By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
From his first day in the NFL Casey Crawford knew that the odds of a significant and protracted career were remote– almost as remote as the chances of making it in the first place. The tight end was signed by the Carolina Panthers as a rookie free agent out of the University of Virginia in 2000, and made sure not to conjure up any unrealistic expectations. However, contrary to what it may sound like, that outlook was born out of optimism, not pessimism.
“To be successful in the NFL you have to be an optimistic person, Crawford said. “You’ve accomplished what one percent of athletes have ever done. You have to be aggressive, but you have to balance that with a dose of reality. [You have to think]: ‘If I’m average, I’m going to have a three-year career and then what am I going to do?’ Even if you play into your 30s you still have the rest of your life.”
Crawford’s stay in the NFL was brief - and typical. After his first two years in Carolina, he spent the next two with the Tamp Bay Buccaneers, ultimately being forced into retirement when no one was interested in signing him after Tampa Bay released him.
“I had the career that most of those guys have,” Crawford said. “You play two or three years for the minimum salary.”
But, regardless of the length of his career, Crawford always knew that he, and anyone else who ever wore an NFL uniform, no matter how fleeting it might have been, have an advantage that they can leverage.
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, “Crawford said. “With the NFL, your social and professional network can expand exponentially. There’s nothing like it while you’re playing. Once you’re retired it’s in place.”
Shortly after his playing career ended following the 2003 season, Crawford began building his new business, Movement Mortgage, based in Charlotte, North Carolina. When he first joined the league, Crawford has dabbled in real estate, but in 2008 he noticed mortgage loans doubling and one day he sat down and simply typed into Google: “How to start a mortgage bank.”
Movement Mortgage is now a multibillion-dollar private mortgage bank.
Crawford is focused on helping others reach success outside of the NFL as well. He offers a guideline for his peers as to how to navigate their futures by leveraging their affiliation to the league, which provides advantages that most people don’t have access to.
“You have to be realistic about where you’re going to have easier contacts,” he said. “Teams are unbelievably willing to help their former players and help them get into businesses. But, you have reach out. You have to be proactive the same way you were proactive when you were playing. No one’s chasing you down. It’s complete opposite of what you experience your whole life where people are coming after you. You have to take control of your own career. No one’s trying to draft you onto their team anymore.”
He underscores the importance of building a network in order to have support and mentorship from experts in the industries that players may be interested in pursuing. Crawford recalled all of the golf outings and dinners where he was able to meet people working in a variety of businesses and how he was able to accrue a database of contacts. Regardless of whether or not an NFL player is a major star, he pointed out that people are always interested in being in the company of a professional athlete. As an NFL Legend, he now makes it a point to pay it forward, meeting with both active players and other Legends who solicit him for advice on their own post-NFL careers.
“We’ve always had coaches in life,” Crawford said. “The reason you were successful in the NFL is because you had good coaching. The same thing applies in business. Get coaches. Get mentors.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.