Despite the millions of dollars they are paid during their time in the NFL, most football players need a second career when their days as professional athletes are over. The nature of the sport often forces them to retire at an early age, and many have trouble finding a new source of income.
Shawne Merriman is one of the former NFL players that has been fortunate enough to make a seamless transition after retirement. The former All-Pro linebacker has pursued multiple ventures away from football, expanding his brand beyond the football field.
It’s something that the 32-year-old began thinking about as soon as he entered the league in 2005 when he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers.
“I wanted to be able to be set, and be able to move on because I wanted to,” Merriman told International Business Times. “I didn’t want to have to be forced out of the game or be looking to try to stay on a team.”
As the No. 12 overall pick from Maryland, Merriman quickly became one of the NFL’s best defensive players. Recording 10 sacks in his first season, he was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Merriman looked to have a long Hall of Fame career ahead of him after 2007, making the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons, totaling 39.5 sacks in 42 games.
But injuries quickly ended his time as one of the league’s top players. Knee surgery forced him to miss all but one game in 2008, and he played more than 10 games just once in the final five years of his career. Merriman ended his career with the Buffalo Bills, recording just 17 tackles and one sack in 2012.
Merriman was ready life after football, and the preparations he made during his NFL career are paying off today. He was given the nickname “Lights Out” in high school for his hard-hitting style of play, and he officially acquired the trademark for the phrase from Loomworks Apparel, Inc. in 2007. Now, Merriman’s Lights Out brand has a partnership with Bellator MMA, the No. 2 mixed martial arts promotion behind UFC.
“We make clothes to train in, we make clothes to go lounge in or kind of that leisure, activewear category,” Merriman told IBT. “We just thought it was a really good spot to launch Lights Out. Kind of get a chance to build a brand within a brand with Bellator, and it’s turned out extremely well.”
“Now with the visibility with what Bellator and Spike TV has brought, we’re really seeing things pick up over the last two months more than it has in the past year.”
It was a perfect fit for Merriman, who is an MMA enthusiast and has incorporated MMA-style training in his workouts since the start of his NFL playing days. He hopes to have Lights Outs apparel in every retail store in two to three years.
But Merriman’s apparel line is just one of his options outside of the NFL. He had a short stint with WWE three years ago, appearing on TV as an analyst, though he claims a deal was never worked out because it would have required him to spend too much time on the road. Because of his partnership with Bellator and the years he’s spent doing MMA training, Merriman won’t rule out having a professional fight in the future.
“I’ll say this: I never say no to great opportunities. Because some opportunities, I think, if it’s big enough, you just don’t pass up,” Merriman said. “[Bellator president] Scott Coker and I, we have joked around about me actually getting in the cage with Bellator. But as you know, there’s always a little bit of seriousness in every joke. You don’t joke around unless someone’s thinking it.”
Whatever the future holds for Merriman, it appears that he’ll be just fine without football. That’s something that isn’t often the case for NFL players.
The physicality of the game and subsequent injuries make it difficult for players to have lengthy careers. NFL players easily have the shortest careers among the four major American team sports. The average NFL career was at just 2.66 years in 2014, falling from 4.99 years in 2008, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Because of the way NFL contracts are structured, it’s easy for teams to get rid of players, who are forced to retire early. Unlike the NBA, MLB and NHL, contracts for NFL players are not guaranteed. The top stars often get a large portion of their deals guaranteed, but many players will never see anything close to the amount of money for which they initially sign.
Players are often forced to restructure their contracts to avoid getting released, much like San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick recently did. Kaepernick made headlines when he signed a six-year, $126 million contract in 2014, but he was guaranteed just 10 percent of the deal. Kaepernick’s 2016 salary became guaranteed when the team didn’t release him in April, but before his deal was reworked, San Francisco could have cut him without being on the hook for his salary from 2017-2020.
Because players are in favor of change that would provide them with more guarantees, there are concerns that there could be a lockout when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2020.
“I’ve always had a little bit of a problem with the NFL Players Association and them not being proactive. It’s always reactive,” Merriman said. “That part should have been included this past labor agreement. We all know how dangerous football is, and it’s a tough sport, and guys go out there and lay it on the line each week without there being any real guarantees.”
In 2009, Sports Illustrated found that 78 percent of former NFL players had gone bankrupt or were under financial stress. Plenty of players that become multi-millionaires during their careers have trouble maintaining that wealth when it’s time to move on to something new.
Merriman earned a little more than $22 million during his eight-year NFL career, via Spotrac. Having planned for his retirement well in advance and taking advantage of several opportunities that have come his way, Merriman hopes to be among the players that have just as much success in their second careers.