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Sports Pros Look, Train for 'Retirement' Jobs

September 03, 1985|MICHELE L. NORRIS | Times Staff Writer

Getting forced out after a lifetime on the job may be a terrifying prospect for most workers but for professional athletes, it comes a lot earlier.

Retirement for most sports professionals means leaving a career after years of training but at a time--generally in their late 20s or early 30s--when most people are beginning to taste career success.

With the heavy emphasis on brawn instead of brains, most athletes leave the sports fields ill-prepared for the business realities they will confront.

Increasingly, however, athletes are facing up to the inevitable: Many now invest wisely or go into business for themselves.

Others seek the training and education needed to move into another career.

In San Diego, a handful of current and former athletes have met this post-sports challenge head-on, setting up their own ventures or establishing training areas for colleagues.

"Sooner or later, when they say you can't play anymore, reality jumps up and slaps you in your face," said Johnny Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner and a former wide receiver with the San Diego Chargers.

Knee injuries forced Rodgers into retirement in 1980, plunging him into an emotional trauma psychologists call the "Three-Ds"--depression, disorientation and denial.

"It's all right to dress up and play every Sunday. You're a hero," Rodgers said. "But when you go out there without that number on your back, you're facing a war alone."

Rodgers was lucky. His bout with the Three-Ds was relatively short.

Many retired athletes can begin collecting a pension at age 45, 55 or in some cases 65, depending on how long they have participated in which professional sport.

Rodgers joined the pros right out of college. Forced by injuries to retire just eight years later, he could have begun to collect a reduced pension, but with six sons and a daughter, he realized that the payments would not support his family, and a full pension was years away.

Within a week of his retirement, the former wide receiver decided to publish TUNED IN, a weekly cable listing and life styles magazine. Rodgers, who said he spent the first week of his retirement in front of the television set, was frustrated by the lack of cable television listings available in San Diego, the nation's most heavily cabled city.

Backed by money from developer Tawfiq Khoury, Rodgers began TUNED IN. The first issue sold roughly 200 copies, and Rodgers gave another 200 away without charge. But as cable popularity grew, so did his subscribers, and within four months Rodgers stopped giving his magazine away.

Circulation rose steadily until the Showtime movie channel entered the San Diego market, attracting new cable subscribers and sparking a 15-fold increase in the magazine's circulation.

Circulation peaked at 65,000 last year but has since dropped to about 50,000, primarily because area newspapers have beefed up their cable listings.

Rodgers acknowledges that his name helped his magazine get off the ground, but he insists that "advertisers pay TUNED IN's publishing bills . . . old football memories (didn't)."

At first, however, advertisers "didn't trust me," Rodgers said. "They just saw me as a dumb jock trying to make it in their world."

Rodgers is bitter toward his coaches and college counselors, who failed to remind him that sports fame wouldn't last forever.

"Football players are commodities, they come and they go," Rodgers said. "Is a farmer concerned about what a cow will do once it stops producing milk?" he asked.

Rodgers, whose six sons hope to follow in his football footsteps, said he founded the Professional Athletes Community Efforts (PACE) organization to prevent his sons and others like them from falling into the same hard times footsteps so many pro athletes encounter.

PACE sponsors lectures at local San Diego high schools where Rodgers and other athletes offer career and academic counseling and warn young athletes about drug abuse.

"You spend more time on the practice fields and locker rooms than you do in the classroom. They teach you the rules to the game, but they forget to teach you the rules of life," Rodgers said.

Other sports figures in San Diego also have made a business of helping fellow athletes.

Five years ago, San Diego Padres first baseman Steve Garvey founded a nonprofit career testing and counseling program which helps place professional athletes in executive positions after early retirement.

Dave Cash, a former second baseman with the Padres who also played for the Montreal Expos, Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies, is trying to take the concept of helping fellow athletes one step further by teaching them entrepreneurial skills so they can go into business for themselves.

Cash's Creative Systems Business Development is one of a growing number of "business incubators" in Southern California.

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