On April 29, 2006, I was drafted in the third round of the NFL by the San Francisco 49ers, one of the most prestigious franchises in the history of football. The blood, sweat and tears had finally paid off, and my dream of becoming a professional athlete had finally come to fruition. The 49ers also happened to be one of my favorite teams growing up. My uncle, who was a diehard fan, would send me a 49ers T-shirt every year, just so we could share our love for the team. That day of the draft, I was one of 250 or so young adults whose name was called to join a fraternity of men—fathers, husbands and sons. Fortunately, I was able to share that day with my uncle and the rest of my immediate family.
The 5-foot-9, 176-pound kid from St. Louis had made it. I remember sitting at my kitchen table telling Kevin Cosgrove, the defensive coordinator for the Wisconsin Badgers at the time, that I would make it to this day—that if I came to his school, I would be one of the greats. It’s funny to reflect on those times and think how brash and cocky that statement was; but to make it to the height of success in any profession, you have to have an unwavering confidence in yourself and your abilities.
Playing in the NFL over the next four years would change my life forever. I had been preparing my whole life for it, but I wasn’t prepared to deal with all the financial success that came with it. The reality is that not many 22-year-olds would be ready to handle getting a check for more than a half-million dollars.
I wasn’t equipped with enough financial understanding, or exposure to business and entrepreneurship, to fully grasp the magnitude of what life would be like with access to capital. So four years later, I was pushed out of the NFL and headfirst into financial traffic. I went from making $30,000 a month to zero overnight. I would often think to myself: How did I get here? I felt like I was smarter than this. I had good people around me and a good family—why did this happen to me? But financial ruin doesn’t care how fast you can run or how good a person you are; it only cares if you have the correct information, the proper understanding and the ability to apply it.
After retiring from the NFL, I would become a statistic. I joined the ranks of many players before me who have faced financial ruin. A 2009 report by Sports Illustrated found that 78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce after they’ve been retired only two years. Some people may look at this stat as an athlete problem, but the reality is that it’s a financial literacy problem that our country has to address. Learning to manage money well is critical to achieving freedom, independence and success. It seems very clear, though, that most young adults don’t receive enough financial education before they enter the job market. The statistics cited in an article published earlier this year on the Houston Patch website are startling:
- 62 percent of college graduates expect to leave school with an average $27,236 in student debt [The Student Monitor].
- 38 percent of American adults have zero non-retirement savings [National Foundation for Credit Counseling, or NFCC].
- More than 19 percent of American households have college debt [Pew Research Center].
- More than half of adults, 60 percent, do not have a budget [NFCC].
- 76 percent of college students wish they had more help to prepare for their financial futures [KeyBank].
While these statistics are scary, the negative implications they have for the future will only increase if we don’t address them at the core: our youth. We have to connect the dots of financial literacy and entrepreneurship in the K-12 phase.
Recently, I testified before a Wisconsin legislative committee on behalf of the now-passed Assembly Bill 280, which allows financial literacy to be incorporated into the K-12 curriculum of public schools in the state. This committee was highly receptive to my testimony and expressed no real opposition to this bill.
This was a no-brainer.
Too many times in our society we try to fight economic problems with social programs instead of combating economic issues with economic solutions. Athletes have been impacting their communities with an old model: organizing sports camps, free turkey giveaways or golf outings. These activities are necessary, but I think my generation of athletes is causing a paradigm shift that is pushing to invest in communities by starting new businesses that create more jobs and economic freedom. They also want to partner with existing businesses in an effort to bring financial and economic support to their communities. We don’t want to be the next Lil Wayne any more than we want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.
In 2012, I put together a conference called Venture Draft, where athletes, venture capitalists and leaders in technology could meet. People from different backgrounds in the public and private sectors met to not just talk about business opportunities, but also to build relationships. This is an example of the new model.
Financial literacy affects our entire nation. So I urge you to have a talk with your kids about money. Have a talk with your alderman, mayor and state representative to ask them to join the fight to get our society back on a solid financial track.
Brandon Williams is a Madison-based author, speaker and success coach who helps athletes and entrepreneurs build financial independence.