Author Note: I interviewed Gabe Manns, a former Offensive Lineman with the Cincinnati Bengals. He is a giant of a man. At 6’6, 300 lbs, he has the easy athletic stride of someone half his weight. To say his hands are massive is an understatement. When he shakes your hand, his fingers go halfway up my forearm. He definitely looks the part of a professional football player. We sat down to discuss his experience as a professional football to his life afterwards.
Me (MSM): In high school, when did you first think you had a chance to play college football?
Gabe Manns (GM): It was the summer going into my junior year, and I was in the weight room during summer workouts. My high school coach Kenny Yoder saw me doing power cleans and he said you’re going to play college football. It was the first time it clicked that I could play in college.
MSM: What was the recruiting process like?
GM: FUN but stressful. I was a top 10 recruit in the county (Forsyth County), and I had recruiters from every ACC school come to watch me practice and play. Clemson offered first. I’ll never forget getting pulled out of Orchestra class to receive my first scholarship offer.
I then started to tour colleges that summer and received more offers when I camped at Wake Forest and Ohio State. I’ll never forget these famous coaches that I saw on TV, following me around from drill to drill and talking to me. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
MSM: So with major offers from Division I programs, why did you choose North Carolina Central?
GM: I was a bonehead in high school. I was an average academic student, but my GPA along with my low SAT score did not make me eligible to get cleared by the NCAA clearinghouse. After that, a lot of the teams dropped off due to my SAT score.
So while North Carolina Central (a Division II school at the time that didn’t have the same NCAA clearinghouse restrictions) wasn’t originally on the radar, when I went on visit, it felt like home. It also helped that it was close to my actual home.
MSM: If you weren’t restricted by the NCAA, where do you think you would have gone?
GM: If I had to pick, I would have gone to either Ohio State or Clemson. It was amazing meeting these college coaches. Clemson was my first major offer; however, I am originally from Ohio, so going to Ohio State would have felt like I was coming home.
MSM: When did you know that you had a chance at the pros?
GM: Going into my junior year of college, pro scouts came to watch the older guys practice so I thought, why not, this is my time to shine too, even though I was only a sophomore.
MSM: How did you choose an agent?
GM: My now agent sent a letter to my school, and then he followed up with me in Alabama for an all-star game I was playing in. He told me that he had my best interest for me at the time, and he wasn’t someone that was going to pay me now to pay him back later. (This is a common practice with Agents to advance their clients money for training, jewelry, and/or cars with the expectations to pay the money back at a later date). I felt comfortable with him so that’s how I chose him.
MSM: How did you prepare for the draft?
GM: I took the semester off in the spring of my senior year to train. I was training in Durham with the former strength and coach at UNC Chapel Hill. The first two weeks, he charged me to train, but then he stopped and started to train me for free. When I asked him why he wasn’t charging me anymore, he said, “Whatever happens down the road is how I can get compensated.”
I was in the best shape of my life, like really awesome condition. I was solid– physically I was ready. Unfortunately, I mentally wasn’t ready at the time. I wasn’t ready for the fame or attention, but I’ll explain more later.
MSM: Where did you expect to get drafted?
GM: Before my pro day, I expected to get drafted in the 5th – 7th round day. Ten scouts showed up to watch my pro day. However, on my pro day, my knees were hurting really bad, and I didn’t perform as well as I would have liked, but my film did enough talking that the scouts were still interested in me.
MSM: What was it like watching the draft?
GM: I knew I wouldn’t get drafted on the first day. On the second day, I thought maybe I have a chance. On the third day, this is when I really began to watch. Rounds 5-7 were coming, so I was watching. Towards the end of the seventh round, my phone started to ring, and teams began to talk to me about being signed as a priority free agent. Teams like New Orleans, the Eagles, the Dolphins, the Bengals and the Rams.
MSM: How did you decide which team to sign with?
GM: I originally gave a verbal to the Eagles. My mom even said I was an Eagle in High School, an Eagle in College and now an Eagle as a pro. The downside with the Eagles were they wanted me to play Right Tackle, which I had never done before. They wanted me to protect Michael Vick’s blind side, since he was left-handed. However I had heard from the Bengals before the draft, and they said if nobody takes you, we want to pick you up as a free agent.
After the draft, my college coach asked what happened to the Bengals. I told them I had not heard from them since before the draft. He said that he would give them a call. About 5 minutes later the Bengals called and wanted me to play Left Tackle. It was music to my ears. I didn’t even look at the roster in its entirety as I was more comfortable playing on the left side of the offensive line than right side.
MSM: What did your agent advise you to do?
GM: He had a team of people there, and his assistant and I started to chat. I told her that both the Eagles and Bengals were interested. She didn’t really give much counseling. She just said, “Go where you feel more comfortable.”
MSM: If you knew what you know now, would you have picked a team differently?
GM: I wouldn’t change it. I had a really good experience, and Cincinnati has one of the best offensive line coaches I’ve ever had. This isn’t a knock on my other coaches, but the techniques that he taught just made sense to me.
MSM: Did you get a signing bonus?
GM: Yes, I got $5,000 signing bonus, which was really nice.
MSM: Did you spend the signing?
GM: Yep, the first thing I bought was a PlayStation 3, paid rent and basically spent it on stupid stuff.
MSM: Did your agent provide any financial advice or a financial advisor?
GM: No, he didn’t offer me a financial advisor, but that was okay because I had a team of guys I had met through mom. She at first put me in touch with a New York life insurance guy and then he brought in a CPA and lawyer.
