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Trading Football Cleats for Business Shoes

Don Davis isn't easily intimidated. After a rocky start, he spent 11 years playing in the National Football League, winning the Super Bowl twice with the New England Patriots. After retirement, the NFL veteran is determined to succeed as well along with his colleagues. To do this, Davis has enrolled in an MBA program and has accepted a full-time job as a player advocate.

"I consider it my calling to help professional athletes achieve success both on and off the field," said Davis, regional director at the National Football League Players Association, or NFLPA, and executive MBA student at George Washington University School of Business. "I am hoping to transfer the knowledge and skills learned [in business school] into creating better and more efficient programs and services within the NFLPA."

Davis may be facing one of his toughest challenges yet. According to the Sports Illustrated article "How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke," by the time former NFL players have been retired for two years, 78 percent have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress due to joblessness or divorce. Although published in 2009, the article still resonates among athletes and business school staff, including Sanjay Rupani, chief strategy officer at George Washington University School of Business.

Business school pushes athletes to thrive off the field

Citing the Sports Illustrated statistic, Rupani said George Washington, or GW, has developed the customized STAR EMBA, an executive MBA program for individuals with special talent, access and responsibilities. This is the EMBA program that Davis attends.

Athletes and entertainers are "specially positioned to use their talents and resources to impact society in a positive way, but they need the support structure and business skills to fully realize this dream," Rupani said. "This program is one way for them to realize their ambitions."

Rupani said students are invited to apply to the program and that they come from a variety of backgrounds. The first class has 46 students and is mostly composed of current and retired NFL players, Olympians and entertainers. Students meet during six intensive 12-day modules held during approximately 16 months.

Students take 22 core business and management courses, attend coaching and mentoring sessions and work on a capstone project or practicum developed throughout the program. Modular courses covering a variety of business disciplines are offered online and in a variety of on-site locations in Washington D.C., New York and Los Angeles, as well as in designated locations in Europe and Asia. In addition to exams, essays and problem sets, students are scheduled to meet different leaders and change-makers in business and philanthropy while working to expand their personal and professional brands.

"STAR EMBA has been a tremendous success at many levels," Rupani said. "Our students are extremely engaged in the classroom and are already starting to build their visions for societal impact. At the end of next year, we will have 46 graduated GW MBAs that are going to make a difference in their local communities."

The visions and goals of students are different, according to Rupani. During two years, business school staff members work with students to help them clarify their visions and execute their goals. For the most part, Rupani said, students want to join corporations, take their businesses to the next level, or start new ventures. Some, like Davis, want to use their education to help others succeed.

NFL veteran enrolls in MBA programs to help peers make sound decisions

"To experience growth in life you must achieve knowledge," Davis said. "GW has provided me an opportunity to expand my knowledge in the corporate business world. I knew that although the program would be challenging, considering all the responsibilities that I have, it would be extremely rewarding in helping me grow both personally and professionally."

During the first two modules, Davis has already learned about accounting, finance, economics, entrepreneurship and marketing. He has also explored leadership and business development, as well as philanthropy. Though challenging, Davis said, the program is going well. Students must be self-motivated to succeed, he said, as they have to stay focused and disciplined to keep up with assignments and projects. After graduating from the program, Davis plans to continue studying to later teach executive leadership and development. He also plans to continue working as a player advocate.

"I heard someone say once that to change any culture you need to influence at least 10 percent of its members," Davis said. "There are 1,952 players on rosters each year. My goal is to find 200 that are ready and willing to serve their generation to lead them toward a better tomorrow."