For many professional athletes, the last game of their career signifies the end of a chapter only to become a memory that will be cherished forever. For others, the end of that chapter in life can sometimes leave a feeling of uncertainty.
The realization that his football career was over hit former safety Erik Coleman at the end of the 2012 NFL season. After a nine-year stint in the National Football League, the Spokane, Wash., native found himself asking the question, "What now?"
Coleman was selected by the New York Jets in the fifth round of the 2004 NFL Draft out of Washington State, and was quickly thrown into the starting lineup after an injury to the starting safety. He thrived under the pressure to perform, netting Rookie of the Week honors within the first two weeks of his debut campaign and continued to remain a starter on defense for the next four seasons with the Jets.
From New York, he went on to play for the Atlanta Falcons where he made two playoff appearances during his three seasons (2008-10) before his final stint with the Detroit Lions (2011-12).
"One thing I always took pride in as a player was saying, 'I am more than a football player,'” Coleman said. “I can do more than just play football. The problem came up after I was done playing. I knew I was more than a football player, but what am I? I didn’t have that answer."
A crucial piece of transitioning away from the game is having a great support system. Coleman is thankful to have a wife and family that believe in him and good people surrounding him who wanted to get better each day.
Part of that system also includes using resources the NFL provides to former players and their families.
"A lot of times, guys leave the league and they are bitter towards the game of football because they were fired," Coleman said. "But you’ve earned all these benefits that Ascending Athletes, the NFLPA, the NFL Legends Community...they all have great resources that you need to be taking advantage of because you’ve earned those rights by playing in the NFL. They can really help you transition. They can help introduce you to some opportunities that you by yourself would never have the chance to get to, and they really educate and prepare you for that next chapter in your life."
Coleman had reached a stalemate after his playing career and found the answer in his close friend and mentor, Atlanta Falcons Vice President of Player Affairs, Kevin Winston.
Winston connected him to a vital resource in Andy Schroeder of Ascending Athletes, which proved to be very fruitful as it immediately opened doors to a new perspective.
Former safety Erik Coleman lines up during a game with the New York Jets (2007).
The former safety attended one of the Business Symposiums, regained his confidence, and better understood that he was indeed more than a football player. He realized that he had value out in the business world, which in turn helped with his transition away from the game.
"I attended my first Business Symposium," Coleman said. "They helped me with my resume. We went through mock interviews. They had multiple high-profile companies come and present and say what kind of candidates they were looking for. I found that a lot of the characteristics companies were looking for in employees were characteristics that I developed as a professional athlete – being accountable, being a leader, delivering under pressure, being a great communicator, being selfless - all these things that translated from the football field over into the business world."
Fundamentals for success in football very much coincide with the fundamentals for success in the corporate world. Winston not only helped connect Coleman to new opportunities but also has made the biggest impact on him navigating his post-career endeavors, and to this day, the two remain close.
Former safety Erik Coleman with Falcons VP of Player Affairs, Kevin Winston hanging out in Long Island, NY (2017).
"He did it the right way," Winston said of Coleman. "He developed focus. He was well matured, way beyond his years. He invested in himself during the off-season and found time during the season to be current and remain balanced, figuring out what stimulated him to be a better football player outside of the game. He is the kind of player you want in your building. He led by example and is an encouragement to current and former players to take advantage of the resources available to them during and after their playing careers."
Former safety Erik Coleman serving as the Emcee for the Hamilton-Madison House Veterans Day Gala (2018).
From injuries to changing teams, Coleman faced adversity ever since he stepped foot into the National Football League. However, he continues to handle his business and lead by example. He understood that after nine years of playing in the NFL, there was going to be a learning curve and a lot of catching up to do. He used his work ethic and determination that helped him become a front-line player in the NFL to learn as much as he could in each industry that he has been involved in.
He encourages players to use their platform as a professional athlete but not be too prideful to ask for help while they are playing.
"A lot of guys get tied up in focusing strictly on the game of football or specifically on their sport. That’s all fine but in some down time you have to create some knowledge; you have to create some opportunities for yourself after football because your body can only hold up for so long. Injuries are a part of the game. It’s a young person’s game. All athletics, they are for young people. I was considered an ‘old man’ when I was 30 years old. Don’t be too prideful to ask for opportunities. When you collect business cards, reach out to those people and stay in contact with the people who you look up to."
Coleman continuously embraces those lessons he learned from the game of football as they spill over into his life now as the Vice President of Executive Businesses at USI Insurance Services. He is thankful that he has found something that he truly loves and has a passion for again. There is no ceiling to his growth potential in this new venture.
“I know that it’s going to take a lot of hard work,” Coleman said of his new position. “It’s going to take years of relationship building. It’s going to take years of studying and learning the business before I get to that place that I call ‘success,’ but that’s something that I’m willing to work for. It’s something that I am excited to work for and new opportunities that challenge me.”
Prior to his current role, he held positions with the NFL Alumni Association and the Guardian Recovery Network. Coleman also currently serves as a football analyst with the Pac-12 Network, co-host with Sirius XM Radio, analyst with CBS News for the Jets Late Night segments, and as an advisory board member with Atavus Rugby & Football.
As for advice Coleman has for those players stepping away from the game and trying to figure out their next steps, he encourages them to dive completely in and put forth their best effort.
"You played the game. That’s something that no one can ever take away from you. That knowledge, that experience that you have – don’t be afraid to use it, but at the same time, don’t limit yourself to the game of football. You have to dedicate yourself. You have to go all in in whatever craft you choose and use your experience in football to your advantage because you earned that right."
From questioning what the next chapter would hold and experiencing emotions of feeling lost, helpless, and angry, Coleman can look back and say how blessed, grateful, and excited he is now that he has immersed himself into his second act.
Former safety Erik Coleman co-hosting CBS Sports New York Jets Late Night Segment with Steve Overmyer (2019).