By Marco Santana, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nate Kaeding might be the most recognizable student at the University of Iowa’s business school.
The former Iowa Hawkeye All-American and NFL Pro Bowl kicker for the San Diego Chargers is working on a master’s degree in business administration, hoping his ability to run a business matches his near-legendary ability to kick a football through the uprights.
“I’m never not going to be known as the guy who used to kick footballs,” Kaeding told The Des Moines Register. “I have to embrace and understand that. But just because I played football does not mean it will make me a good business person.”
Kaeding has been part owner of Shorts Burger & Shine, a restaurant in his hometown of Iowa City, for about six years. He retired from the NFL in 2012, and has since put more work into promoting the restaurant, he said.
Business experts praise his decision to return to school and say business-savvy athletes can have a strong combination of fame and expertise. They warn, however, that athletes-turned-entrepreneurs must be aware of pitfalls others do not face.
“I put him at the positive end of the spectrum,” said Tom Swartwood, the assistant director of Drake University’s Buchanan Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. “He got out of sports relatively healthy, relatively young and with money in the bank. He has been able to shop around and willing to meet with people. He has been able to observe what works and what does not work.”
Kaeding will talk about his experience as one of the keynote speakers at EntreFest, an entrepreneurial conference in Iowa City this week. The event will bring more than 70 speakers over two days to talk about various areas of business.
The 32-year-old Iowa City native said he hopes to help contribute to the city’s growing entrepreneurial scene. “I knew I wasn’t smart enough to be the guy who built a new app or be a Dwolla or Higher Learning Technologies guy,” Kaeding said, referring to two Iowa technology startups. “That ship sailed when I decided to kick a football between two poles.”
Kaeding wants to develop into someone beyond just that football player, which is why he enrolled at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.
“I can’t go up to anyone and say, ‘Hey, I played football, hire me,’ ” he said. “I want to reinvent myself. I want to be a value-add in a business launch. I want them to hire me because I offer real value as a person and professional.”
But fame comes with its hassles for athletes trying to establish themselves as business people who just happened to play football.
Former NFL quarterback Rick Mirer started the Mirror Napa Valley wine company in 2008, five years after his 12-year playing career ended, to support various charities, including his Rick Mirer Foundation.
The Seattle Seahawks selected Mirer as the second overall pick in 1993’s NFL draft. He finished as runner-up in the offensive rookie of the year voting, trailing only future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis.
Mirer, 44, said the focus of Mirror’s marketing efforts do not revolve around his playing days. The company deliberately avoided using football-related branding on the wine bottles.
However, he admits that some traits he developed as a professional athlete have translated into the business playing field.
“Guys and gals get to a high level in sports because they are competitive and they like to compete,” he said. “That is where I am now, but in a different industry. It’s an extension. If there is one thing sports and business definitely have in common, it’s that.”
Mirer has not exactly run away from his past as a professional football player. “When they discover it and find out, it’s a fun thing,” he said. “But it’s not a way we tell the story.”
Swartwood says athletes who choose to build on their name and money first can get into trouble. Those who try to educate themselves, however, can build a strong business.
“It’s not that they become a patsy but they can be taken advantage of,” he said. “It can hurt their credibility if they have been associated with something that doesn’t work. It’s like Fortune 500 executives who retire. They are very careful about the boards they go on and the new ventures they lend their names to.”
Kaeding injured his leg during his last year in the NFL, ending a career that saw him put up the second-best field-goal accuracy numbers in NFL history. He immediately looked into a program the NFL has that helps retired athletes go back to college. Through that program, he found Tippie.
Like Mirer, he hopes to make a name for himself in the business world just as he did in the NFL. But it’s a lesson learned in sports that guides the way he wants to grow as a businessman.
“It’s the importance of knowing how to deal with adversity,” he said. “You either make the kick or you miss it and the whole world can see. Don’t let it devastate you to the point where you can’t go out and put the pads on again.”
Take part in EntreFest!
WHERE: Venues in downtown Iowa City.
WHEN: Kicked off with a party Wednesday night, runs through Friday afternoon.
THE KICKER: Nate Kaeding’s keynote is at 2:20 p.m. Friday at the Sheraton Iowa City Hotel, 210 S. Dubuque St.
INFO: Go to entrefest.com.