What NFL Greats Can Teach Us About Money

Last Updated Nov 10, 2010 10:04 AM EST

We can learn a lot about money by looking at the greatest-ever National Football League players. It's no secret that many athletes end up broke. That won't be my point here; it's too easy, and I'm not one to pile on.

Well, maybe just one late hit. A staggering 78% of NFL players are in severe financial stress within two years of retiring. That makes them a lot like NBA retirees and lotto winners too, for that matter. Two of the NFL's very best -- top-10ers as chosen by the NFL: Johnny Unitas and Lawrence Taylor -- wound up filing for bankruptcy.

Personal foul? Throw a flag.

As much as we normal humans feel like breaking into an end-zone dance when we hear of such star stupidity, it really is sad stuff. So let me move on to my larger point.

The NFL compiled two greatest-ever lists, one chosen by a fan vote and the other by a blue ribbon panel of ex-players. The differences are telling.

Let's start with the fans' list. Collectively they chose five quarterbacks, four running backs and one wide receiver. Here they are, in order: Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith. Not a lineman or defensive player in sight, and heavily stacked with current or recent stars.

Now look at who the players selected: Jerry Rice, Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Johnny Unitas, Reggie White, Peyton Manning, Don Hutson and Dick Butkus (pictured above). Three defensive players make their list, as do some trusty old timers.

What's my point? In football, as in money, too many of us use only recent events for our frame of reference and we are suckers for glitz -- the can't-miss IPO that, well, misses; the costly private-school education for a degree that will never pay enough to retire the student loans; the 7-series Bimmer with a mortgage-sized lease; loading up the charge card to buy those Manolo Blahniks and, after interest expense, effectively buying them twice.

Whatever happened to basic blocking and tackling? The great Woody Hayes built a football dynasty at Ohio State by extolling the virtues of "three yards and a cloud of dust." He understood that consistent small gains were better in the long run than an occasional 80-yard strike. "Three things can happen when you pass the ball, and two of them are bad," Hayes once said.

The same can be said of speculative (glitzy) money moves. You're better off setting a budget and living within your means; contributing enough to get your full 401(k) match; investing a set dollar amount every month no matter what the market is doing; annually rebalancing your portfolio to keep your desired mix of large, small, domestic and foreign stocks, domestic and foreign bonds, cash and real estate; paying your credit cards in full each month; and maintaining adequate insurance.

In the long run blocking and tackling wins off the field too; any good financial planner would tell you that mastering the basics is how you build a can't-miss personal financial dynasty -- just like any NFL player would tell you that linemen and defensive players win championships even if they don't light up the scoreboard.

Interestingly, not a single kicker made either of the NFL lists, even if you expand to the top 100. Yet, arguably, the early soccer style specialists like Jan Stenerud and punting perfectionists like Ray Guy changed the game. Maybe the NFL should go under the hood and review that omission. Even experts mess up now and then.

Photo courtesy Flickr user alan-light.
  • Dan Kadlec

    Daniel J. Kadlec is an author and journalist whose work appears regularly in Time and Money magazines. He is the former editor of Time’s Generations section, which was written and edited for boomers. Kadlec came to Time from USA Today, where he was the creator and author of the daily column Street Talk, which anchored the newspaper's business coverage. He has co-written three books, including, most recently, With Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life. He has won a New York Press Club award and a National Headliner Award for columns on the economy and investing.

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