By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
During his 12-year NFL career, former defensive tackle Justin Bannan was wholly focused on the job at hand. A fifth-round NFL Draft pick in 2002 by the Buffalo Bills, Bannan went on to play for the Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos, St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions. However, a few years in, the University of Colorado graduate realized that his financial education was lacking and he was going to need to learn how to prepare himself for life after football.
“My financial advisor kept me from doing dumb things throughout my career,” Bannan said. “But it hit me like a lightning bolt, you don’t know what your money’s doing. Do you want people to view you as a dumb football player? That’s when I started to pay attention to getting educated. As an athlete, I think you get so pigeon-holed that when you’re done [if you don’t prepare] you don’t have a lot of options.”
In 2013, Bannan attended the NFL’s executive education program at Stanford University. It is an experience he calls “life-changing.”
“It definitely generated something in my brain,” he said. “It put those thoughts in my head. It was like a validation. What I struggled with was the fear factor of stepping outside my box. People pitch things to you and you act like you know but you don’t.”
With a variety of offers and opportunities swirling around him, he found his curiosity sparked by the tech industry and began studying it. He quickly realized that his NFL pedigree could open doors and he began taking advantage of that, setting up meetings with as many people as he could to further educate himself.
All that networking paid off when Bannan received an email from JP O’Brien. O’Brien was an entrepreneur with a background in building businesses, especially those that were tech-focused. In 2014, the two kicked off their partnership, with Bannan becoming a Pro Advisor for a new product and company O’Brien helped launch called isplack. Described as a game-day products company, isplack eyeblack was their first entry into the market. It is chemical-free and, unlike traditional eyeblack products, can be removed with just soap and water.
That initial relationship has evolved and Bannan and O’Brien are now partners in Black Lab Sports, which is a go-to-market platform, whose overarching mission is to help fast-track already-designed sports products to market. The company has built a 22,000-square-foot facility in Boulder, Colorado where entrepreneurs who have sports-related products can come and interact with professional athletes who act as mentors and test those products and offer insight and advice. Black Lab Sports then helps expedite the process of getting the product on shelves.
The facility itself features office spaces, a performance lab with physical therapists and trainers, and an art studio space, which features in-resident artists.
O’Brien described the thought process behind the combination of resources.
“We’re an innovation center and innovation center is sparked by art,” he said. “We’re trying to be super creative on the business side. It’s important to have those traits next to us.”
Black Lab Sports cultivates relationships with other entrepreneurs, investors, and mentors including professional athletes. People like former NFL quarterback Jake Plummer, former NFL tight end Daniel Graham and Olympic swimmer Chloe Sutton are part of the team.
The company also has a charitable component. Their motto is, “Give First” and to that end, they work with several causes, including the organization Team Impact, which supports children dealing with life-threatening and chronic illnesses.
For Bannan, his new path is both gratifying and exciting and hopes that he can help others navigating a similar road.
“It’s very important to be humble when you’re done (playing in the NFL) and be willing to learn,” he said. “Just because you have a name that grants you access, that’s going to be temporary. Sooner or later you have to create value. Every day you have to come out and say, ’How do I get better?’ You have to evolve. You can’t rest on your laurels.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.