renovated and sold at a large profit. "They wanted a million and a half for the hotel, so I fought Cobb, got the million and a half, bought the hotel." The five-story building? Holmes considers for a moment. "Mike Tyson," he says. The two-story building he's sitting in? "Oliver McCall." Other investments came from fights against Gerry Cooney, Carl "The Truth" Williams and Evander Holyfield.

It added up. Along with a 69-6 career record, he amassed a sporting goods store, two nightclubs, a restaurant, a parking lot, two gyms, a hotel and two office buildings. "I set an example for young people," he says. "If Larry Holmes can do that with a seventh-grade education, what could you do?"

 

Boxing made Holmes rich, just as he'd hoped, but a surprising thing happened along the way. He grew to love the sport—continuing to fight deep into his forties—but he grew tired of hustling to succeed as a businessman. People would approach with one deal after another, but he liked nothing better than holding court at his restaurant, moving his sizable frame around its dance floor and swapping stories. It wasn't so different from what past ex-champions had done, trading on their fame because they were left with little else. The difference was that Holmes had the money to foot the bill at the end of the night.

So he started selling his investments. He sold the hotel several years ago, the vacant land and everything that wasn't within sight of his office complex. He took some of the money for fun, threw parties for friends and brought some to the gaming tables at Atlantic City. He saved the rest, adding to a retirement account that should keep him living well for decades to come. "Business don't mean shit to me," he says now. "How much money do I need to live on? I have no new ventures or investments lined up. Any money I make is to stay where I'm at."

What's left of his empire is this two-building complex that holds his office suite, his restaurant, a bingo hall, a Bank of America branch, lawyers' offices, a judge's chambers, a Smith Barney outlet and other rent-paying clients. He collects $60,000 in monthly rent from the office tower alone. "Sometimes I go over there just to look at it," he says. "It's mine."

He heads off now to pay a visit. First he stops at the restaurant, on the ground floor of the smaller building, overlooking the river. On the walls are framed magazine covers featuring Holmes. Sports Illustrated. Ebony. The Ring. "This is my hangout," he says.

He walks back outside and crosses the parking lot to the other side of Larry Holmes Drive, to the shiny, five-story building with his initials etched into the wall. He steps inside the Bank of America branch and is greeted warmly. He's a celebrity, a local hero and the landlord, all in one. He walks into Smith Barney wearing a huge grin. "I need some help, Christmas is coming!" he says. Everyone laughs.

A message is sent in to Mike Glovas, the senior vice president, that Holmes is visiting. Glovas is occupied with a client, but comes dashing out. He remembers seeing Holmes during morning runs along Route 611—the Easton Road, which extends all the way to Philadelphia—when they were both young, out there day after day, chugging along. "Now he owns the building," Glovas says, widening his eyes and throwing a thumb in Holmes's direction. "It's amazing. He has basically put Easton on the map. He's very outgoing. You can go to his restaurant and meet him. It's no accident how well he's done. We all start with nothing, and look what he has achieved." Holmes breaks into another grin. "You don't have to pay the rent next month," he says.

But as he's walking back across the parking lot, Holmes talks of selling the real estate and putting the money in the bank. "You don't get calls in the middle of the night from an interest check," he explains. "My dad died at 52, my brother died at 55, another died at 5, my mom just died. I'm 55. I want to enjoy my life, whatever time I've got."

He has thought about moving to Florida and enjoying the good life, he says, but he knows he'd miss the camaraderie. All those people he has known for years, laughing and talking with him, letting him know how much they appreciate him. He stops and stands under the street sign that bears his name, looking out past the Easton Road to the water roaring over the dam. It's as if he is trying to picture himself in Florida: starting over beneath the palm trees, living off those interest checks. "At one time, I was thinking of Jacksonville...." he says. He doesn't finish the thought.

Darkness is falling. Soon the familiar crowd will start coming by, along with any tourists hoping for a glimpse of the champ. He emerges from his reverie. "Go down to the restaurant, say hello, have a party, have fun, buy everybody a drink," he says, announcing his plan for the evening. You almost hear him thinking, "What could be better than that?"

