"It was only after he had sped over the goal line and slowed to a trot that he saw the boy and girl sitting together on the turf, looking at him wonderingly. He stopped short, dropping his arms. "I…" he said, gasping a little though his condition was fine and the run hadn't winded him. "I…Once I played here."—Irwin Shaw, The Eighty-Yard Run
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.
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?"
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."
He worries about the motivation of a player who has been financially secure since he signed his first contract, a player who never experienced the need to go out and get a job. "These are people who have more money than they know what to do with, and more time than they know what to do with, and that combination to me is gasoline and matches," he says. "Unless a person is incredibly mature or incredibly disciplined and grounded, I believe it will absolutely lead to disaster."
Largent tugs on his suit jacket, his lips pursed. Then he shakes a hand and strides out of the conference room to his office, where a state senator is waiting.
NHL Hall of Famer/Real estate investor
Nobody got rich in the National Hockey League when Serge Savard was playing defense for the Montreal Canadiens. "Players today make more money in one month than we made in our whole career," he says. "But I don't envy them. We had a very good life."
At 24, Savard was in the early stages of a Hall of Fame career with the Canadiens and an association with the franchise that would bridge three decades, when he bought his first apartment building, in 1970. "You didn't need much cash to do that," he says, "and I was interested in real estate even then. I was also making $10,500 a year, so I knew my hockey income wouldn't be enough."
Everyone in hockey worked in the off-season, which for most players lasted from April to October. But Savard's Canadiens teams raised the Stanley Cup in eight of the 14 years he played in Montreal, winning four in a row at one point, and lasted deep into the playoffs almost every year, so his window of opportunity was often substantially shorter. By the time the Canadiens had finished celebrating another championship, training camp was only weeks away.
For that reason, and because of the heady, self-motivated players that the franchise tended to collect, those Canadiens were more likely to become entrepreneurs than simply get jobs for the summer. Success was in their blood, on and off the ice. "Nearly everyone on those teams became very successful," Savard says. "Ken Dryden, Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson, Jacques Lemaire, Mario Tremblay. Of course, a lot of them stayed in hockey."
Savard stayed in hockey, too. A week after he played his final game, in 1983, he was named the Canadiens' general manager. He stayed in the position 13 seasons, winning two more Stanley Cups with teams he constructed. He made far more than he ever did as a player, but he never stopped buying and selling real estate.
He was involved in a project to complete an unfinished Montreal apartment building, lending both his famous name and his expertise. Later, he bought the Chateau Champlain hotel in Montreal and landed an affiliation with Marriott. Over the years, he acquired partners and a reputation as a shrewd developer, but also as a winner with 10 Stanley Cup rings who puts his work ethic behind his projects. "You can't just put your name on it and expect it to succeed," he says. "[Former Islanders star and NHL Hall of Famer] Michael Bossy put his name on a restaurant. He was a good player, and it was a pretty good restaurant. But he wasn't ever there, he wasn't the owner, and it didn't work."
In 1984, Savard visited Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. He bought property there, sold it, then bought a $295,000 beachfront lot to develop for himself. Five years ago, he built a house. Now, having struggled through enough of Montreal's frigid winters, the 59-year-old businessman spends about half his time on the island, living in a six-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot mini-mansion overlooking the waves and working on his golf game.
On a breezy January afternoon, he settles into an easy chair and watches the Weather Channel, taking stock of where he is—and where he isn't. "65, 67, 70—not too bad," he says, reading off the local temperatures for the weekend. Every few minutes, his phone rings. His partners, Bernard Thibault and Mario Messier (who wasn't a hockey player, but sure sounds like one), consult frequently with Savard. After one call, Savard heads back to his chair and says, "I love real estate because it always rewards you in the end, even if you go through five or six bad years. Especially if you're smart enough to only buy prime land." That $295,000 lot on Hilton Head is now worth $3 million in land value alone.
