By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
Although football was always a significant part of Will Witherspoon’s life while he was growing up, playing in the NFL was a dream, not necessarily a goal. In fact, it wasn’t until his senior year at the University of Georgia that the former linebacker even paid attention to what his NFL Draft status was. Until that time, Witherspoon was focused on his degree in Landscape Architecture. But then, in 2002, the Carolina Panthers selected him with their third-round pick, which sent him on a different trajectory.
For the next 12 years, during which he also played for the St. Louis Rams, Philadelphia Eagles and Tennessee Titans, Witherspoon put his all into his NFL career. Along the way, he started a small dog day care business in Charlotte, North Carolina and then, looking for a hobby that would provide some relaxation for him and his wife, Rebecca, he bought a small farm outside of St. Louis where the two could go horseback riding.
An interest in horses runs in Witherspoon’s blood, his uncle, Frank Witherspoon is a noted African-American member of the Tennessee Walking Horse world and another family member raised thoroughbred horses. However, that hobby would soon turn into a business.
Shire Gate Farm is currently 700 acres and now also the home to a cattle business run by Witherspoon. The cattle are humanely raised – grass fed, and antibiotic and hormone-free. Initially they were simply a tax write-off, but Witherspoon soon saw other possibilities.
“I realized I could make my own beef,” he said. “So, I started researching the cattle industry. It turned out that 90% of cattle are raised in an industrial style. It made me question things. The NFL’s clause says you are responsible for what you put in your body. If I know I can’t take [an over-the-counter medication] without calling a trainer, why would I put beef with additives in my body? So, I started looking how to produce sustainable beef.”
The farm continues to grow, and sells to both individual consumers and restaurants. It now provides both the tranquil getaway Witherspoon craves as well as being a profit-making business.
In 2011, with the cattle business already underway, Witherspoon began to think about life after the NFL. He received his MBA from George Washington University and, following his retirement in 2013, wanting to find something where he could help people, he took a job with the Farmers Insurance Group.
But then another opportunity came along and Witherspoon was immediately intrigued. He recently took a position with Merrill Lynch in St. Louis as a financial advisor and is working toward getting his Certified Financial Planner certification.
Witherspoon’s father, Cordell, is retired from the Air Force and Witherspoon wants to take that spirit of service to individuals by helping their financial growth and health. He notes that while investing on a large scale often offers more options, there are ways for everyone at any financial level to build security.
“You’ve got to be more creative than what people might be in the marketplace,” he said. “There’s a model that they’re going to sell you. But, the other side is for people who don’t have the million dollars to throw in the market and risk it, how do compensate for that?
“There are those who would fall into institutional investor category, extra benefits that are given rate discounts. But, when you look at the common person, how do we grow that person to an institutional stage? You can’t have somebody who’s risking their penny.”
Regardless, there are challenges at any level.
“The hardest thing to teach most people is patience,” Witherspoon said. “Most people don’t have the patience to let their money grow. But, even if you have small amounts you can build a significant nest egg. You have to be willing to wait. But then you make a change in your life. For example, you get married and you’re both in the same tax bracket. How do you keep that moving forward? My goal is to be a great listener. If there’s one thing I can do is listen, talk through things and be comfortable.”
As for his transition from the NFL, Witherspoon knows it is different for everybody. While preparation while playing is ideal, he knows that for players whose jobs may be more tenuous it is difficult to split their focus and try to develop outside business ventures. However, his advice is to go inside and find what drives you as an individual.
“Find what you’re passionate about,” Witherspoon said. “For me it was finding an escape out of football to give me the peace of mind I needed. For me it was exploring other things I was interested in.”
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.