Player Testimonial

Career Interview with Solomon Wilcot

The former NFL Cincinnati Bengal player (1987-1992) (GO): Tell me a little about your career.

Solomon Wilcot: I came out of the University of Colorado as an eighth-round draft pick, not really expected to make the team. Then in 1987, two games into my rookie season, we found ourselves in the middle of a strike, and I was out of work for four months. It was then that I realized the NFL was an acronym for "not for long."

During the off-seasons, I was able to cultivate some skills that allowed me to work when I wasn't playing. After playing six years in the National Football League, I was immediately able to find work that allowed me to maintain the standard of living I had set for myself.

I was able to play in Super Bowl XXIII with the Cincinnati Bengals, when we lost to the 49ers.

I had a lot of high marks during my six-year career. When it was time to move on, it was tough, but I had to keep going.

GO: Tell me what you're doing now.

Solomon: I just accepted a role with CBS after spending the last three years as a sideline reporter with ESPN. I'm looking forward to working as an NFL analyst with CBS and covering the NCAA basketball tournament with them as well. We've been able to carve out a unique role for me that I think is a wonderful opportunity. We're looking forward to it.

GO: What about the first two or three years coming out of football? What were some of your personal challenges?

Solomon: I think the biggest challenge was, "What will I do with my life that will allow me to have some of the same happiness and same joy and excitement that I've been used to as a professional football player?"

I think it's very difficult to find something in the private sector that gives you the same exhilaration. And you know what, you're probably not going to find it. I think you have to really tailor your expectations, at least a little bit, and try to find something that you're truly passionate about, something that will allow you to use some of the skills you have been able to cultivate as a professional athlete, to build a new career, a new and exciting career, where you can start a new chapter in life.

It really should be an exciting time, not a time for fear and intimidation, but really exciting. That's what I found when I went into television.

I worked for the local NBC affiliate in Cincinnati. I started as an overnight editor and producer, which meant I came in at twelve at night and worked until noon the next day on weekends. When I got my check, it wasn't anything I could even go to the bank with, because it was minimum wage. But I worked my way up from editor and producer and became a full-time staff reporter, only making $27,000 a year.
Then I became a weekend sports anchor, making only $50,000 a year. But it was work I enjoyed, work that really provided me with the rush that I was looking for. It was very fulfilling. I was able to take care of my family. I felt I could make a living at something other than running into someone and making a tackle. It was less about my physical skills and more about my mental abilities. That was very gratifying for me.

GO: You have spent some time here in Cincinnati now, and you get the opportunity to talk with guys who are preparing to leave the NFL or who have already retired. What are some of the challenges you see with the guys that you're helping out?

Solomon: The biggest challenge that I see now with guys coming out of the League is that so much of their time is being taken up, even during the off seasons, participating in off-season training programs. They ‘re not able to cultivate skills that prepare them for a job outside of playing sports. And so it's real difficult, real tough, for today's athletes, when their careers are over, to be able to pinpoint a career that they really like, simply because they lack the experience and the skills.

It's really difficult for them to get started. They spend months, sometimes even years, in some cases, before they're able to identify what it is they'd like to do. And what they find is that they have mounting bills on one hand, or they need to work to just pay the bills; and then on the other hand, they're trying to find a job that they don't have skills for. It takes time, in terms of continuing education, before they build the necessary skills. It really is a Catch 22. It's like, "I want this job, but it's going to take time before I'm able to make a living at it, but the bills are at home, so I need to make money now." It's a difficult situation for players to be in.

The best way I think to avoid this problem is to find time to build and cultivate skills during your college career and during your playing career which will allow you to walk in with skills you can offer an employer as soon as you retire from football, so you will be able to start a new career, at least at the ground level, immediately upon retirement.

GO: Some guys get that "deer-in-the-headlights" look. They just kind of sit there, staring into space, waiting for an invitation, but it never comes. Yogi Bera said, "When there comes a fork in the road, take it." Talk about some of the challenges, or fears, or risks that guys think about during transition.

Solomon: I think, during our playing careers, we're used to having coaches say, "Hey, this is what time you'll get up; this is what time you'll report for meetings; this is what time you have to come in for your pre-game meal; this is what time you need to be taped…" You have an itinerary every single day, from the time you get to training camp, to the time we play in our very last game. We're used to being told what to do and what time to do it.

When you're done playing, there's no one there telling you what to do. The phone's not ringing anymore. The phone used to ring off the hook when I was a player. As soon as you're done playing, no one's calling. No one's calling to offer you an opportunity to come here or go there. So, you're left to make those decisions on your own. And you're right. There is sort of a deer-in-the-headlights look when you ask, "Hey, what are you going to do now?"

Very few players have options. If you're a future Hall-of-Famer, maybe you have several options, but you don't know which one to take. However, those are not the "lion's share" of the players in the League. In fact, they represent a small minority. Certainly, the biggest challenge for players coming out now is having to make decisions for themselves and many times they are not prepared to do that because they're used to having people do that for them.

GO: If I came to you after playing for Cincinnati a few years, and after trying to make it back, and I said, "You know what? I'm finally ready to call it a career," what advice would you give me?

Solomon: First, I would ask you, "What do you want to do?" Typically, the answer to that question is, "I don't know."

