Buccaneer players like TE Alex Smith had an opportunity to meet businesspeople from around the Bay area during the When the Helmets Come Off event
When Jorge Diaz signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent in 1996, he knew that the highly competitive nature of the NFL posed a serious challenge to a long-term career in his chosen field.
Diaz did manage to beat the odds, earning a roster spot and, eventually, a starting job on the Buccaneers' offensive line. Even as his five-year NFL career was taking shape, however, the Texas A&M-Kingsville graduate began investigating another interest of his, the restaurant business. He wanted to gain a better understanding of the potential opportunities awaiting him when his playing days were over.
Now, thirteen years later, Diaz manages one of the premier restaurants in the Bay area, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, having parlayed his off-field preparation during his successful playing days into a thriving and lucrative career in restaurant management.
On Tuesday morning Diaz joined representatives from more than 20 local businesses at One Buccaneer Place in reaching out to current Buccaneer players who might want to plan for their own post-playing days. The third annual "When the Helmets Come Off" luncheon attracted fifteen 2009 Buccaneers, including safety Will Allen, wide receiver Michael Clayton, tight end Alex Smith and quarterback Luke McCown, all of whom turned out for the networking opportunity and the chance to gain knowledge about the professional community in Tampa Bay.
"It's so important right now because a lot of the athletes today become bankrupt, they lose everything they have in experiencing life after football," noted Clayton. "The people that are here today are very successful people and they have a lot of knowledge. They're able to give us direction, which way to go, give us some kind of clue. Because when you're involved in football, some guys play five years, some guys play ten years. You really don't know what that next step [is]. These are the people put in place right now that are more than willing to help."
Before interacting with the players during a mix-and-mingle buffet, the local business leaders were introduced to Allen, Director of Player Development Eric Vance and Head Coach Raheem Morris, each of whom addressed the crowd in the team's main auditorium.
"The average [career] right now for an NFL player might be about four years," said Morris. "But we need people to have positive influences on people's lives as they move on into their next career. This thing right here is short-time money. The long-term money comes with the next career, the next steps."
Added Allen: "We're not here to shake hands and to sign autographs, or to talk about old football times and the history of the Bucs or the history of what college you went to. We're here to actively participate and to [learn] how and which ways we can network and resource football players and our community together."
Representatives from nationally recognized organizations such as Sprint and State Farm Insurance shared the experience alongside those from the Hillsborough County School District and the Tampa Police Department, bridging the gap between companies large and small and providing a wide variety of professional contacts for all in attendance.
"There are a lot of different businesses here, a lot of different backgrounds here, and the idea is for them to be able to draw from the different experiences of the business owners and the executives," said Tim Watson, former NFL player and current President of the NFL Alumni, Inc. Tampa Chapter. "I think there are some things that they can get and apply to their own lives and again, make their transition, which will happen inevitably, no matter how young they are or how long they've been around. They won't have that down time or that time they're wondering what they're going to do. They'll be ready to do it."
Vance said the Buccaneer organization continues to hold the When the Helmets Come Off event each year because it is committed to helping its players live fulfilling lives.
"We're showing the players that, 'Hey, we want you to be successful,'" he said. "It's our goal in player development that when every player leaves the Buccaneer organization they are thankful to be a Buccaneer, not just because we won a Super Bowl ring together, but because they had an opportunity to grow and learn from their time here in Tampa."
For over two hours players and business reps alike circled the room to share stories, experiences and potential opportunities for the future. As Clayton indicated, having the ability to hold a simple conversation and build a relationship is often the most important factor in achieving one's long-term goals.
"It's an atmosphere where you put your guard down, you take the business suits off, you kind of relax a little bit and get to know the business person as an actual person, not as they are in suit and tie," said the sixth-year veteran. "It's very important to do that because in these settings you have to be able to relate. Sometimes you're able to relate with a person on a casual environment more so than in a business environment. And just to bring away the relationship; guys come up to me with questions, and as a leader on the team it's very valuable to be able to pass on a very reliable source and a source that is willing to help us at One Buc."
Diaz, who also attended the event in 2008, could share his own story as a testament to networking and planning ahead for one's career. But the former guard-turned-food connoisseur attests that the stories of others like him bring true significance to a day such as this.
"There was a player, a young man, here last year who was very interested in the restaurant business," recalled Diaz. "He spent five weeks training with us and understanding what it takes – from preparing food to skills sets in managing people to understanding the services that go into a restaurant, so it was great. If one person took the initiative, then that means that this event has made it all worth it."