Daved Benefield: Glory Days

What happens when a professional athlete hits retirement age? For some, life after sports can be as traumatic as getting cross-checked into the boards or upended at the 50-yard line. Meet some athletes who traded their fans for clients and lived to score another day.


What happens when a professional athlete hits retirement age? For some, life after sports can be as traumatic as getting cross-checked into the boards or upended at the 50-yard line. Meet some athletes who traded their fans for clients and lived to score another day.

It’s near the end of the lunch rush at Taco Shack, and Daved Benefield seems to be in three places at once. While a batch of chicken breasts sizzles on the grill, he hustles from a back room to the counter with a stack of clean plates to take an order from one customer and thank another who’s leaving. Benefield, who ended his professional football career with the BC Lions this June, isn’t spending retirement parked on the sidelines. Driven by his own search to find good local Mexican food and inspired by a friend in L.A. who owned a taco truck and restaurant, Benefield, a 38-year-old from Pasadena, California, decided to go for it. He opened Taco Shack in Vancouver in July 2006. Its decor bears signs of its owner’s California upbringing and his just-finished playing career. On the walls are “longboards” for surfing (a hobby of Benefield’s) and pictures of California, as well as photos of Benefield from his college and professional days. Not coincidentally, Taco Shack is located near Kitsilano Beach on Cornwall Street, next door to Vera’s Burger Shack. Vera’s is co-owned by another former Lion, Noah Cantor, who is one of Benefield’s partners. (The other partner in Vera’s, Gerald Tritt, helps manage the operation.) “It always helps to have an ex-teammate that you’re used to sweating with as a business partner,” Benefield says. “It takes out a lot of the fear of being screwed over.” For many athletes, the transition to life after professional sports can be as harrowing as fumbling the winning pass. Players who’ve devoted their entire lives to one game often find it tough to launch a new career. Succeeding in a second career becomes especially hard when you aren’t sure what that career is. Even some of the most successful former athletes have had to test drive more than one career path before finding the right fit – and luckily for them, their former superstar salaries often afford them the luxury of being able to do just that. (Certainly that’s easier if your game was hockey. The minimum salary for an NHL player is $450,000, compared to $50,000 if you were in the CFL.) Benefield hopes to avoid the pitfalls that plague other professional athletes and emulate the success of Vera’s, which now has six locations throughout Greater Vancouver. “I’ve heard horror stories about people who’ve been robbed and lost money,” says the charismatic former defensive end, who writes a football column in the Province. “We get lied to so much while we’re playing football. We’re easy marks.” In spite of continued efforts made by players’ associations and alumni groups – including career counselling and mentorship programs – many players struggle to succeed after sports. Don Taylor, president of the BC Lions Alumni Association, has witnessed what can happen when the transition goes terribly wrong. “Players come from very successful careers; they’re behind their age group because they played football, and they have to start off at a lower level than where they think they should,” he says. “Consequently, many don’t start at all.” The problem is that young players are understandably more concerned about their game than retirement, says Taylor, who was a running back for the Lions from 1977 to 1985 and is now an investment adviser for TD Waterhouse. “You’re busy trying to make the team. Sometimes you’re only in the city for six or seven months out of the year. The unfortunate thing is when players have problems, all of a sudden you read in the newspaper that they’ve gotten into trouble with the law or their living circumstances are not what they should be. It’s better for the league that a player transitions to his next life positively.” But there are upsides. Successful former athletes can take full advantage of the friendships and connections made through sports when they move to a business career, and their experience as public figures helps them approach potential clients and communicate with customers. More importantly, they can also take skills that helped them in their playing careers – an ability to handle pressure and adversity, a talent for dealing with the public and a competitive drive – into the next phase of their life.


