That's the average tenure for a player in the National Football League -IF you're lucky enough to get drafted. If you're great, you'll break records, and get to play for eleven more. If you're exceptional, you'll achieve Pro Bowl Status, not once, but five times. If you're among the elite, you'll get a chance to lead your team to its first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. And if you're Adrian Wilson, you'll do it all.
The Arizona Cardinals legend has had one of the most decorated careers in the NFL. His legacy and loyalty was indelibly inked inside the University of Phoenix Stadium at his Ring of Honor induction this fall--concluding his lauded career. But inferring a conclusion assumes finality in his professional endeavors, when in fact for Wilson, they've just begun.
Investor, Founder and CEO have been added to his already impressive curriculum vitae. And for someone who completed the 40-yard dash in 4.55 seconds, its no wonder inspiration was found at his feet. Wilson is now a founding investor in Greats Brand, the hip sneaker startup in Brooklyn, and Founder and CEO of his own retail company, High Point.
The NFL as a business, the moment that forced him to stop thinking year-to-year, inner motivation, advice to rookie players and entrepreneurs, and social enterprise occupied much of our conversation. Six months ago, I would be speaking with the starting safety and captain of the Arizona Cardinals, Adrian Wilson. Today I am speaking with Investor, Founder and CEO, Adrian Wilson. Different uniform--he now sports a Greats Brand sweatshirt. Different home field--an unfinished warehouse piled with sneakers in a cool, startup vibe of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But what remains untouched--Heart. Determination. Selflessness. And an incredible gift of self-awareness. An aura his employees now describe as "an ability to think outside himself".
My conversation with Wilson...
Growing up in High Point, North Carolina, it was once a town you wanted to escape. But it is home. What was the reason for using "High Point" as the name of your company?
A few reasons. The first reason like you said, it's where I'm from. But it was also one of the things that I felt like when and if I owned my own business, it will be the highest point of my ultimate success. Just feeling that I'm at a high point in my life.
Who was your role model growing up?
The neighborhood, I didn't have a particular person, per se, but the neighborhood is what I looked up to the most. Just coming from where I came from...the hardness of it all, the rough edges, the childhood friends that you grew up with, the people that you saw that were maybe just a little more talented than you, but didn't have the opportunity. I think those things mold you when you're older. All those negative things turned into a positive for me later on in life, and I was able to mold myself in a way that I wanted to. That's why I'll always go back to that. It made me into who I am.
When you were a player, was there another person in the NFL, or another athlete that you wanted to emulate?
I didn't want to emulate anybody exactly, but rather look at people like LeBron James Kobe Bryant, even baseball and hockey players...if you look at those single guys and pick out two or three things to describe them, it's almost as if every athlete is driven by the same thing in some form or fashion. That drive propels them to stardom. You always want to try and reach the top of your sport and you look at those guy and try to emulate that fire and desire that they share.
Is there anything outside of sports that you channel as an inner passion, or motivator?
I look at people who give back to the world and the sacrifices that they make. I think that's big. I played with a guy Pat Tillman, who pretty much gave up football to go serve his country. You look at the selflessness of those things and the motivations, and at the same time you think - what can you do to help, and change the people around you? That's what I look at.
His Employment with the NFL.
Was there a moment when you started to think of the NFL as a business?
Probably during my third year in the league. I was offered a tender, which is something you get offered after your third year in the league and your team still has your rights for another year. The current coach at the time didn't offer me a tender because he didn't think I deserved it. That was the first time I thought, "well this is different for me", because I thought being there the following year was guaranteed. That was one of those eye-opening experiences where I thought, "OK, I need to get myself together here and start thinking ahead instead of thinking year to year.
What kept you awake at night as a player?
The mistakes always do it. It's not so much the losses as it is the mistakes you made in the big games. Every game on Sunday is a big game, and every mistake you make during the week will show up on Sundays. The business of the NFL is always to attack the team or the person until they get it right. You know that if you made a mistake last Sunday, chances are you're going to make the same mistake again in a different fashion the following Sunday, unless you perfect your practices throughout the week.
Thinking about some of the rookies that are coming into the league this year, what is a piece of advice that you would give to them?
