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Tackling their financial future

This story originally published 1/14/2006.

The late, great defensive end Reggie White left more than NFL memories of quarterback sacks and record-book stats when he died in 2004.

The former Philadelphia and Green Bay star who played his last season with the Carolina Panthers in 2000 also left behind a net worth estimated between $8 million and $10 million, according to court documents filed in Mecklenburg County.

White, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was among a vanguard of modern-era players who spent and invested wisely. And as the season comes to a close for most, and careers end for others, many NFL players are leaving the game more financially fit than their predecessors.

White played a key role in establishing free agency in 1993, making it easier for players to move to other teams and launching an era of big-ticket NFL salaries. He was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the current free-agent system.

In 1993, he signed as a free agent with Green Bay for $17 million over four years. His signing, along with a trade for quarterback Brett Favre in 1992, helped make the Packers Super Bowl champions in 1997.

"A lot of guys of Reggie's age don't have a net worth of eight to 10 million, " said Wilson Hoyle at CapTrust Financial Advisors in Raleigh. Hoyle manages money for the Panthers' Ricky Proehl and Jake Delhomme, among others. "Relative to other athletes of his era, he did a good job."

White lived in Cornelius. A document filed this month as part of his will's probate proceedings in Superior Court reveals he had a portfolio of stocks, bonds and mutual funds.

Larger salaries help this generation of players lead more financially secure lives than previous generations. Long gone are the days when players have to take second jobs in the offseason to pay the bills.

The median salary for the best-paying team in 2004 was $895,716, up 44 percent from 2000, according to USA Today.

But those salaries tell only part of the story. The vast majority of players make between $200,000 and $300,000. And the average career span for a typical NFL player is 3.6 years, according to the players association.

George Martin, a defensive end for 14 season with the New York Giants, is now a vice president for sports financial services at AXA Financial in New York. Like other former players who are in the financial advice field, Martin saw a need to teach gridiron brethren the value of money management.

Before he retired in 1988, he started a college-degree completion program for Giants players. Every NFL team has since launched a similar program, Martin said.

Martin was already married and had his first child by the time he played his first game. Lacking a college degree and selected unheralded in the 11th round, he said he knew he had to plan for the future.

"So many of my predecessors were household names and unable to make post-career adjustment, " he said. "That frightened me."

Hall of Fame wake-up call

The poster boy for destitute NFL players is Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame, four-time Super Bowl center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and later the Kansas City Chiefs. He spent 17 years in the league. He retired in 1990.

Before he died of a heart attack in 2002, he battled debt, drug abuse, an arrest and homelessness. He even forked over his four Super Bowl rings as collateral for attorneys fees.

Jay Feely, a kicker for the New York Giants, vows never to be like Webster.

A certified financial planner, Feely and his wife chart a month-by-month budget every January. He's saving and investing for the day he no longer plays. Since entering the league in 2001 with the Atlanta Falcons, Feely said he treats each season as though it's his last.

When warranted, Feely also said he offers free financial counseling for fellow players.

He cited a case this season of a rookie making $230,000. In New York City, home to some of the nation's highest tax burdens and cost-of-living indexes, the take-home pay was closer to $150,000.

Feely said he approached the player, whom he declined to identify, after he saw that the rookie bought a Mercedes and a big diamond necklace.

Unless they make other arrangements, NFL players typically receive checks during the season, September through December. Many newcomers are unaccustomed to all those zeros in their salary.

"It's hard for some to get their heads around investing, saving and understanding the value of money, " he said. As for the spendthrift rookie, "I sat him down and encouraged him to make good decisions," Feely added.

Life After Football

Several years ago, the league and the NFL Players Association instituted a variety of financial education and other policies to help players transition to life after football.

The league requires rookies to attend a three-day symposium covering everything from avoiding sexually transmitted disease to investing in mutual funds.

The players association also conducts annual background checks of financial advisers who are cleared to counsel players.

"When there's more money, there's more sharks in the water," noted Jon Peterson, a financial adviser with Next Level Financial Group in Sausalito, Calif., and the man who manages money for Carolina Panthers star receiver Steve Smith.

Teams also offer matching contributions into 401(k) retirement accounts, annuity programs, severance packages and pensions

Last year, the league and the players association sponsored weeklong financial and real estate courses for NFL players at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. The classes filled up the first day. A players association official said the league is looking to expand the program.

At a glance

▪ Reggie White

Defensive end

White played 15 seasons with Philadelphia, Green Bay and Carolina. He was among the first to ink a big free-agent deal when he signed with Green Bay in 1993 for $17 million.

▪ Steve Smith

Receiver, Carolina Panthers

Reported base salary in 2004 of $743,529, but signing and other bonuses lifted pay to $8,600,000.

▪ Jay Feely

Kicker, New York Giants

Last year signed a three-year deal for $1.635 million, with a $760,000 signing bonus.

George Martin

Defensive lineman, New York Giants

He retired in 1988 after 14 seasons. In the mid '80s, Martin acted on bad advice and invested in oil and gas limited partnerships. When tax laws changed, he lost all he had invested and had to pay steep penalties and interest. He's now a successful financial adviser.

Mike Webster

Center, Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs

Poster child for destitute NFL players, the Hall of Famer used his four Super Bowl rings as collateral for attorneys fees. He died in 2002.

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