by Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For players fortunate enough to reach the highest level of the sport, careers in the National Football League often prove fleeting. Given that, one of the NFL Players Association’s primary objectives is to better prepare its members for the next phase of their professional lives.
When the end comes for a player, “you go through sort of a lull, trying to find what your passion is and how to get back on your feet and head back on that next career path,” former University of Virginia tight end Jake McGee said. “And the sooner you can be ready and the quicker you can know what you want to do, the easier it is to make the transition and get going in that next step of life, so you don’t have to do the thinking and brainstorming and sort of struggle with it all at once.”
McGee, who battled injuries during his three seasons on NFL practice squads, is now serving a fellowship with the NFLPA, where his responsibilities include helping with the organization’s externship program for current players. Among the 70 chosen for the program this year were four former UVA standouts: offensive lineman Eric Smith and linebacker Chris Peace of the New York Giants, wide receiver Darius Jennings of the Los Angeles Chargers, and linebacker LaRoy Reynolds of the Atlanta Falcons.
“We’re got to prepare ourselves for the next step,” Smith said.
Peace and Smith spent three days at NASA headquarters in Houston. Jennings returned to his alma mater and, along with free agent DJ Coker, spent three weeks learning the ins and outs of the UVA athletics department. Reynolds had a three-week externship with Events DC, a company that stages conventions, sporting events and entertainment events in Washington.
Jennings and Coker were “hands on” during their time with the UVA athletics
Reynolds, who majored in African American and African studies at UVA, is heading into his eighth season in the NFL.
“It was an opportunity for Roy to network and meet a lot of different people throughout the D.C. area, while also getting in and seeing how fundraisers and things like that are put together and established,” McGee said.
Peace, Smith and Reynolds also took part in the NFLPA’s #AthleteAnd workshop in February. The one-day event helps players “figure out what their AND is,” McGee said, so they’re not defined solely as athletes.
At the workshop, about 40 current and former NFL players heard from industry leaders and participated in roundtable discussions and interactive learning labs. Among the moderators at the workshop was former UVA cornerback Chase Minnifield, now a successful entrepreneur in Lexington, Ky.
“It taught me a lot about networking, branching out, using the NFL to our advantage, getting our names out there,” said Peace, who’s heading into his second season in the league.
Smith, who majored in anthropology at UVA, is heading into his fourth season in the NFL. He said he wants to disprove the stereotype that “athletes are just athletes and all they want to do is play ball.”
In Houston, Smith and Peace were introduced to NASA technology through presentations, tours, panels and conversations with the organization’s leaders.
Peace, who majored in American studies at UVA, suffered a knee injury last season, and that setback reminded him how quickly careers can turn.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to just play football all day, but I wanted to be more than a football player,” he said. “As soon as the season ended, I saw some opportunities.”
It’s really just about finding your niche, trying to find out what you can do in life after football, building your network, building your skill sets outside the field, and really trying to cultivate different areas of your life.”
Jennings, who was a sociology major at UVA, is heading into his fifth NFL season. He’d previously done two NFLPA externships, both in 2018: the first with Events DC and the second with Under Armour in his hometown of Baltimore.
“Football is still definitely the main focus, but it’s going to end one day or another for all of us, whether it’s guys who are finishing up their college careers, or us [in the NFL], whenever we decide to retire or the game decides to move on without us,” Jennings said. “It’s really just about finding your niche, trying to find out what you can do in life after football, building your network, building your skill sets outside the field, and really trying to cultivate different areas of your life.”
Deputy athletics director Ted White coordinated the externs’ activities at UVA.
“At our core, our mission is to prepare student-athletes for life and success beyond the playing field,” White said, “and so the NFLPA externship program aligns perfectly with that mission.”
Like the Cavaliers’ AD, Carla Williams, White previously worked in athletics administration at the University of Georgia, and they’ve supported the NFLPA’s mission for years.
“Whether it’s job shadows, externships, internships, informational interviews, full-time hires, we’ve always had a lot of success,” White said. “And the NFLPA staff does a fantastic job with their organization and preparation and communication. So they make it very easy.
“I think it’s easy to see that the characteristics that go into the making of elite football players are the same characteristics that go into the making of elite performers in other fields, even if it’s college athletics: hard work, discipline, focus, persistence, even things like critical analysis, a lack of a fear of failure, and willingness to fail forward.”
Jennings and Coker were “fantastic,” White said. “We worked hard on the front end to really identity the candidates that were most interested in college athletics. I think they stood out in their passion for college athletics and for working with students.”
UVA athletics offered the externs “a very broad-based experience,” White said. “College athletics, especially in the Power Five, has a lot of reach, and so you can get into college athletics, whether it’s marketing, promotions, game management, facilities management, student development. There are so many aspects of college athletics, and so we really wanted to give them a view of all of those aspects and expose them to every area, so that they could find a combination that they’re most interested in, whether it be on the external side or the internal side.”
Jennings, then playing for the NFL’s Titans, first met Williams in September 2018, when UVA played Ohio in football in Nashville, Tenn. He enjoyed spending more time with her in Charlottesville.
Chris Peace and Eric Smith during their externships at NASA
“She’s definitely leading us in the right direction,” Jennings said. “She’s amazing, and she was very transparent with us. She was open, and she was willing to answer any questions we had for her.”
During their three weeks in Charlottesville, Jennings and Coker learned about the many units that make up the athletics department, from strength and conditioning to academic coordinating to media relations to facilities management to turf maintenance to football operations.
“We did everything under athletics,” Jennings said. “Each day we shadowed one or two different fields or departments. It gave us a wide spectrum and a view of how everything kind of pieces together to make the student-athlete life that much better.”
The NFLPA externships are “set up to help you to see what you like, but also to see what you don’t like, and kind of cross things off your list,” Jennings said. At UVA, he especially enjoyed learning about areas that focused on student-athlete welfare.
“Whether it was career readiness, planning for life after college, or whatever it was,” Jennings said. “We sat in a meeting with the architect team about the new projects [planned] on Grounds, and I just enjoyed hearing the coaches speak about why their student-athletes needed this in their locker room, or why they need this to make them more successful, or how to improve the game-day atmosphere at Scott Stadium for the fans and the students.”
Jennings enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2011 and graduated in December 2014. His externship this winter took him to parts of the department “I didn’t really navigate too much as a student-athlete, just because I was focused on books and ball,” he said.
“Being a Virginia alum, it was very big and important for me to go back. I was able to meet people who weren’t there during my time as a student-athlete and also reconnect with people who were.”
UVA looks forward to continuing its partnership with the NFLPA.
In his 25 years in athletics administration, White said, he’s learned that for pro athletes “the key is to keep going and keep chipping away in the [offseason] toward your next career, and not just waiting and then trying to transitioning all at once at the end of your professional athletic career. And so that’s the thing I think I appreciate most about this externship program, that it allows players to continue every year to gain a little experience, to build their network and to constantly be growing that, so when the time comes to transition they’re ready to go and they can just jump tracks and make a smooth, easy, quick transition.”
Darius Jennings and Ted White on the NFLPA Externship Experience