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Life after football: How Brandon Marshall, other NFL players prepare for the next stage

Wide receiver Brandon Marshall gives a press conference

Wide receiver Brandon Marshall gives a press conference after an NFL training session at London Irish training ground in south west London, Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. Credit: AP / Matt Dunham

INDIANAPOLIS — One day, the game will move on from Brandon Marshall. And he knows it.

The Jets’ playmaker, 31, is under no illusions about the finite window of NFL careers. But unlike so many, Marshall made sure his Plan B was always in play.

“To get to the point of being an elite athlete, you almost have to let the sport define you. And when you do that, you’re setting yourself up for turmoil in the end when the game is taken away from you,” Marshall said in a phone interview with Newsday while vacationing with family in Colorado. “And it always gets taken away from us. But we go through that transition in a way that is unhealthy because we haven’t sat down and focused on other interests or other opportunities. We’ve been consumed by the sport and the journey. And I think that’s a tragedy when we do that.”

While the football world’s attention is focused on the future of draft-eligible prospects for the next several weeks, veteran players, agents and some prospective NFL rookies are also taking time to focus on something else: life after football.

And no one understands the need for a post-NFL career better than Marshall. The receiver, going into his 11th season and second with the Jets, has established himself as a future TV star with his weekly gig on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL”

During his previous stint with the Bears, and again when he was traded to the Jets in March 2015, some questioned whether Marshall’s affinity for being on air was a potential distraction for his teams. But the receiver, who also is an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness, insisted his interests outside of football are part of a bigger plan.

“We have an opportunity as active players to have a seat at almost any table in the world. Think about that,” said Marshall, who is heavily involved in his mental health foundation. He said he’s also created a fitness company and plans “in the next year or so to launch my own fund where I invest in health and fitness.

“There’s just a world that we get a chance to explore because we’re NFL players. If you look at it right now, how do I have more social-media followers than Jerry Rice, the best wide receiver ever — probably the best football player ever? Because I’m current.”

But getting NFL players to see the bigger picture isn’t so simple.

Having a P.L.A.N.

A 2014 survey of 763 former NFL players conducted by Newsday, in conjunction with the NFL Players Association’s former players division, showed 61 percent said they found it difficult to adjust to daily life after their career. In many cases, that struggle is tied to a loss of identity, structure and purpose during their transition from the NFL. That’s why Priority Sports felt compelled to help its clients focus on the NFL afterlife before it’s too late.

The sports agency recently held its fourth P.L.A.N. symposium, a one-day biennial event, where current and former clients can network and discuss potential post-NFL careers with industry leaders and experts in a variety of professional fields.

Former Giants head coach Jim Fassel talked to the 20 or so players at this year’s Las Vegas event about breaking into coaching. Former players also addressed the group, such as Robert Gallery, who shared his passion for restoring classic cars.

“Instead of just dropping your money on something you real ly don’t know about, let’s try to really find out the ins and outs of that industry, and what you’re really buying into,” Priority Sports agent Mike McCartney said, adding that colleague Deryk Gilmore was “the driving force” behind their first symposium in 2010. “That’s kind of the idea of the overall convention. Let’s get educated and really dive in and not make rash decisions with your finances.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen the stats. The rate of players who went broke is way too high and the rate of them getting divorced is even higher. We don’t want to see that. We want our guys to strive on and off the field, and in their homes, as well.”

Former Jets tight end and Priority Sports client Ben Hartsock attended the agency’s inaugural event and credited it with shaping his post-NFL future. He’s now a certified player representative at Priority Sports.

“The reality in the NFL is careers don’t end with a nice handwritten letter from the commissioner and a gold watch and a ‘thank you for your service.’ Your phone just stops ringing,” said Hartsock, 35, a third-round pick in 2004 who played for the Jets in 2009 and 2010. “Some guys are surprised by that. And those are the ones that struggle.”

Few NFL players are as gifted as Marshall or able to last a decade in the league like Hartsock. And that’s why both of them said it’s imperative players take the time during their careers to consider the inevitable: a life away from the playing field.

“It’s not an NFL career, it’s an NFL experience,” Hartsock said. “Even if you have a storybook career playing 10 seasons like I did, the reality is I have a lot of years ahead of me. Even if you had all the money in the world, you can only play so much golf and you can only have so much leisure time. So having something to commit yourself to is powerful.”

Creating balance

Marshall’s commitment to football is evident. But he also has devised a strict schedule that allows him to carve out time for his other passions. Every Monday during the season, he dials into a weekly 30-minute-to-an-hour conference call with members of his fitness company. Every Tuesday, he tapes “Inside the NFL” at the CBS Broadcast Center in Manhattan and every two weeks he holds a conference call with the executive board of his foundation. Tuesdays and Fridays are the only days the Jets receiver (who is not represented by Priority) makes himself available to attend foundation-related events — though he’ll make an exception for a “life-changing, foundation-changing event that we can’t pass up.”

“I use my time wisely,” said Marshall, who in 2015 became the first player in NFL history to record 1,000 yard receiving seasons with four different teams. He also set several Jets franchise records in his first season with the team, including receptions in a season (109) and receiving yards in a season (1,502).

“My No. 1 priority outside of my faith and my family is creating balance. My top priority outside of that is football. You can’t ever forget that as player when you’re going off and seeking new things. That pays the bills. It’s going to be really hard for most guys to go out and make the same type of money they’re making now in corporate America or being an entrepreneur.”

Thinking ahead

The NFL and NFLPA has several resources in place to help current and former players target a professional career while still playing or acclimate to life after football: NFL Player Care Foundation, NFL Life Line, a transition assistance program, as well as boot camps and a business management program. The problem is not enough of them are taking advantage.

“There are so many programs available to current and former players that go unused,” Hartsock said. “So many things are out there and the hard thing is you can lead the horse to water and you can’t make them drink.

“I’m thankful to have gone to them and I liked them. But I probably would have been OK either way. But the people who desperately need to go, oftentimes don’t.”

Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu admitted he never thought much about what his next career would be until he attended his first P.L.A.N. symposium in 2014. “All I was focused on was playing, really. Just enjoying my time in the NFL,” the New Jersey-born Rutgers product said.

But Sanu, a former third-round pick in 2012, is now a soon-to-be free agent whose future in Cincinnati seems somewhat unclear. And he’s under no illusions about the longevity of NFL careers.

“It’s three or four years and going off statistics, in a year or two, I might be done,” said Sanu, 26. “It’s Year 4 for me right now and I’ve passed that threshold and trying to obtain a second contract and continue my career but it’s very hard.”

Both Marshall and Hartsock cautioned that paying too much attention to the future can be detrimental to the present. “If you focus too much on what’s next, it may come a little sooner than it ought to,” Hartsock said.

Said Marshall: “Focus on football first because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And if you don’t establish yourself, you don’t reach your potential, then those doors will shut as fast as they were open.”

Cajuste prepared to adjust

It’s never too early to start for some football players. Just ask 23-year-old Stanford receiver Devon Cajuste.

Asked when he’ll start thinking about life after football, the Seaford resident said: “I’ve always had a plan. Even since, maybe, 12 years old. Really.”

The Long Islander beamed with excitement during this week’s NFL Scouting Combine, adding that playing in the NFL is “the dream” he’s been trying to achieve since he was a kid. But his Plan B has always been in the back of his mind. Cajuste said he’s considered becoming a marine or a Navy SEAL or getting into the medical field.

“I’ve done stem-cell research for the last three years over the summer, so curing cancer — lung cancer in particular — just being a part of that, that’s something I want to do,” he said. “I want to help people either way, whether it’s directly or indirectly.”

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