During his four years at University of Utah, Eric Rowe didn't have much free time. As a football player for a major conference college program, this was par for the course, but as a business school student it was a problem.
While Rowe was busy practicing, working out, studying film, and traveling, he watched his fellow classmates ready themselves for their post-college careers. Some landed internships. Others worked at part-time jobs. Rowe wanted to do the same, but he never had the opportunity.
"It was always kind of eating at me," he said.
After joining the Philadelphia Eagles as a second-round NFL Draft pick last spring and completing his first professional season, the 23-year-old Rowe finally found time to step outside of football's talent pipeline. Through a NFL Players Association program, he took a three-week offseason externship at Fanatics, a Jacksonville-based sports apparel retail company.
For Rowe, it was an overdue chance to expand his worldview, and to begin building his resume for an eventual job—and life—outside of football.
"[Life after football] is in the back of my mind," Rowe said. "It doesn't matter how long you play, because one hit or one injury, your career can be done. I always want something on the backburner that you can do.
"I don't want to leave the NFL and be like, 'Oh man, so what am I going to do next?' I don't have any corporate experience or some sort of anything experience. I always want to have a fallback plan."
When the 2016 NFL Draft commences on Thursday, the focus will be on beginnings: 200-plus players starting their professional careers. But for most of those same draftees, the end already will be in sight. According to NFL and NFLPA statistics—both of which are far from perfect—the average league playing career only lasts between three and five seasons.
As such, preparing its members for football afterlife has long been a NFLPA goal. And as health-conscious players have started to voluntarily retire earlier than ever—Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Tarpley walked away just this month—the Players Association has tweaked its internship program.
In the past, the NFLPA placed members in shadowing and advising roles with businesses; today, the program emphasizes hands-on experience. In addition to Fanatics, players have taken externships at Under Armour, Panini, the University of Maryland, Arizona State University, and even on Capitol Hill.
Will Allen, a 13-year league veteran interested in alternative energy, worked in Rep. Bobby Rush's office this year, after working at an energy company in 2015.
Meanwhile, Fanatics hosted five players, including Jacksonville receiver Arrelious Benn, Texans offensive lineman Karim Barton, and free agents Jeremy Kelly and Greg Jones. The players went through every department of the company, from making T-shirt designs to creating commercials to working the cash register at a Fanatics tent at the Daytona 500.
The goal, NFLPA senior manager of player development Leslie Satchell said, is to give players a first-hand view of other industries. The program also teaches players how to network, build LinkedIn profiles, and make an "elevator pitch" for themselves or a business idea.
"The idea is that they get in there and get oriented to the business to some degree, and they actually get to work on projects and really get into the nuts and bolts of the organization a little bit more," she said. "So they can decide what they like and don't like. It's an exploratory project for some guys. Some know what they want to do."
For Rowe, his short time with Fanatics was eye opening. He still isn't sure what kind of business career he wants to pursue following his NFL career, but he realizes it's not too early to start preparing. While stories of funny money contracts and gargantuan signing bonuses dominate NFL financial coverage, odds are that the average professional football player is going to need a second career.
A 2009 Sports Illustrated article reported that 78 percent of former NFL players go bankrupt or are facing "financial stress because of joblessness or divorce" within two years of leaving the sport. A National Bureau of Economic Research study last year found that 15.7 percent of former players go bankrupt within 12 years of retirement.
Former San Francisco 49ers safety Reggie Smith isn't in the broke bucket, but he's exactly the kind player the NFLPA program is designed for. A third-round draft pick in 2008, Smith assumed he'd have a 10-year NFL career. Instead, he bounced around in typical league fashion: playing every game for the 49ers in 2010 and 2011; cut by the Carolina Panthers in 2012; cut by the Oakland Raiders and out of football in 2013.
Smith went back to the University of Oklahoma to continue his schooling. Last February, he took an externship at Fanatics, graduating in May.
In late July, around the time training camps begin across the NFL, Smith started a full-time position at the company as an operations supervisor in the fulfillment center.
"Not a lot of people take advantage of [the NFLPA program] because they really don't think much of it while they're in that actual lifestyle," he said. "They're thinking of the next workout, the next game, whatever the case may be. They're in the moment thinking football. You gotta start thinking outside the box about what you do when football is done."
As a rookie, Smith focused solely on his football career. He now knows how shortsighted that was, and was heartened to hear about Rowe's experience.
"If you can start to get these guys—whether they be guys that are never going to get to the next level or guys that are going to be first round draft picks—thinking like that earlier, I think it'll be better off for the whole football community," Smith said.