Tony Tanti, who was a high-scoring winger for the Vancouver Canucks in the 1980s, considers himself lucky to have been in good financial shape and able to retire on his own terms when he finished playing professional hockey in 1997. Nevertheless, it took him time to find the right second career. “The toughest part is definitely the first couple of years after you retire,” says Tanti, 43, who runs a flooring company. “Your life has been structured since you were a little kid. Your coaches tell you to be here at this time and here at that time. All of a sudden, when you retire, you think, ‘What do I do with my time?’” Tanti was one of those players who didn’t plan for life after retirement. “I don’t know if you prepare,” he says, “because when you’re playing hockey you’re sort of invincible.” In those first years, Tanti experienced success working in the stock market and co-founding a communications company. And yet neither opportunity suited his personality. The former Canuck and Pittsburgh Penguin entered the wholesale flooring business in 2002, after a friend convinced him to buy his company. “I was bored,” he says, laughing in his Burnaby Tanti Interiors office, which is strewn with various carpet samples. “I’m the type of person who can’t do nothing; I’ve got to do something.” Tanti, who not long ago knew nothing about flooring, now runs a business that’s thriving in Vancouver’s hot real-estate market. Tanti Interiors works with developers and construction companies such as Bosa Development Corp. and Intertech Construction Group, providing carpet, linoleum, tile and hardwood floors for condo highrises; his company also provides the flooring for Rogers Video stores. [pagebreak] It might not be sudden-death overtime in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, but Tanti says business life challenges him daily. “We have to make sure the product is here, our installers are there, the site is safe; coordinate with site superintendents and project managers; work with other tradespeople,” he explains. “And there’s always timelines – at the end of a project, like a big tower, there’s a mad rush because there’s an occupancy.” Still, he adds, “I enjoy the pressure. It’s satisfying.”


