By the time athletes retire from the game in their late 20s or early 30s, their identity is wrapped up in their accomplishments on the field. Some players are better prepared for life after football compared to others. Some end up staying close to the game and get into broadcasting or coaching, but others make their way into Corporate America.
So how do athletes retool their identity when their athletic careers end? What happens when the fourth quarter is over, there is no more time left on the clock, and these guys are not resigned? What happens when they are the ones who choose to walk away?
When your identity is so wrapped up in what you play, it’s hard not to define your own self-worth to be only as good as your last catch, pass, or in Tony Dixon’s case, tackle that he made.
“If I had a life-long motto that would be, ‘Dare to Dream,’” said Dixon. “This is from a young kid from a small town who didn’t know the limits of his dreams and not even knowing what could be attained because he limited his ability to dream.
When I speak to youth and even former athletes at this point, I always lead with this is my motto. It takes its own life and meaning for several different people. Most people limit their dreams because they don’t even think that they have the ability to achieve them. Take that dare. Take that chance and dream.”
The Reform, Alabama native played safety at the University of Alabama and used his athletic scholarship to get an education, become a first-generation college student, and catapult himself into becoming what he ultimately set out to become – a business man.
“Really the NFL… it was a dream, but it didn’t inspire me to do what I did,” said Dixon. “I was one of the first athletes to graduate within three years. I chose business advisors instead of my student-athlete advisors. There were several days especially when I got into my junior and senior year, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I was late to practice because I had to attend class for my major. I was focused on academics, and it showed that I was more concerned with being a student more than the athlete.”
However, his business dreams were put on hold when he received invitations to the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine. Surprisingly enough, Dixon almost chose not to play his senior year. He had experienced an injury his junior year that required offseason surgery. He was also dealing with doubts mentally if he was even good enough to play at the next level.
“The first ‘business decision’ I ever made in my life was to go back and play my senior year,” said Dixon. “My position coach suggested that I submit my information to see where I would be potentially be drafted. I was listed as a day two, fourth to sixth-round pick.
“I then had a decision to make, continue with my decision to walk away from football and focus solely on my education, or return for my senior year and see what happens. I believed that the sky was truly the limit. Until I got my projected draft status back, that was the first time I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I can play in the NFL. Maybe I can aspire to live out the dream I had as a child to become a professional athlete.’”
The decision to play his senior year brought that dream to fruition as he was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft. However, being drafted so high came as a total shock to Dixon. In fact, when he received the phone call that day, he had already stopped watching the Draft.
“I watched maybe the first ten picks, and I literally went and started playing video games. I knew I wasn’t getting called that day. Literally several hours into the draft, I got a phone call. My parents came into the living room and told me I have a phone call. I get on the phone and it was (Cowboys Owner) Jerry Jones. At that point I was in such shock. He said, ‘Hey, I’m just calling to tell you that we’re about to pick you on our next pick, 56th pick overall, and you’re going to be a Dallas Cowboy. How do you feel about that?’ I said, ‘How ‘bout them Cowboys?’”
Dixon signed a four-year contract with Dallas, made it into the starting rotation at safety, but due to an injury mid-season during the last year of his contract, entered 2005 as an unrestricted free agent. He was given a second chance when Washington signed him on his birthday in 2005. However, another injury plagued him during training camp, and he was released.
Dixon was resigned to Dallas mid-season only to be cut again due to an injury in another position group. He was once again resigned to Dallas towards the end of the season and entered 2006 as an unrestricted free agent.
Dixon of the Dallas Cowboys in position during a game against Washington on September 27, 2004 at The Coliseum in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
During an off-season health assessment, he was made aware of a neck injury and was faced with the difficult decision to retire or continue playing knowing there was a potential risk of paralysis. With his first-born son almost three at the time, Dixon chose to hang up his cleats for the betterment of his family’s future. It was not an easy decision by any means.
“I went through severe depression in 2006,” said Dixon. “I made the right decision for me and my family, but it was a tough decision for a 26-year-old man at that time. It was a life-altering decision for me to make at that point. I went from a person who my original dream of just getting a college degree and becoming a first-generation graduate in my family to a person whose identity changed to a professional football player. I was lost. What now?”
As with any obstacle, there is always a new opportunity. Dixon began applying for jobs in September of 2006. Due to a lack of work experience, he was met with resistance. Companies were not interested in hiring him because at the time they could not see how an athlete had the transferable skills needed to make it in the business world.
A month later, he took an assessment for a company and failed it. However, he credits the regional Vice President of the company for recognizing that he did indeed have the skill set and met the necessary requirements for the job.
“I would not have gotten that first job had it not been for the regional Vice President saying, ‘Wait, you’re telling me that a former professional athlete doesn’t have the skills to work in our call center?’ I would not have had my job. Who knows what I would have done had I not been given that opportunity?”
Dixon and colleagues representing PepsiCo at the NFL Player Care Foundation Super Bowl Career Fair.
For the next three years, Dixon was affiliated with financial services and mortgage companies. However, he says it was not the right industry to be in due to an economic recession. He ended up back where he started when he was ‘released’ again after finding out his branch was closing.
“I went through the same mental thoughts from the NFL…the difference is I chose to walk away from the NFL even though I knew I was still talented enough to play,” said Dixon. “But I was already progressing in my career, assistant branch manager and moving up in the ranks and walked in one day and I no longer had a job.”
He made the decision to move back home to Alabama. He was presented with opportunities to become a graduate assistant coach, but that was never part of a plan. His dream was always to become a businessman.
After being referred by a man Dixon grew up with, he interviewed with Frito Lay, a division of PepsiCo, for a position in Tennessee. He was offered the position with PepsiCo in July of 2009 and the rest is history.
The former safety spent a year in Tennessee before being transferred back to his home state of Alabama. He was given multiple responsibilities in supply chain management and sales and fast-tracked through their program over the next eight years.
In 2014, he was promoted to an executive role before moving back to Dallas where he is currently serving as a Transformation Design Director. He has a strategic role and is responsible for designing and testing sustainable processes across the end-to-end value chain. He also influences, consults, and align leaders across key functions of the PFNA senior leadership teams.
How is Dixon using his story to help other former players now? He’s advocating for them with recruiters in Corporate America.
“The influence I’ve brought in is on how to help recruiters understand these athletes might have never gone through an internship or never considered life after football but are thankful for the program we have.”
As a former athlete, Dixon remembers the challenges faced when looking for a job. He knows what most athletes have experienced during the recruiting process. Now the difference is the athlete is the one taking the initiative to walk up and talk to an organization and express interest while promoting the transferable skills they possess.
As far as advice for players making their own transition, he encourages them to really understand what their definition of success is.
“Most of us when we get in, we all think we’re going to play a minimum of 10 years, make a few Pro Bowls and win Super Bowls,” said Dixon. “But the reality is no different than the percentage of college athletes who make it to the NFL, there’s actually a smaller percentage of those that achieve Pro Bowl status. It’s even more unlikely to achieve a Super Bowl.
Build those networks and really start thinking about what’s next? You never know when it’s going to be your last play. You never know when it’s going to be your last contract. You never know when you’re going to have to go and give up the dream. The reality of it is if you’re trying to be someone and have a life after football, the quicker you can start mentally preparing yourself for that the better off you’re going to be. It can potentially prevent you from going through unhealthy thoughts as I did. It really goes back to understanding your definition of success.”