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The big money NFL players earn may not last into retirement unless they make a plan

The West Lafayette, Indiana Stacked Pickle location is one of a chain of nine such restaurants owned by former NFL player Gary Brackett. Stan Jastrzebski/ for Marketplace

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When former Indianapolis Colts linebacker Gary Brackett walks into the Stacked Pickle restaurant in West Lafayette, he asks how the new non-slip flooring in the kitchen is working out. He keeps up with the day-to-day needs of the place – one of ten restaurants he owns in Central Indiana.

“Sometimes in my stores, we’re busy, we’re behind, so I help bus dishes or wash dishes,” Brackett said.

When Brackett was released by the Colts six years ago, he earned an MBA and started his own business, Brackett Restaurant Group, with some of the $28 million he says he earned in the NFL. He says money counseling for players has improved, but both the league and its players’ association could do more to help players transition to a new phase of life.

“Unless you’re Peyton Manning, unless you’re one of these guys that made $80 million to $100 million, you’re not retiring,” Brackett said. “You have to transition. You have to go get a job and work.”

A 2015 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates about 15 percent of players are bankrupt after being out of the league for about a dozen years. And a 2009 Sports Illustrated article estimated three-fourths of former NFLers experience what the magazine called “financial distress.”

“I think when we hear the word ‘financial distress’ publicly, you think of — they’re having a hard time paying their bills and making ends meet – that kind of thing,” said Bart Burrell, who’s now a financial adviser, but who tried out for the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders after his college career as a wide receiver.

Burrell said  it’s important to note “financial distress” is relative to a person’s wealth and spending — and many players believe they’ll earn what stars do.

“They all think they’re going to play 15 years and make Drew Brees money,” he said.

But in reality, the average NFL career is just three years long and median career earnings for NFL players are about $3 million.

Brackett said he knows players who’ve gone broke by being too extravagant, but he and other players who’ve found success in second careers want to help others avoid that fate.

“Only 10 percent of any peer group has to change in order for now to become the new norm,” Brackett said. “We’re trying to change the norm.”

And he hopes his success shows other former players a path to a better future.

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