Steve Largent
NFL Hall of Famer/U.S. congressman/President and CEO

The president and chief executive officer of CTIA—The Wireless Association strides into a conference room. He seems trim and boyish in a lime-green tie, his blond hair swept to one side of his forehead.

Don't be fooled. Steve Largent is 50 now. His football career spanned two eras. When he arrived in the Seattle Seahawks' training camp in 1976, playing wide receiver in the NFL was a part-time profession. "My first three years, I made $28,000, $35,000 and $42,000," he says. "My last year in the league, I made a million. I got to experience what it was like to have to work in the off-season because I needed to. But I also got to experience making some money."

Largent left football at 34. He came home to Tulsa, Oklahoma, with six NFL records for pass receiving, including most career receptions (819) and touchdown receptions (100), and more than enough money to be comfortable. He played golf and tennis, gave speeches and nearly drove himself crazy. All that competitiveness he'd stoked since childhood now had nowhere to manifest itself.

"A lot of guys think, 'I just want to find something I can dabble in,' but you really can't," he says. "That's why Dan Marino considered taking the general manager's job with the Dolphins. You see, a guy like that, he's really not satisfied playing a lot of golf, taking some photos, talking on television. At the end of the day, he's still an ex-football player."

Largent couldn't handle that. He refused to let himself be defined by the past. Inspired to do something that would lift him out of the realm of ex-athletes on the motivational speaking circuit, Largent ran for Congress as a Republican in 1994.

He doesn't deny that his football career gave him a tremendous lift, allowing him to bypass the local and state levels. His near-total name recognition among the voters saved him millions of dollars and jump-started the fund-raising process. Who wouldn't want to take a breakfast meeting with an NFL Hall of Famer?

But he also had a stigma to overcome. "Being a professional athlete is a two-edged sword," he says. "Every year you're playing in the NFL, you're not gaining the kind of experience that your competitors and colleagues are. They're into the marketplace, they're adding to their business résumés, they're moving up the corporate ladder, while you're stuck at ground zero. And when you come out, your résumé shows that you've done nothing but catch passes. You can do that very well, but how does that translate? People say, 'What do you know about Medicaid and Social Security? What do you know about diplomacy and world leaders? Zero.' "

 

His football career translated well enough for the voters, at least those in Oklahoma. He won election in November 1994, with 63 percent of the vote, and amassed margins of more than 20 percent in his three subsequent congressional campaigns. He served from 1995 to 2002, then resigned to run for governor of Oklahoma. By then, he'd become as recognizable as a legislator as he ever was as an athlete, a frequent guest on the cable shows and a spokesman for his party. When his gubernatorial bid failed, it had more to do with ideology than any stigma remaining from football.

As head of the cellular phone trade organization, he spends much of his time racing around the country, meeting with member companies or lobbying legislators. His meetings often begin with football chatter. "Maybe only half the people I see know that I used to play football, but I usually meet with a few people at a time, and one has invariably told the others," he says. He gets on the phone and spreads the word among clients and constituents: "If we all pull together, get on the same team, we can get something accomplished." As a former athlete, he has credibility. "Sometimes, they even listen," he says.

Largent insists he'd still be working just as hard even if he'd made a huge salary his whole career and had millions in the bank. His morality has always been tinged with a Puritan ethic, and now he applies it to himself. "It's not about the money for me, it's about having a focus in my life, something bigger than myself. I don't think it sets a good example for the kids to have Dad just laying around the house or the yard."

Not everyone agrees. When he meets with groups of athletes, he tells them that the skills that made them successful—drive, competitive spirit, self-discipline—are exactly what businesses are seeking these days. Many of them look at him as if he's insane. They can't fathom showing up somewhere at nine every morning in a coat and tie, not even if they own the company. Not with $10 million homes and portfolios stuffed with investments.

"They don't need to work, and they're afraid to fail," Largent says, shaking his head. "They've lost their fear in that one domain, but lift them out of that domain and all the insecurities come flooding back."


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