A true defenseman, Savard's business philosophy is to take few chances. The company works on only a few projects at a time, making sure each is successful before moving on to the next. "My goal is not to be a powerful corporation, it's to be a good company," he says. "To be successful, but to grow slowly." On his most ambitious project, Savard is still waiting for the finish line. During the Clinton administration, his company built a 690-room hotel in Cayo Coco, Cuba. Called El Senador, it has four swimming pools, a cigar lounge specializing in vintage Cubans, and a gym, and includes villas constructed on pilings in the middle of a lagoon. He figured relations between the United States and Cuba would soon be normalized, and he wanted to be in position to take advantage.
Instead, George W. Bush was elected, and policy went the other way. As a Canadian, Savard is permitted to share ownership of the resort with the Castro government, but as a businessman, he knows it's a losing deal. He relies on filling the property with Canadians and the occasional European, and waits for the day when the 295 million potential customers on his doorstep will be able to visit.
In the meantime, he has his golf, long walks on the beach with his wife, Paulette, the soft ocean breezes, glasses of wine and good cigars. He also has all those Stanley Cup rings to remind him of past—and ongoing—success. "Sometimes I wear the first one, from 1968, because the first one always means something," he says. "Sometimes I wear one of the others. It's nice to have the choice."
NBA Hall of Famer/Owner and CEO
The elegance of Dave Bing's attire—a pin-striped business suit, a shirt the color of Cabernet Sauvignon with a snow-white collar and French cuffs, and shoes of Italian leather—would suggest that he owns the bustling factory he's walking through even if his name weren't on the building. He passes laborers in coveralls and earplugs hunched over machinery; those who see him offer a silent wave. "We like it loud," Bing shouts over the din. "That means we're busy."
Dave Bing played 12 seasons in the NBA, from 1967 to 1978. He scored 18,327 points (leading the league in scoring in 1968 with an average of 27.1 points per game), recorded 5,397 assists (six per game over his career), and appeared in seven All-Star Games, including 1976, when he scored 16 points and was named the Most Valuable Player.
But the statistics he has amassed since his retirement are even more impressive. These days, The Bing Group employs 1,414 people, making it the largest privately owned business in Detroit. It had $372 million in revenue in 2004 and will hit about $600 million in 2005, thanks to recent acquisitions. Its goal is $1 billion by 2008, which would make it the second-largest minority-owned business in the United States. "These presses range from a quarter of a million dollars to a million and a half," he says now, walking past a row of massive machines. "This one here is going to be a new one, state-of-the-art. Two million dollars. That will take me up to a new level."
The Bing Group is the amalgamation of several companies, all owned by Bing. One buys steel from manufacturing mills and cuts it to size. The next takes that cut steel and stamps out automotive parts. A third welds parts together and does basic assembly, while a fourth adds other materials such as plastic, leather and foam and makes seats, side-view mirrors and other pieces of cars. "It's a very low-margin business, particularly the steel, but we have a vertical integration that the others don't," he says. "That gives us the advantage."
Bing knew little about the industry when he founded Bing Steel in 1980. He only knew that he wanted to be in business. His father, Haskell, had run his own construction firm in Washington, D.C., and Bing worked there as a water boy and then a laborer, haunting the neighborhood rec centers at night to hone his athletic skills. Basketball brought him to Syracuse University—where he majored in economics and business administration—and then to the Detroit Pistons, whose disappointed fans had assumed they'd be getting local hero Cazzie Russell in the draft.
Bing won over the city with his consistent, heady play. By the time he was traded to the Washington Bullets in 1976, he'd decided to settle in Detroit when his basketball career ended. He couldn't envision staying in sports. "If you were going to stay in the league as an African American, it was as an assistant coach or, maybe, a coach," he says. "I didn't see myself doing either one."