Unlike Tanti, retired BC Lions Gerald Roper and Ian Sinclair were already running a business while they were still playing. For these two teammates, early preparation and a close friendship led to a smooth transition. Roper and Sinclair were still playing football when they began looking for a business. Deciding that travel might be a fun post-athletic career, they attended a course in the off-season at the North Vancouver Travel Training Centre before finding a travel business they could purchase. At the office they share at W.E. Travel’s downtown agency, Roper and Sinclair keep their desks only a few feet apart. Using their CFL earnings, Roper and Sinclair were able to buy W.E. Travel in 1989 (then known as Travel Unlimited) without taking out a business loan. Their football incomes also provided them a cushion in their first few years of business. In addition to early planning, they also benefited from a close relationship with their agency’s previous owner, Jerry Shack. “We were like the two sons he never had,” says Roper, who was a CFL lineman from 1982 to 1992. Shack, a centre for the Lions from 1985 to 1995, stayed at the business in the first five years, helping them deliver tickets – back when travel agencies still provided them. Before they retired, the two Lions would work full-time in the off-season and part-time while playing. “In the CFL, we never practised until three or four in the afternoon,” Roper explains. “So we’d work half a day and rush out to Surrey and practise.” These days, W.E. (short for “Working Enterprises”) Travel specializes in making flight and hotel arrangements for Canada’s biggest unions, and is the agent of record for the Canadian Association of Union Services. (In 1996, Roper and Sinclair sold half their business to the Working Opportunity Fund, which is partly owned by a group of unions.) In addition, their company also organizes Grey Cup travel packages, flying more than 100 fans to the 2003 Grey Cup game in Ottawa. Today, W.E. Travel employs 26 people in its Vancouver and Ottawa offices, has recently opened a Toronto satellite office, and has plans to open branches in Calgary and Montreal. As they did in their playing careers, Sinclair and Roper have had to overcome their share of adversity. The opening of their Ottawa office in 1996 was an especially difficult time. “We were in Ottawa, living on couches for two weeks at a time, then literally going out knocking on doors and pounding the pavement,” recalls Sinclair. “We got pretty close to making a serious decision about whether this was going to work. It was draining money from this office. We were done football and not making any additional money. But we stuck with it, and now it outsells this office.” Both Sinclair and Roper believe that a good education and solid preparation are key ingredients to a successful shift from professional sports. Sinclair remembers that many of “the older guys, in their fourth and fifth years” started looking for off-season work opportunities. But when the average CFL career lasts only three or four years, many players are too focused on making the team to think about the future. “You think you’ve got four years left, and all of a sudden you’re done tomorrow,” adds Sinclair. “It’s a big shock to come out of football and have no job.” Roper also has some words of wisdom for today’s sports stars: “You need to think about your retirement the day you start your career.” For some athletes, there is no life after sports. (See sidebar, “The coaching continues,” p. 84) But of course there aren’t enough jobs in sports for all the players who want them. Those who leave their game entirely often end up in sales and marketing; athletes can take advantage of the communication skills they’ve developed handling interviews with media outlets and dealing with fans. Some players start these jobs and learn they don’t suit their personalities. Benefield, for instance, sold advertising for the Vancouver sports station Team 1040. “I don’t like cold-calling people,” he admits. Others, like former Canuck Dennis Kearns, find a competitive thrill in sales. “You need to have confidence in what you’re selling,” says Kearns, 61, who sells personal insurance in downtown Vancouver. “You have to think that you’re providing a service to somebody instead of selling.” Early on, Kearns, who still holds the Canucks record for most assists by a defenceman, remembers being asked by a friend whether he could handle the inevitable rejection that comes with such a sales job. “I told him I’ve had 15,000 people booing me to get off the ice, so one person on the phone wasn’t going to bother me.” When Kearns played his last NHL game in 1981, he didn’t know his playing career was over. “Harry Neale [the Canucks head coach at the time] knew it was,” he cracks. The day after learning he wasn’t being invited to training camp, Kearns started work at McClelland Motors. Deciding that leasing cars wasn’t the line of work for him, Kearns landed a job selling advertising for the radio stations CKNW and CFMI. The AM and FM stations were then owned by the Griffiths family, who also owned the Canucks. Kearns enjoyed his time there, but saw limited potential. “They’re great radio stations,” he says, “but on an AM band you have 1,500 minutes and on an FM dial you have 10,000 or 11,000 minutes a week. You’re out of business when you don’t have any more product. With insurance you have a lot more product.” Getting your ego in check is one of the first challenges players meet as they enter the business world, and it’s harder for some than for others. Kearns claims that his success in business has much to do with the fact that he wasn’t a star player. “I went to 10 Canucks training camps, and only two [of those] years I had already made the team,” he recalls. “If one is a star, maybe a first-round draft choice, it’s harder to adapt than someone who’s maybe had to claw and scratch his way in.” Tanti concurs. “It’s your ego,” he says. “You’re making a million dollars and all of a sudden you don’t make that.” Kearns approaches insurance as though it were a kind of sport. “I don’t play oldtimers’ hockey and I’m strictly a rec golfer,” he says. “But this business is very competitive, and there are many similarities between winning a hockey game and winning a client.”


Although less established than hockey or football, the world of professional skateboarding and snowboarding has its share of highly paid stars. An amateur will build their reputation through local competitions before acquiring paid sponsorships. Unlike a hockey or football player who gets paid by a team, a pro snowboarder or skateboarder earns their living solely through a gaggle of endorsements. “You’re sponsored for sunglasses, shoes, clothes, boards, wheels, trucks,” says Rob Boyce, 36, a former professional skateboarder and snowboarder. [pagebreak] Top performers, such as skateboarder Tony Hawk and 2006 gold medallist snowboarder Shaun White, can earn millions; even less famous boarders can make decent incomes between $60,000 and $150,000. “It’s like what Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan do,” says Max Jenke, 27, who was a professional snowboarder from 1998 to 2002. “You endorse stuff and you’re expected to get media coverage. In snowboarding, people can’t exactly watch you go on the peak of a mountain and make a jump. You’ll go up a mountain and you’ll have a photographer and cinematographer shooting you for all the big magazines.” Because of the closely intertwined relationships between sponsors and athletes, it’s not surprising that Jenke and Boyce would choose to exploit the contacts they made as athletes when they decided to start their own respective businesses. Jenke might have studied commerce and economics at UBC, but still looks more like a snowboarder in shorts, a baseball cap, and a diamond stud in each ear during an interview at the Gastown office of Endeavor Snowboard Design. Jenke first employed his business acumen after World Industries, Jenke’s board sponsor, cancelled their line of adult snowboards and bought him out of his contract. “I messed around and rode everyone else’s board,” he recalls. “I wasn’t really lost. I still had my outerwear and goggle sponsors. I always had strong goal-orientation. I saw other opportunities to ride for other companies, but I didn’t like them.” Jenke decided instead to launch his own line of snowboards. He and a group of snowboarder friends – Scott Serfas, Randy Ross, Chris Martin, Rob Dow and Paavo Tikkanen – pooled their talents and money to start Endeavor.

