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Emmitt Smith Tackles a Second Act Off The Field

It is difficult enough to create a second act in life, but how do you possibly follow up being the National Football League's all-time leading rusher?

That was the challenge facing Emmitt Smith, three-time Super Bowl champ and Dallas Cowboy legend, after he finally hung up his cleats in 2005 after 15 years.

Smith seems to have figured it out, though, creating a number of different businesses in the worlds of real estate, construction and brand marketing, under the umbrella of Emmitt Smith Enterprises.

For the latest in Reuters' Life Lessons series, we talk to the Hall of Famer about what he has learned on and off the football field.

Q: When you were growing up in Pensacola, Florida, at what point did your parents start teaching you about money?

A: We never had allowances or anything like that. Whenever I wanted something, I had to save up for it. I remember one time I wanted some Jordache jeans. I could barely fit in them, but I wanted them! My mom told me if I got my own job, I could buy whatever I wanted.

So I started working at a nursing home doing janitorial work, cutting grass, cleaning rooms. Then one day, when my mom had to borrow some money, she came to me. That felt really good.

Q: When you made it big in the NFL, how did you learn how to manage that money?

A: For the first time in my life I had to start thinking about what money really meant. Up until then, I didn't really know about anything except certificates of deposit. So financial planners had to explain to me about stocks, bonds, and the importance of having diversified investments. I learned all about modern portfolio theory.

Eventually my portfolio came to include alternative investments. I look at myself as something of a risk-taker, so that part of my portfolio came to include things like real estate, startup businesses and investments in my own ventures.

Q: What business role models did you have for yourself?

A: I was a Dallas Cowboy, so I always asked myself: If [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones was able to pay us athletes all the millions of dollars we were making - then how much money was he making? That is when I started to understand how the game works. Corporations and moguls tend to build wealth off of other people's money, using the power of leverage.

Q: You have launched a number of different businesses since the end of your NFL career - what lessons have you learned about entrepreneurship along the way?

A: Running a business is not easy. And human dynamics are very different in an office than on a football field. In the real world, you can't ride somebody hard and expect them to rise up and meet the challenge, like you do in football. Things are much more delicate than that.

Q: Why do you think so many sports stars end up losing everything financially?

A: Sometimes agents and managers take advantage of these young kids with money. Sometimes financial planners are too concerned with just maintaining their fee percentage and making their own living, than doing what is right for the athlete. That is why it is so important for athletes to start getting the financial literacy we all need.

Q: You must get approached for donations all the time, so how do you decide where to devote those dollars?

A: I try to stick to the core of who I am and where I think the need is greatest. So for my wife and I, we believe we can have the most impact in helping young people, through our foundation Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities.

Q: You have five kids of your own, so what do you tell them about money?

A: I want them to understand that what I have, and have been able to accumulate, is not theirs. I want them to earn their way in life. They don't know whether I'm going to leave them anything or not. I want them to be hungry, but I know I can't give them the same hunger I had growing up. The one thing I can do, is make them work for it.

For more Life Lessons, click on this link (here).


(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Phil Berlowitz)

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