Ravens' Chester, other players tackle their futures after NFL

The Baltimore Sun

PHILADELPHIA -In many ways, the room resembles the kind of team meeting room you would find in any NFL city. While there are more than two dozen football players here, all armed with thick binders and each taking meticulous notes, the man at the front of the room is not a football coach.

He's talking about leadership and asks the players which components make a good leader. Chris Chester, sitting in the second row, raises his hand first. Someone who has the ability to make the people around him better, the Ravens' 26-year-old guard says.

"Good, real good," he is told.

And that's how class started for Chester and other players who enrolled in the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program, an annual league offering designed to help players plan for their post-football lives. Nearly 100 players - Drew Brees, Brady Quinn and Trent Edwards among them - have been spread across campuses at Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern and, here, at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where Chester is joined by guys such as Jeff Feagles and John Lynch.

At a time of year when everyone in football is talking about the future - the draft, free agency, the coming season - these guys are doing something to prepare for theirs.

It was a busy, intense week for the Wharton group. Classes every day, morning to night.

Monday, 8-10 a.m.: Negotiating Real Estate Deals

Tuesday, 1-3 p.m.: Reading Financial Documents

Wednesday, 10:30 a.m.-noon: Entrepreneurial Negotiation

That's just a small sampling of the workload. The class I'm observing is called "Leadership from the Field to Business," taught by Michael Useem, who joined Wharton's esteemed faculty before most of the session's students had played an organized football game.

They're talking leadership, and while the group discusses Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy and Vince Lombardi, they also toss around the names Steve Jobs, Michael Eisner and Donald Trump. Football is only an entry point; even as Ray Lewis and Terrell Owens dominated the week's headlines, it was never really the topic of conversation.

Truth be told, that's part of what made this so engaging and exciting for Chester.

"I love my teammates in Baltimore, but a lot of the conversation we have there ... it's nothing like the conversations we're having here," he said.

Chester came into the NFL in 2006 aware there was an unknown expiration date stamped on his career. Football doesn't last forever. And it often ends with little notice.

For Chester, the week has been about investigating his options and refining interests. Latley, he has been chatting and working with folks at the National Aquarium. He read Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, and Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman.

"When you become a parent, you become a little more aware of the world," Chester says. "Yes, you can do things cheaply and save some money. But what's the cost? I mean, what's the actual cost?"

Sitting in classrooms and chatting with other players, he's thinking now about a company that oversees the green renovation of existing buildings. He has bought land in Oklahoma, in fact, and is eager to build a cabin on the property - a green construction, he hopes.

For Chester, it's an opportunity to get involved in something that could be profitable but also environmentally conscious and socially responsible.

Everyone in the room seems to have some seedling of a plan. This group is here to learn how to execute that vision.

"I guess it's not a plan right now, more of a dream," Chester says. "But being here, it let's me know that I'll be able to put some substance to the dream."

Each class has been like adding another tool to the tool belt. Useem's is one of the final sessions, and he breaks down the concept of leadership both tangibly and philosophically.

The group seems to relate to everything. At one point, during a bit of a role-playing, Charlie Batch, a free-agent quarterback, stood at the front of the room as an IBM executive. He told his fellow players that there would be layoffs and, while he was sorry, some of them might be losing their jobs.

Usually, these classes at Wharton are designed for budding CEOs and corporate lifers. But these were still football players, so they roundly booed Batch.

Still, Useem was impressed.

"By virtue of what they do and who they are, they're more acutely sensitive to issues of teamwork and team leadership than just about any group I've ever worked with," Useem told me later.

The stereotype of the dumb jock didn't apply here. These guys are only football players now. Later, they all will have more to contribute.

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