In 2010, the Miami Dolphins took a chance on an eager 25-year-old who was hungry to impact the men in the locker room. His name is Kaleb Thornhill, and he has since used every minute of his time with the Dolphins as an opportunity to assist players on-and-off the field with whatever issues they have while building himself into one of the most widely known influencers in the league.
I recently spoke with Thornhill, who is now spreading his reach and influence beyond the Dolphins organization, creating athlete business combines around the country for current and retired athletes, hoping that he can help them prepare for life beyond the game.
What drove you to create a startup that focuses on preparing athletes off the field?
Thornhill: The hundreds of calls, texts, emails I received from former players who struggle to find their identity after the ball stopped rolling. The calls came from players who had made millions and still had millions, to the players who only played 1 year, struggling desperately for identity and purpose.
On September 28, 2017, an email came across my desk from a former player that stated, "As I transition, I feel like I have no worth anymore . . . my wife left me, and I just lay in my bed and stare at the ceiling walls as I didn't know what to do, where to turn, or who to talk to." The entire email gave me chills throughout my body and tears in my eyes, but it also was an awakening that took me to my feet and on a long walk to digest the email in its entirety.
On that walk, I said to myself, "What more can be done to ensure that NFL players are real world ready, passionate, and equipped mentally to ensure they find their purpose once the game is over?" This was the "a-ha moment" in my life, when I refused to let the status quo of NFL players failing once the game is no longer a part of their life continue to be the status quo moving forward. That is when "Athlete Transition U (ATU)" was born into existence, one that I envisioned would activate current professional athletes during their professional careers and build a springboard "Next Chapter U" program once their playing careers came to a screeching halt.
It turned into the Pro Athlete Business Combine in NYC where we invited 30 NFL Players (25 current & 5 former) to engage in panels, business simulators, job-shadows, and business leaders in finance, tech, real estate, service, marketing, media, and more.
Why was now the right time for you to venture out of your comfort zone and work on a new project?
Thornhill: This is no joke, as I saved the screen shot in my phone. It was on Wednesday, July 26, 2017 at 6:30 AM from The Rock aka Dwayne Johnson for Ballers Season 3 that was like a sign from GOD that said "I've given you all the skills, now go build it".
I was torn between the decision of whether to take up the job offers I had received from NBA teams, sports agents and many other offers that came in a span of a few short months. These offers were great and humbling, but when I saw this picture and the text within this Ballers marketing material and the massive amount of respect I have for Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock, I said to myself "If you're not going to do it, who is?"
I have to devoted my entire professional career to my mission statement to "Engage, Educate, and Empower players to reach their FULL potential ON & OFF the field," so I thought this was a clear sign that said GO! This is when I went into full research mode and blasted off a survey to hundreds of former NFL players that went over a variety of questions and the responses were quite staggering. To sum it up, they said, "WE NEED HELP" and please go "BUILD SOMETHING".
What were some of the biggest challenges in creating an event that caters to 30 busy, high profile athletes while also working as part of the Miami Dolphins organization?
Thornhill: The biggest challenges in building this was just the demands in time; this was undoubtedly the hardest thing I've had to do in my professional career. The demands of an 80-hour work week with the Miami Dolphins coupled with building a company and a comprehensive week-long event is not an ideal situation.
The thing that kept me pushing past any obstacle in my way, whether it was time, failure, rejection, or questioning my ability to pull this off was my dad. Seeing a picture of him reminded me of the people that spoke at his funeral about the impact he had on their life, story after story. My dad's impact got cut short at the age of 61 when he passed away in my arms and taught me something critical at a young age: We never know when our time is up.
I had promised the 30 NFL players that this was going to be the best experience they have had beyond the football field and was not going to sell them short. I poured every single ounce of gas I had in the tank to ensure these players left with a full tank after the Pro Athlete Business Combine.
Cam Wake said it best when he stated, "There are two pains: The pain of discipline or the pain of regret." I didn't want to experience the pain of regret, which was why working every weekend, every road trip, every night and early morning was the only option.
What are you already doing to build on the successes you accomplished in your first trial run?
Thornhill: We are currently looking partner with every NFL team to build a local business combine in each respective city. ATU is looking to collaborate with all the owners and teams in order to build the proper infrastructure to ensure a successful business combine. Stephen Ross and I have already been in conversations with [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell and Troy Vincent to make this a reality.
In addition, we are in conversations with universities and key stakeholders to build out the "Next Chapter U" platform for NFL players that have retired from the game. This will be a comprehensive program designed to re-position transitioning professional athletes into the next phase of their life by embracing their past, redeveloping their skill set, and re-purposing them for the next chapter of their legacy.
For the cohort that just went through the Pro Athlete Business Combine in NYC, we are looking to keep that same cohort together and conduct a Pro Athlete Business Combine in Silicon Valley, Seattle, or Los Angeles in 2019. A new cohort and enrollment of NFL players will be coming to NYC in 2019.