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NFL interns go from gridiron to Wall Street

– Thomas Welch knows there’s a better chance he will be fired than retire. So he spent his vacation interning at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management to prepare for a second career to sustain him for the next 40 years.

The fourth-year NFL offensive lineman and Vanderbilt economics graduate worked six weeks as an intern at the unit of Bank of America. He is in the final year of a two-year contract with the Buffalo Bills and says he knows his long-term future won’t be on a football field.

“It was a great experience,” Welch said in a telephone interview. “I made some contacts, and I got a better understanding of what they do – not just about wealth management, but all aspects of the financial industry.”

Welch, 25, did research and helped advisers develop their clients’ asset allocations. His final project was to assemble a hypothetical $1 million portfolio, which he is now tracking to see how he did. The investments returned 4.98 percent in the first quarter of 2013 when he was an intern with the company.

The Bills’ 6-foot-6, 300-pound offensive tackle later attended an NFL-sponsored four-day boot camp at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The classes concentrated on real estate and negotiations, and included breakout sessions on financial planning and studying for the Graduate Management Admission Test – required to be admitted into a Master of Business Administration program.

Internships are just one of the services managed by the league’s office of engagement, run by retired five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent.

“Football is not a career; it is an experience,” Vincent, who played from 1992-2006, said in an interview. “The body has an expiration date. It’s out of your control when you are going to be released. They need to start planning their next career right away.”

For every player like Vincent, with his 15 seasons of experience, there are several who aren’t as successful. The average career lasts about 3 1/2 years, according to the NFL Players Association.

The league provides assistance with writing résumés, re-enrolling in college, job shadowing and interview skills. It holds career training camps at schools including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Stanford and Notre Dame on subjects such as franchising, hospitality, the music and film industries, social entrepreneurship and evaluating business opportunities.

The NFL also has set up hotlines for assistance with child care, elder care and financial and legal help. Its financial planning site is peppered with stories titled: “Borrowing from Retirement as a Last Resort,” “Are You Managing Your Family Budget Properly?” and online tools such as “tracking your spending worksheet” and “college savings calculator.”

Vincent said there was an increase in the use of the league’s counseling services this year, especially those for mental health services, following coverage of concussions and other health issues.

In a video on the engagement department’s website, former Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin speaks directly to players about depression and how former athletes need to help others not feel isolated when they stop playing.

David Howard, 25, a Brown University graduate selected by the Tennessee Titans in the seventh round of the 2010 draft, turned an internship at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management into a full-time job.

Based in Towson, Md., he works with Merrill Lynch Managing Director Kent Pearce developing financial strategies and investment portfolios for clients.

Pearce said Howard, who was signed by four teams and never played in an NFL regular-season game, brought a skill set that’s impossible to teach.

“Work ethic and discipline,” Pearce said in an interview. “I attribute a lot of that to a tough Ivy League academic regimen and from the requirements of pro sports. David is hungry and has great determination.”

Howard said the NFL offered him assistance with his career transition, including internship and shadow opportunities before he chose to put his economics degree to work at Merrill Lynch. Once football was over, he said, he already knew who to call at Merrill, how the system works and what they’d be looking for.

“I played at a small school where football wasn’t a big deal, and so I didn’t have the athlete mentality,” Howard said. “I’ve always known there would be life after football and career was more of a priority.”

Vincent said his office is trying to create more awareness of its programs and that if players aren’t taking advantage of the NFL’s internships, career counseling services and other programs, they have to take responsibility for that.

“The player today has to make a conscious effort not to engage, because the service and program offerings are robust,” he said. “There is no excuse.”

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