In Detroit, the economic opportunities were centered in the auto industry. Bing had spent six summers working at the National Bank of Detroit, two more at Chrysler, and then completed a training program at Pentagon Steel. His bank contacts and basketball success enabled him to get a loan, which wasn't easy for fledgling African-American entrepreneurs in 1980, while the time spent at Chrysler and Pentagon gave him a glimpse of a possible niche. Bing Steel lost $80,000 in its first six months, and Bing started to question his plan and his aptitude. But he began to get orders during the second six months. One year on, he knew it was going to work.
"I didn't have corporate experience or exposure," Bing says. "But I think being exposed to a team sport helped me grow. I think I was pretty clear-eyed as to what my strengths and weaknesses were."
Knowing the steel industry wasn't a strength, but he could hire people for that. He had people skills from two decades of competitive basketball, knew finances from classes at Syracuse, and had an innate sense of marketing. "Steel is essentially a commodity," he says. "I'm out there doing the same thing the next guy is doing, so I have to outcompete." That's something he well understood. One business turned into four, giving him economy of scale.
But even as the owner and CEO of a company heading toward $1 billion in revenue, Bing still comes to work every day. He estimates he knows close to half of his employees on sight, at least by first name.
His office is filled with basketball memorabilia. Yet he insists his life's vocation has been steel, not basketball. "I've done more in my second career for people than I ever could have done in my first," he says. "People depend on me for their income. Playing basketball made people happy, but that was temporary. Now I've had people work for me for 20 years. I'm responsible for people having a nice car, a nice home, helping their kids get an education. I've got quite a few people—maybe more than I'd like—who are earning six figures from me."
His local fame as a businessman has come to transcend that as a player, which he perceives as pure positive. There are enough black role models who are athletes and entertainers. "Kids come see me, they think, 'Here's a black guy, he came from an inner-city environment, he had a public school education. Yes, sports helped him, but this is something we can do, too.' " He has spent time through the years with Detroit-area schoolboys who went on to the NBA, advising Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Derrick Coleman, Steve Smith and others on how to keep a level head. Yet he did it as Dave Bing the steel magnate, not Dave Bing the shooting guard. "They hardly knew that I played," he says.
Now he sees the money some of them are earning and considers it both a curse and an opportunity. It will be too easy, he believes, for an athlete to put his money in the bank and live off the interest. "Any of us who aspire to be successful in life, the barometer is always money," he says. "But when you have a lot of money, it takes a certain kind of individual to say, 'Now what to do with it? Is it just for me and my family? Or can I mushroom it into something larger?' "
If several of today's NBA stars would combine their resources, "they'd be surprised with what they could accomplish," Bing says. "Parlay what you have, take it to the next level, without risking your lifestyle. Learn how to leverage. You could make a real difference in the community. Most of these players are from urban America, and—well, you take the city of Detroit, it's on its knees. We've probably got ten guys who came out of the Detroit public school system who are playing in the NBA. They could make a major impact."
Bing is the model. For his latest project, he's physically changing the face of the streets around his factory, which sits in one of Detroit's most desperate neighborhoods. He's filling lots with homes that sell for as much as $200,000. A bus driver for the city bought one, a schoolteacher bought another, a retiree moved in, so did one of his employees. More houses are going on the market every few months. Part of it is self-motivation: if the neighborhood can be resurrected, the value of Bing's 30 acres of commercial real estate will skyrocket. But beyond that, he knows that only entrepreneurship can fill vacant lots with houses. Someone has to go first, take a chance on an area, put money in with the hope of getting money out. "If this neighborhood is going to come back, if this city is going to come back, we need a middle class," he says.
He pilots his car through the streets, past crumbling homes and burned-out businesses, then back through the gates of his factory. He didn't have a billion-dollar business in mind when he started Bing Steel in 1980, he'll be the first to acknowledge, but he did have a vision of future success, a life beyond athletics. The lesson he'd like to leave behind is, sometimes that's all it takes. v
Bruce Schoenfeld often writes about wine and sports for Cigar Aficionado and recently authored The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton (HarperCollins).