A few days after signing his first NFL contract, Eddie George received a pitch from a financial adviser who wanted to help him manage his money. Then 22, the running back had little knowledge of how to handle his capital. It seemed like a no-brainer. 

It wasn't until his agent approached him that George had second thoughts. The agent had heard rumors about the adviser's shady business practices. He cautioned George: You don't have to go with me--just don't go with that guy. 

George listened. He sent his money to his mother back in Philadelphia and declined to allow access to anyone else. 

It turned out to be the right call: Within a few weeks, the financial adviser had run off with several of his clients' cash--and, George soon learned, had been trying to access his own funds. 

George never forgot the close call. "I was 22 years old. I didn't know how the business should be set up, that I should ask if he was regulated by the SEC, if my money was insured in case of an event with the firm, who his higher ups were," he says. "That was eye-opening for me."

Now 44 and more than a decade into his NFL retirement, George is trying to help others who might find themselves in similar positions. The former football star is teaching a course for undergrads at Ohio State called "Leveraging Athletics for Business and Personal Success," meant to use the professional athlete's predicament as a model for teaching young people the ways of the business world--and the world in general.

George is no stranger to Ohio State: He played there for four years and won the Heisman Trophy as a senior in 1995. He was then drafted with the 14th pick of the NFL draft by the Houston Oilers. 

But as he soon learned, there's no playbook for handling the harsh reality that comes with signing an NFL contract, from dealing with mooching friends and relatives to finding an agent. "You ask other teammates and you've got to hope that they have good representation," he says. "That's where you get your information from. It's the blind leading the blind." 

The class, which meets each Monday night and is co-taught by Professor David Greenberger, dives into topics relevant to athletes and business types alike. Students learn negotiation tactics and study mechanisms for saying no to friends and family members looking for investments or favors--and for coping with the inevitable fallout. The former running back brings in high-profile guests, such as Under Armour founder Kevin Plank and former NFL cornerback and current league exec Troy Vincent, to share their business war stories. Legendary sports agent and Jerry Maguire inspiration Leigh Steinberg has discussed the ins and outs of his trade; ESPN analyst Maria Taylor recently spoke about using social media to cultivate a personal brand. And each semester, the class has a wealth manager come in to discuss how the business works, what commission percentages are reasonable, and what red flags a client should look for.

"For our business students," Greenberger says, "it's brought a very different perspective, and one that's very topical. It gives students a flavor of what some of the different opportunities are that they might have, but it also gets into some of the nitty gritty."

George, who lives in Nashville--the Oilers relocated there in 1998 and became the Tennessee Titans--flies to Columbus to teach it. Now in its fourth year, the course holds about 70 students, most of whom were still in diapers when the Titans reached the Super Bowl at the height of George's career in 2000. Last month, a student approached him after class and admitted that he'd never heard of him when he signed up for it. "He just thought it sounded interesting," George says. "And he said, 'This is best class I've ever taken, because we look at life through NFL athletes, but it also mirrors what we go through in our own lives.' And he's right--it's a class about making transitions, it's class about meeting the right people, about making the right choices."

George has made many transitions throughout his own life: from football star, to MBA student, to entrepreneur, to Broadway actor, to teacher. Football beat him up physically--a torn tendon in his toe, several sprained ankles. After rushing for 10,000 yards in his first eight seasons, he was released by the Titans at age 29; by age 31, he was out of the NFL for good. 

Like a lot of pro athletes, George was lost upon retiring, having suddenly given up the game that dominated nearly every waking hour for the vast majority of his existence. "It was a very depressing time in my life," he says. "I didn't have direction or an idea of what was next for me, what was going to bring fulfillment to my life." He took some bit roles as an actor and dabbled in real estate. "I was really just throwing things against the wall," he says.    

In 2007, George enrolled in Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, where he went on to earn his MBA two years later. He launched a wealth management firm after graduating; he took acting classes on the side and started taking roles in local plays. Eventually, in 2015, he auditioned for and landed the role of lawyer Billy Flynn in the Broadway production of Chicago. "I finally felt comfortable in my skin again," he says, "with the lights and the pressure of delivering a performance--it was much like what I was used to. I was able to find that feeling once again."

Teaching, meanwhile, provides another kind of fulfillment: the satisfaction of giving back. George, who isn't paid for the role, says it's something he'd been considering for a while before he connected with Professor Greenberger and helped design the curriculum.

"I'm very much a spiritual person," he says. "I let that guide me to be a blessing to other people. Be a service. That's been my motivation. It can't be just to be a millionaire; that's not what it's about. When you get there, you understand it's not as fulfilling as impacting others, and making a difference and standing up for people who are less fortunate, or seeing the light go on in somebody, like 'A-ha, I never thought about it that way before.' Seeing them excel. So that's what it is for me. To be inspired and to inspire others."

On the first day of class, George has his students perform a curious exercise: write their own obituaries. Some are ambitious--become a billionaire and win a Super Bowl as the owner of the Cleveland Browns--and some are more grounded, like raising a family and having a long career in human resources. Either way, George sees the activity as helping shape his students' paths. 

"I believe you should begin this journey with the end in mind," he says. "Write out exactly what it is you want to accomplish."

For George, that includes earning awards for his acting, expanding his wealth management business, and continuing to grow his course in both size and quality. He says that after leaving football, finding the things that made him happy required some deep thinking--but it was worth it.

"Find out what's really important to you, what your life purpose is," he says. "If you can sit with that and work on your personal mission statement, and really get to the crux of it, that can be your guiding light through the rest of your life."

Published on: Apr 4, 2018