The most successful athletes have learned to bring the enthusiasm and tenacity that helped them excel at their sports into businesses that fascinate and challenge them. Still, even when athletes have prepared, gone to school and fully exploited their address books, its a shock to the system to be at a regular job

Like any new business, Endeavor had its growing pains. Jenke’s formal education didn’t prepare him for some real-life problems. He remembers their first year, when Endeavor’s supplier of “cores” – every snowboard has a wood core that is sandwiched in fibreglass – was about to go out of business in Seattle. The supplier was understaffed, so Jenke and his partners were forced to drive down to Seattle and make their own cores. “It was a matter of manpower,” Jenke explains, matter-of-factly. “We took a big piece of laminated board and sliced it into little pieces. We had to sit there for four nights from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. making them.” The boards themselves were being constructed in another factory in Portland, Oregon. After they finished making their cores, Jenke and his friends drove three hours south in the middle of the night to drop off the cores for the Portland factory’s first shift. “We’d sleep all day,” Jenke says, “and drive back to Seattle and do it all again.” Their perseverance paid off. In its first year, Endeavor sold 400 snowboards. It now sells 5,500 boards a year in 14 countries, including Japan, which is Endeavor’s biggest territory (followed by Canada and the U.S.). Endeavor, which has four full-time employees but contracts out much of its work, has a turnover of $1.3 million. The company, while still small, has a strong hold in speciality stores and is considered an image leader. “I was starting to get burned out with snowboarding,” Jenke admits. “When I first stopped, my new thrill – instead of landing a 720 [jump] – became accomplishing a budget or scoring a deal.” Boyce, who has bleached blond hair and is wearing flip-flops, was a professional skateboarder from 1990 to 2002 before quitting. “I was getting too old to beat myself up to the degree of a 19-year-old,” he quips. Before retirement, Boyce and his partner, pro skateboarder Colin McKay, were interested in distributing the companies they endorsed in Canada. “We approached a couple of our sponsors down in Southern California about 10 years ago,” says Boyce, who was also a professional snowboarder for eight years. “And they said, ‘Look, you guys got to open a skateboard shop first and if you’re still in business in a year, come back and talk to us.’” The two then opened Red Dragon Skate Supply in North Vancouver with $30,000 they saved; they still run it. For eight years the company, Centre Distribution, has distributed premium skate brands such as Plan B, Fallen, Habitat and Alien to 600 shops in Canada from warehouses in North Vancouver and Ontario. Boyce’s North Vancouver office is also the home of Red Dragon, their in-house line of apparel. In the world of skateboarding, the “core” that Boyce is concerned about is not a piece of wood but a concept. “‘Core’ is short for ‘hardcore,’” he explains. “It means street level. Fallen’s a core brand. This is exactly what skateboarding is; it’s not what the media portrays it to be.” But for seven years, Centre was also highly successful distributing what Boyce terms “the Nike of skateboarding”: DC Shoes. Last year, however, Quiksilver, an Australian clothing company that made its name with surfing attire, purchased DC. They decided to take DC in-house as part of their newly formed Quiksilver Canada subsidiary. As part of the buyout, Centre sold its warehouse and infrastructure to Quiksilver. “The growing pains were there,” Boyce says about his company’s rebirth, “because we had to re-staff. We had to rebuild this entire warehouse. The first few months were a little rough, but it’s been great since.” Although Boyce is Centre’s GM and has taken courses in small business and accounting, he nevertheless claims to be “the guy who gets in the way.” He quickly credits his knowledgeable staff and Centre’s third partner, Gerry McKay, who is Colin’s father and mentor to Boyce. Both Jenke and Boyce benefited from the close relationships they developed with their sponsors as professional athletes. Jenke advises young snowboarders to “fill your Rolodex with contacts. Choose the company you’re most passionate about; learn everything about it and how it fits in the marketplace.” Still, while Boyce has prepared well for life after pro skateboarding, he also worries that being too professionally minded might negatively affect a skateboarder’s performance. “If you look at it like a business,” he cautions, “you get intimidated and you don’t want to get hurt.” The most successful athletes have learned to bring the enthusiasm and tenacity that helped them excel at their sports into businesses that fascinate and challenge them. Still, even when athletes have prepared, gone to school and fully exploited their address books, it’s a shock to the system to be at a regular job. When all their life’s work has been play, it takes time to learn how to play at work. [pagebreak] “There was an adjustment working at an office, working with other people,” says Jenke. These days, he manages to merge business and pleasure. (On a recent sales trip to Japan, Jenke and his friends spent 10 out of 14 days snowboarding.) So far, Benefield has found it hard not to be hands-on with his new business. “When I leave here, I’m grudgingly leaving,” he says. “I don’t really do this for competition, but because I’m creating something. I want to share my love of something with everyone else.” With his business running smoothly, Tanti has been able to shape his workday so it resembles the schedule he had as an NHL player. “Playing hockey, you practiced in the mornings and then you had afternoons off. Here, I come to work at 8 a.m. and, unless there are some huge problems, I’m gone by 12. I’ll play golf with friends or ride bikes. It’s a good lifestyle.”


