Kaleb Thornhill Helps Fellow Athletes His New Platform
What if current and former professional athletes had a better way to prepare for their futures off the field and off the court? Kaleb Thornhill, who has led hundreds of Miami Dolphins players to partake in off-season internships, externships and job shadowing opportunities, is making it his personal mission to make that a reality by bringing entrepreneurship, personal branding, business acumen, technology and more to the forefront of the players' lives.
Thornhill has created a new platform called Athlete Transition U (ATU), which will focus primarily on the creation of "business combines" that provide athletes the tools they desperately need to succeed once they are separated from their respective sports. He is starting by focusing on football players and has already signed up a total of thirty NFL athletes (twenty-five of them on NFL rosters and five former players) for the first business combine, which began on February 25 and will run through March 2.
"The initial concept started in 2007 when I was in college and I saw players failing when the game was no longer in their life," explains Thornhill. "There's a saying that athletes die twice -- once when they're done playing and when they actually die. I want to change that so that they feel like they're born twice."
The 2018 business combine will include Chicago Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara, Kansas City Chief defensive back Eric Berry, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham, New England Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan and Miami Dolphins defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake. But there are also players signed up with less experience and who have not earned tremendous money from being in the NFL, making the business combine an eclectic mixture of players from all walks of life and differing backgrounds.
"It took about two months to onboard the athletes," says Thornhill. "I created a black box that was a special invitation for those I targeted. It said 'Unlock your future"' and had the number thirty on the key, basically saying that only thirty people were receiving the exclusive invite. I then wrote an email and then called them to describe it in full detail."
The top stated interests of the participants are entrepreneurship, real estate, sports and entertainment, followed by technology. Forty percent of the players involved have earned under $10 million throughout their NFL careers while 30% have earned between $10 million and $30 million and another 30% have earned over $30 million. However, one thing many current and professional athletes may not be aware of is the fact that despite their earnings, they may not be required to come out of pocket for something like Thornhill's business combine.
Current NFL players are eligible for $20,000 per year in continuing education and the program stipulates that the players either use it or lose it. Thornhill estimates that across all NFL athletes a total of approximately $34 million is eligible for the taking, but less than 2% of the players are using that money on an annual basis. Additionally, former NFL players who have at least five accredited seasons are eligible for $60,000 that they need to use within six years of retirement. It scales down with less accredited seasons.
Thornhill got started working with player development as a Graduate Assistant to the Athletic Director at Michigan State in 2008. Since then, he has witnessed the struggle of those transitioning when they leave the game that they have focused on for so long.
"They go into identity foreclosure," says Thornhill. "I wanted to create ATU, because of hundreds of personal stories brought to my doorstep of guys struggling once the game is over. We can combat that by activating them while they're playing the game so they have an ecosystem where they can develop relationships and so that when they're done they're ready for the transition and people can help them. If you don't activate the relationships outside of the game, it is very hard for guys to go from an itinerary to a blank sheet and not knowing what to do with it."
As Thornhill puts it, his whole 2018 is about being the first domino for others. The business combine begins with this iteration in New York City and will likely expand to two locations next year (New York City and Atlanta). This year, participants will learn from people like Maverick Carter, Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks, Snoop Dogg's business manager Ted Chung, Facebook Global Head of Sports Partnerships Dan Reed, Compass Real Estate CEO Robert Reffkin, along with current NBA star Draymond Green. They will also go through a business simulator (Shark Tank type model) and experience deep dives in various companies the players' have indicated interest in.
"They may see the benefits in a week," says Thornhill about the participants. "But they may not realize the benefits for five years; it's all a compound effect starting with one domino."
Either way, it should be a very valuable service provided to current and former athletes.