Football is a sport beloved by many. Players, coaches, executives and fans are all drawn together by the oftentimes inescapable allure of one of the most physically demanding and strategy-driven team sports in the world. Unifying it at the highest level is the NFL, a corporate entity massive in influence and scale. The choices made by owners and executives in the NFL have lasting impacts on coaches, fans and players. From the infamous lockouts to Colin Kaepernick being pushed out of the league, the NFL is no stranger to issues and controversy surrounding its most valuable asset: players.
In the constant shuffle of headlines, hot takes and pseudo-punditry analysis, maintaining perspective is integral to understand the true innerworkings of the NFL. And who better to provide that perspective than a player himself? The Daily got on the phone with David Bergeron, a former NFL player and current president of commercial real estate agency T3 Advisors, who provided insight into the life of a player and the real, behind-the-scenes business side of the NFL.
Bergeron was a three-year starter at linebacker for Stanford before being drafted in the seventh round of the 2005 NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. After being drafted, he spent training camp with the Eagles before he was cut to make way for the required 52-man roster. He was then picked up by the Tennessee Titans, who subsequently released him as well before he landed with the Carolina Panthers. He played limited snaps in the Panthers’ 2005 playoff run before being allocated to play in NFL Europe, a spring league that emphasizes player development.
Bergeron extensively acknowledged the amazing opportunities he has had through football.
“I was coming out of Oregon, [a] very small football state, and the fact that I was going to get a full scholarship to Stanford alone was like, ‘If nothing else happens in my life because of football, I will feel really fulfilled,’” Bergeron said. “I got to Stanford, thought for sure I’d never play, began to work hard and all of a sudden one thing leads to another and I wake up and I’ve been a three-year starter and a productive football player in the Pac-10. That was when I realized and was being told, ‘I’ve got a real shot at this.’”
But there are hurdles aplenty in a league where NCAA seniors have a 2% chance to get drafted.
“It’s such a competitive game, and there’s a tight filter that you run through,” Bergeron said. “It requires you to be thoughtful, focused, committed — whatever it’s gonna take to survive this gauntlet that is American football.”
Dedicating yourself in the manner that any player needs to is just one of the challenges a player like Bergeron faced. Such dedication never guarantees a long career — the average NFL career spans a mere 3.3 years.
“You expect a lot out of yourself. You have to, there can’t be any sort of sliver of doubt around whether you should or shouldn’t be there,” Bergeron said.
It’s no secret that the NFL is a league where players are cut without a moment’s notice. Bergeron was cut three times in his four-year career.
“You feel like you’re doing a lot of good stuff,” Bergeron said. “I felt that way in Philly for sure … That moment of getting cut, it’s so transactional. It’s pretty intense. I’ve never been told I couldn’t play anywhere, and now for the first time, I’m being told ‘We want you to go home.’ It’s a humbling experience.”
Fans and players alike are constantly reminded of the business elements of the game throughout the season: Their favorite players are traded away, or athletes are given a steady dose of painkillers to play through pain in order to best market themselves to win a longer-term contract. Players like Bergeron quickly realize they need to adapt to thrive.
“The NFL is a business first, and a sport second,” he said. “As a player of the NFL, you have to think of yourself almost like an individual company. You’re running your own startup as a freshly minted out-of-college NFL player trying to compete on the biggest stage.”
Such dedication can take a toll when the effort isn’t met with success. Bergeron noted that no matter how hard you work and however much you dedicate yourself, the sheer magnitude of the business you’ve thrust yourself into can be too much.
“If you’re not careful, regardless of how successful you were either financially or from a performance perspective, you’re gonna be faced with some version of an identity crisis,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron emphasized the value of flexibility in a player. Teams will ask athletes to play in different roles, making it hard to succeed as a one-trick pony.
“Outside of the super-mega stars, where franchises move for them instead of the other way around, everyone’s got to have some malleable nature to their game, approach and role,” Bergeron said. “It’s also why the average career in this league is only three years.”
Another element that struck Bergeron from his time in the NFL was just how different the 32 teams were from one another. He learned that there are essentially 32 different companies. And while they play under the same rules and market themselves similarly, there are serious differences franchise to franchise.
“When it comes to the [general managers], owners and coaches for each of these teams, they’re all very different,” Bergeron said. “They have different philosophies and approaches to drafting and free agency. Every time you’re walking into a new locker room, you’re joining a new company. It’s like a new family.”
At the core of the NFL experience is a sense of raw, uncontainable emotion that can consume a player when self-doubt enters his psyche. It can happen at a player’s first mini-camp, regular season game or even right when he’s drafted. For Bergeron, those moments are what makes the experience memorable.
“They’re all part of what makes that sport so fun, the real raw emotional [elements]. The stakes are really high, and they make the fear element of that game highly motivating,” Bergeron said. “It’s a real driving force that can be incredibly powerful when harnessed the right way.”
At the end of the day, for all the NFL’s flaws, Bergeron can still point to countless incredible opportunities and people he has seen through playing in the league. Bergeron specifically pointed to Chris Draft, who, like Bergeron before him, was a linebacker at Stanford and played for multiple teams throughout his career. On the field, he knew defensive schemes inside and out and was a player’s favorite on the teams he played for, according to Bergeron. More impressive for Bergeron, though, was his commitment to the community.
“I think he was the gold standard for being incredibly focused when it came to his discipline and craft … he really understood schemes and what a defensive coordinator wanted on the field,” Bergeron explained. “He was also an unbelievably involved community person. He spent all of his time up in the marketing department’s office, working with the community outreach teams. A lot of guys really looked up to him.”
Draft represented to David and countless other players a side of the league fans often do not see. One where a love and knowledge of the game dovetails with its power to positively impact community outreach and awareness. Years after hanging up his cleats, Bergeron still looks back at his time in the NFL with a special kind of love for the game and the competition it provides.