An important storyline in the NFL recently has been the difficulties many players have faced adjusting to life after football, and that's taken on even more importance following Junior Seau's death (which has intensified a number of debates). While a lot of the focus has been on improving player safety and concussion education (with good reason), the inability of many NFL players to adjustment to post-football life has also hit the spotlight; stories of players like George Koonze, Mark Brunell, Warren Sapp and others struggling with debt, depression and aimlessness have become common. However, north of the border, we're instead seeing plenty of stories of former CFL players who have thrived after hanging up their cleats. One of the most interesting is that of former B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts' defensive tackle Noah Cantor, who's built a massively successful burger chain and is now serving as a guest coach at the Lions' training camp for a change of pace. Here's part of what Cantor told Mike Beamish of The Vancouver Sun:
"I'm using this experience to see if coaching is for me," he said. "I guess I wouldn't be the first restaurateur/football coach. Vera's is still my main focus. I don't know if I'll have the time to commit to this, but it's definitely a feeling-out process."
And it's a cliché, but true, Cantor said, that beef—whether it's gloriously transmuted into a better tasting burger, or stuffing a goal-line plunge at the line of scrimmage—operates in a parallel universe of collision and commerce.
"Coaching is about helping young kids get to a certain level and win," he said. "Business is the same thing. We want to win in business, by making sure our people work hard and achieve our goals. You can find similarities on both sides. You can use football examples to help in business. And you can use business examples to help in football."
It's not surprising to see former players interested in coaching, but what's so notable about Cantor is that he's already built an off-field empire. Vera's Burger Shack, the chain Cantor's been involved with since 2001 (five years before he hung up his cleats to work full-time in the burger business), has expanded to 15 B.C. locations and one out in Ottawa. They're also opening two more this summer (and their burgers are highly recommended by this corner). That's a pretty good record of success.
Cantor's story of post-career off-field accomplishments is remarkable, but what's particularly interesting is that he's far from the only former CFL player finding such success. Lowell Ullrich had a great piece in The Province a couple of weeks ago looking at some of the business success stories involving current and former CFL players, including Gerald Roper and Ian Sinclair's W.E. Travel, Bobby Singh's SBS Cleaning and Jon Hameister-Ries' Mean Poutine. Some of the most interesting comments in there were from current Lions' kicker Paul McCallum, who has a successful real-estate career during the offseason. Here's what McCallum had to say:
"Being in pro sports makes it easier because people know who you are, and it opens a lot of doors," said kicker Paul McCallum, "but I've never been the type of person to use that."
The oldest player in the CFL will have no trouble transitioning as he continued his career in commercial real estate in Maple Ridge upon rejoining the Lions six years ago. McCallum's business path was opened when he was given a job at Sask Energy while previously kicking for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
It was there he met those who felt he was given a break because of his other job, and says he reminds himself of that to his advantage today.
"When I got my job at Sask Energy, I got the feeling some people thought I was a football player getting a paycheque. I remember saying I don't want any special treatment," he said. "Even though I'm selling a house, I don't want people to think I'm a football player, but someone that will work hard for them.
McCallum may have hit on a crucial reason why many CFL players have been more successful than NFL guys in post-career business ventures. CFL players are certainly known, sure, but they're not mega-celebrities in the same way NFL stars are, and while they can pull in decent wages, they're usually not making multiple millions over the course of a career. That provides more incentive to seriously think about what it will take to succeed after hanging up the cleats, and it also reinforces the idea that further hard work will be necessary rather than mere coasting. As recently-retired Lions' defensive end Brent Johnson (who's taking up a career as an investment advisor at CIBC Wood Gundy in Vancouver) told Ullrich, it's critical for athletes to realize there's more to life than sports:
"A lot of guys just want to keep playing or be mad that the dream's over and they never get over it. Athletes benefit by not being realistic because if they were they'd never get to where they are. But they have to understand [that football] is a switch you turn on and off. There's lots of other great things to do in life."
Many CFL players seem to realize that, and that's likely fueled their post-career preparations. Sure, not every CFL player is able to make the transition to retirement as smoothly as these guys have, but it's still remarkable that we're seeing so many good stories about how former CFL players are doing at the same time there's depressing tale after depressing tale about former NFL players. Their on-field careers may not be as high-paying, but Cantor and many other former CFL guys are doing just fine.