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First person: Former NFL wide receiver Markus Wheaton on finding passion after football

Markus Wheaton #80 of the Philadelphia Eagles. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Markus Wheaton #80 of the Philadelphia Eagles. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

KIMBERLY ATKINS STOHR: On the most recent episode of On Point, we talked about Serena Williams’ retirement. Or, as she calls it, ‘an evolution away from tennis.’

Williams’s decision also brings to light the challenges for professional athletes who retire, many still young, and restart after being successful in sports their whole lives. We talked to former NFL wide receiver Markus Wheaton. He played in the league for six seasons.

MARKUS WHEATON: Up until about three or four years ago, football was my life. Football was my focus. Football was my passion. It demanded and kind of held all my time and focus.

ATKINS STOHR: Wheaton was 26 years old when he retired from football in 2019. He’d been drafted six years earlier by the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he had a locker next to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

WHEATON: I was next to being in the locker room, so his locker was next to mine. And payday, we’d get our checks, everybody pops them open. Look at the check. And well, he would tease me sometimes. He didn’t show many people, but because we kind of got close in the locker room, being next to him, he would show me sometimes his checks. And it’s very easy to get down on yourself looking at numbers that big, and not being grateful for the pretty large checks I was getting. When I started, I was getting maybe like 17,000, 19,000 a week and then towards my later years in Chicago, like 109 bi-weekly.

I did play football at Oregon State University. I wasn’t thinking about anything in college but football. It’s tough to say. I chose my major based off of the least time I could put into it and get by. And I had put all my eggs in one basket, just like a lot of these student athletes out there. Luckily, I made it after college, after my first year. I spent a lot of money on nothing. I got this huge signing bonus. I ended up purchasing a Jeep Wrangler and a computer and a whole lot of other stuff that a year later I didn’t have.

As an athlete I felt like I was unstoppable, and this thing was never ending, no matter how many times people told me it would end. I thought, I can work my way to making it last longer, or as long as I wanted it to last. And yeah, up until that kind of three, four or five months leading up to my retirement, there was never any real thought about life path to football.

I have an older brother who is 15 months older than me. He and I kind of stumbled across real estate and started growing from there. And by my last year, my sixth year with the Philadelphia Eagles, I had purchased two small apartment buildings at the start of that year. And then once that started coming in, I started seeing how this could take care of my family, how this could be an opportunity for me to transition into that. I told my wife, if the injury bug continues to bite me this year, I’m gonna hang it up. So I gave her my word. And unfortunately the injury bug stuck with me, and I kept my word and got my cleats and and took off on to real estate.

It was rough … and I felt like again, all my attention was on football. And I had a wife, I had kids, I had family and friends. And once football’s gone, there’s a lot of time that needs to be occupied. I took that focus and drive and energy that I had in football, and I put it initially into my wife and kids, and it made me happy, even though I wasn’t getting the love outside of the house like I was … playing football.

I had love at the house, in the house, with the family and the wife and kids. That initially helped me transition and … helped me get comfortable and relax and be able to take my time to find a new passion. And that passion was found in real estate. Once I found real estate, and what it could do for me and my family, I started to enjoy it. I started to really enjoy it and started to wake up looking forward to it.

And I knew I found what was for me. I had more time with the family and more time at home with the kids. I get to drop them off, pick them up from school, get to spend time, go on dates and things like that, with my wife, when I want to. I still enjoy work. I still make really good money. Life is better for me. Life is a lot better outside of football.

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