Save your money. After three years, there's no guarantee that you're going to get a long-term deal. There's no guarantee that you're going to get a tender. So saving money is always an issue with the young guys. They don't understand that you're given 17 weeks of checks for the year, so it's one of those things you don't understand until it's too late.
Dr. Condoleezza Rice was rumored in the media to take over for Roger Goodell back in the fall. I had an opportunity to ask her a question about this as she's stated that Commissioner of the NFL is her "dream job". How does it make you feel to think about a woman running the NFL?
No different than a woman running for the president of the United States. There's no difference. I think if your qualified to do it than you should do it. It's not a situation where it's only a man's job to do. I think we're out of that age of men and women doing certain jobs. I think it's time for people to grow up in general, and it's time for America to grow up.
(It's important to note that at this point in the interview, Adrian and I paused for a fist bump generated by that response).
You were with the Cardinals for 12 years. Are there any aspects of their organization, looking at them now as a business, and how they run their business, that you would personally emulate?
Yes. When I first got there it wasn't so much the 11 wins, the 10 wins, and everything was happy go lucky. There was a lot of 3-13s, 4-12s, so the turnover was always great. Now being there and seeing that business side of how certain players fit into what they're trying to do and getting those guys to fit into the cap, I can see how much money they're "supposed" to have as opposed to what they "think" they deserve. That's something that even now I think about, when I move forward with business plans. You always want to put people in the position where they fit, not where they think they fit. And I've made the mistake, even in the past year of giving people what they think they deserve, as opposed to where they fit.
His Post-NFL Career.
As a football player, when did you start to think about your second career?
Probably my fifth year in the league, after I signed my first long-term deal. That's when it was thought about as a reality. There were some thoughts about what you wanted to do, but never really went and sought it out. It was just one of those things where you don't really know how long your going to play. They say three to four years, but I started thinking about it during my fifth.
Did someone in particular inspire you to think about your second career?
Not really. I thought about it - knew I liked shoes and knew I liked fashion. These were things I already knew about myself and I asked, "if I was done playing and it ended today, can I could put my energy and my focus into that?".
Talk about the skills you learned on the field that you find to be invaluable as an entrepreneur.
I kind of think opposite of how I played, because I was an aggressive player. I took chances as a player. I think as an entrepreneur, it's one of those things where you have to somewhat plan and be aggressive. There's a happy medium. But I also know that playing football you have to have 10 other guys around you to make you a better player. And that's no different from being an entrepreneur. You have to have the right people around you in order for you to move forward with the business model. I think it's very important to have the right players in place. You're never going to be the smartest person, but you have to make sure you hire the smartest person that knows more than you.
What keeps you awake at night as an entrepreneur?
Growth. Always growth, because you don't want to stay stagnant. You don't want to stay stale as a business. I think growth is something you need to be thinking about all the time.
We spoke earlier about social enterprise - companies that are for profit and for social good. As founder and CEO of High Point, you donated a large amount of sneakers to kids in need over the holiday seasons. Is that something you're looking to integrate into the business model of your company moving forward?
That's something we'll always do as far as giving back. That's something the brand believes in - not only me but also everybody that works here. It's something we are all very passionate about. It's in the fabric of who we are, and a question that's asked of future hires. It's important for us to have the same type of people around and energy.
What's next for High Point?
Growth. Our own branded product, expansion of more locations, evolving to e-commerce, which just launched on highpointshop.com. I think it's time for us as a business to grow and do the things that we know we that we can do.
Stats come and go and are broken every day, but your legacy is something that will live on. When your time comes, what do you want to be known for...if someone says "Adrian Wilson was ___" what is the word you want your name to precede?
Loyal. That's everything to me. I think that is the highest quality a person can have - whether it's to a family, a friend, a business. I just think it's one of those qualities that can really show the true colors of who you are. And that's something you can't fake. When that call comes and the time comes for you to be there for them as a person, that tells everything about who you are. Hopefully the people that know me and the people that are around me will say that.
14-year NFL veteran, 5 Pro Bowls, 1 Ring of Honor, and now successful entrepreneur... at the High Point of his career. Because if you're Adrian Wilson...
...you'll do it all.