I say, what you need to do is, you really need to spend some time searching yourself. What would you do for free? If you could do anything you wanted to do, what would you do? That's what I would seriously think about doing. Just begin doing it, even if it's in your office at home. Begin to cultivate skills and begin to do what it takes to do that job. There's always someone who's in the market for people to do just about anything.

Once you develop a certain product or certain product level, in terms of your ability to perform a function well, there is always an employer in the market looking for someone to do what it is you do. However, you have to build up the experience, you have to network, you have to get out and be able to share what you are able to produce.

For instance, a former player called me and he wanted to become an NFL scout. He didn't know anything about it, and I said, "Well, let's call some guys who were scouts. Let's get their reports and see what's in a report. Let's see what language is used to describe players. Let's see how the reports are formulated and how they are written."

We were able to get several copies of several NFL reports, and I said, "Read them. Look at them. Be able to write them yourself. You go out and scout college players in your area and begin to understand how to write reports."

He did it in his own spare time. Meanwhile, he worked as a used car salesman. He began to write reports. And then I told him, "Now you have to invest a little bit." He went out to college games, paid his own money, and he began to write up those reports. He went to the NFL "combine." He began to scout players, and then I said, "You need to pass some of your reports to some of the general managers and some of the coaches there." They saw his work, and his work was so good, the reports were so well written, he was hired as a scout for the Philadelphia Eagles.

As a former player, that's the process you have to go through. You have to invest your time, your energy, and your effort in the endeavor and build up your product level, because there is always someone who will hire people that are really good at what they do.

GO: What you're talking about are transferable skills, but guys come out and they go, "You know, if IBM wanted me to catch touchdown passes for them, I could do that. But who's going to want me to catch touchdown passes?" They forget they are the top competitors in the world, world-class competitors. They think of themselves as world-class athletes, but they're also world-class competitors. They carry that with them everywhere.

Solomon: That's true. I tell guys less than one percent of all football players ever make it to the National Football League. So, you've already accomplished the most difficult feat there is. So, whatever you endeavor, whether it's becoming a policeman, a fireman, if you want to work with information systems and work with technology, whether you want to work broadcasting …I'm telling you right now, much greater than one percent of all those who endeavor to work in those fields achieve success. So, your chance of making it in virtually any other industry is going to be easier than it was for you to make it in the National Football League. Will you have to work? Yes, but your chance for making it, will probably be far greater than it was in the National Football League. That should be encouraging.

You still have the same skills and determination and persistence that helped you make it in the National Football League, no matter what you do after football, especially as you look to climb the ladder. Athletes who make it to the top know how to compete, they know how to network, and they know how to work well with others. I think those are some of things you have to use to your advantage after you leave the game. I know that's what has worked for me outside the world of athletics.

GO: What would you tell me to watch out for after retiring from football?

Solomon: I think the main thing is you have to keep your confidence intact. You have to truly believe in yourself and understand that it is a road that you have to travel alone. When you're a former athlete and you go into the private sector and you walk into an office, and you do get a job, there are going to be co-workers and other people in the company who perceive you as the "golden boy," "Oh, they gave you this job because you're a football star, so you really don't know what you're doing." You're going to be working with people who perceive you as someone who has always had it easy, "You still have it easy," and, "You know what, you really don't belong here." They're not going to necessarily give you the respect that you probably deserve, and they're not going to make it easy for you, but you have to continue to believe in yourself and you have to continue to work harder than anyone else to really let people know that you do belong, including the people who hired you. Let them know that, you not only belong there, but that you are someone to be reckoned with. You can only do that if you maintain confidence in yourself and continue to work extremely hard.

That's the one thing all employers are looking at when they hire a former athlete, "How hard is he going to work?" Because there's this perception that you're used to having it easy, you've been living in the lap of luxury. They don't see you at training camp, working two-a-days. They see you as a guy who is living in a big house with three or four cars and living a pampered lifestyle, and they don't believe that you're prepared to work hard. And that's the one perception you have to overcome. The only way you can do that is to maintain confidence in yourself that you're going to prove everyone wrong. Just don't forget how you were perceived when you first came through the door.

Also, there is a challenge for African-American athletes going into the private sector or going into corporate America, because traditionally when you walk through the door, the people running corporate America are not African-American. Although, there is, I think, a growing presence of African-Americans in leading positions in corporate America, particularly within Fortune 500 companies. But when you walk through the door, there is more than likely going to be a non-African-American making the hiring decisions.

If you have been to a university, if you have played in the NFL, which are diverse environments, the people you met there, in terms of coaches, professors, administrators, were mostly of non-African descent as well. When you walked onto the campus of the University of Colorado and University of Southern California, when you went to play for the Green Bay Packers, no one considered that selling out. You look at the owners of that team and the owners of other teams, they're of non-African-American descent and no one saw that as selling out.

I think we have to be flexible in our mentality and our approach to life. We must be willing to deal with people, whether they're like us or whether they're not like us. We have to be able to accept people for who they are and what they are. So, despite our differences, we can work together, because ultimately my loyalties lie with my wife and my children and I have to be able to take care of them. If that means going out and shaking hands with someone of a different race, then I say, "Hey, let's work together so we can both take care of our families." I don't care what race, what religion, or what creed you are, we all have one basic need and one basic goal and that is survival. That is the one thing we have in common here on earth. Above all, we need to take care of our family until our last day is done. I think that's what we have to look at more than anything. Taking care of family is the most important thing.
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