The coaching continues There’s help out there for former pro athletes trying to make it in business. The Waterboys, founded by Lions president Bob Ackles, is made up of about 100 local businessmen and football fans who act as ambassadors for the club in the corporate community. While the main goal of the Waterboys – whose chairman, Dennis Skulsky, is president of CanWest MediaWorks Publications – is to build corporate support for the Lions, ambitious players also have access to this pool of business contacts and the wealth of their experience. The BC Lions Alumni Association, which has over 200 members, also tries to help players make the transition. The association holds an annual golf tournament that raises money not only for charity but a dire-need fund for retired players experiencing financial difficulty. “We’re trying to create an alumni family for newly and long-retired players,” says Taylor, who hopes to create a support system similar to what alumni of U.S. college teams have. Mark Napier, director of the NHL Alumni Association in Toronto, believes that current professional hockey players are benefiting from the hard lessons learned by past NHLers. “Their agents do much better jobs with them,” says Napier, who won the Stanley Cup with both the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers. “The NHLPA [NHL Players’ Association] does a fabulous job with them. They encourage their members to take business and financial planning courses.” Over 100 retired players have participated in the NHL Alumni Association’s Life After Hockey program, which is run by the Professional Athlete Transition Institute at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. The Life After Hockey Program offers aptitude testing, life coaching, work study, and courses on business skills and entrepreneurship. In June, nine former NHLers participated in a sports broadcasting workshop – including Nelson-born Greg Adams, an ex-Vancouver Canuck – where players learned the finer points of reading from a teleprompter and conducting on-air interviews. Napier, whose association represents the select group of 3,400 players who’ve appeared in at least one NHL game, estimates that about a third of the players who retire from the NHL remain in hockey as coaches, executives, scouts or broadcasters. “It’s such a passion,” he says, “that there aren’t many players who wouldn’t want to stay in the game.”

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