MSM: How did it feel driving into the parking lot of your first training camp?
GM: It was easy to get star-studded. There were exotic cars in the parking lots like Porsches, ‘64 Impalas that were completely redone, guys with monster trucks tires that were five feet tall, and here I was driving a 2004 Nissan Maxima. It was very easy to forget why you’re there.
MSM: Did any of the guys provide any financial advice?
GM: Nate Livings. He was a left guard, and he talked to me about making the team and/or the practice squad, but he did not provide any financial advice. The only financial activity going on in the locker room were guys saying bet me $100 if I can make this tape in the waste basket.
MSM: Do you notice any position groups flaunt their wealth?
GM: Oh man, the Wide Receivers and Cornerbacks. They are the pretty boys on the team and like to show their wealth a lot. They dressed nice with custom tailors, and I heard one wide receiver say, “I spent $2,000 on this suit and that’s the cheapest one I own.”
MSM: Did you feel any pressure to live that type of lifestyle?
GM: I didn’t feel the pressure to spend because I didn’t have the money. However, that didn’t stop me from mentally making plans. I was going to buy a ring for my now wife, then buy a truck, and finally buy a house. However, by doing this I put extra stress on myself that I didn’t need.
MSM: Did the Cincinnati Bengals bring in any Financial Advisors?
GM: Yes, in Cincy they brought in 15- 20 rookies to listen to bankers, stock guys, bond guys and investors. They had a seminar on how to say no to people. I listened but didn’t put into practice because nobody talked about saving money as a rookie.
MSM: What was it like during training camp?
GM: Funny story, I reported late to training camp. I decided to leave North Carolina at 2 am to get to 9 am camp in Kentucky. Unfortunately I hit a lot of traffic and ended up being over an hour late. After that, being late wasn’t a problem.
Since I had been hanging out with the guys all summer in OTAs, I thought that I belonged, but I was scum to veterans as rookie free agent. Even with that said, I took care of business on the field.
I view preseason now differently than most people. These guys are fighting for a job. The day after the last preseason football game is the largest layoff day in the US. There are hundreds of people getting fired. While you may think these guys are scrubs when you watch them on TV, these guys are fighting for their dream.
MSM: Did you play in any preseason games?
GM: I was able to play in five preseason games including the Hall Of Fame game. I feel like I did a decent job but throughout the camp. I was second guessing my technique and second guessing myself. My uncle who taught me how to play even said that I needed to play my game.
MSM: What was it like during the final cuts of training camp?
GM: Word around the league was that I’d make practice squad. That day, September 6th, I got the call from the Turk, and he said “You have been put on waivers, and after 24 hours you’ll be free agent.” I was waiting for him to say afterwards that I would be signed to the practice squad, but he never said that.
MSM: Did you get any calls after you got cut?
GM: Unfortunately I received no calls, so I called my agent as I was leaving Ohio. He said that he was trying to work a deal with the Steelers, so I should stay ready.
MSM: When you didn’t hear from the NFL again, did you think about the Canadian Football League?
GM: Yes, I did a few tryouts for the CFL. I had a tryout with the Calgary Stampede. I was finishing up my internship, and I had speed coach and everything. I was ready for the tryout in Pennsylvania, and I really showed out. After the tryout, the coach said that there was a camp in Florida that he was going to invite me to. It was called a down and dirty camp where you put on pads and show yourself over three days. For whatever reason, the coach never followed back up, so that didn’t happen.
After that happened, I moved to Virginia. I started to get the itch to play again in 2012 again, so I called my agent, and he put in a call for the Arena League. Originally when the Arena League called back in 2011, I didn’t want to sign because I was still school.
I still remember it like it was yesterday. I got a call from the Milwaukee Mustangs in the Spring of 2012 and drove to Milwaukee from Virginia which is a 13 hour drive on my own dime, and I was there for two weeks. I was the best offensive lineman there, but again, for some reason, I got cut. The worst part of it was I had to drive back on my own dime from Milwaukee.
After that, I said, “I’m done. This is not worth it anymore.”
MSM: After your playing career ended, were you prepared for the real world?
GM: I wasn’t ready for the transition. Living in the DC area, everything is so expensive compared to where I grew up in North Carolina. Since it was so expensive, I had to get a job immediately, so I applied to Enterprise. I really had to recalibrate my thinking to working in an office type environment. Being an athlete, I was competitive by nature, so the transition into Enterprise was nice as it was a sales position, but the feeling I got while at work wasn’t the same as being an athlete.
MSM: How did it feel going from NFL money to an office worker salary?
GM: TOUGH. Going from NFL money, where your financial future is in front of you, when you’re thinking, “I am going to be set,” to just missing it was tough. I wasn’t myself. I fell into a deep depression. I was so upset when I was cut, and I felt like I had let everyone else down. I thought I was going to be the one that could support my whole family.
MSM: How are athletes different in the workplace?
GM: Athletes are groomed to show up, be on time, and work their butt off. Having played football, I am use to being on a team working towards championship or a common goal. Athletes are not clock punchers who are in it for themselves. Former athletes work hard to reach their goals. As leaders, we lead vocally and by our actions. We’re comfortable working in a team environment and use to pleasing other people to accomplish the mission.
As a former athlete I’m use to dealing with hundreds of personalities, which has molded me and definitely prepared me with a unique skill to deal with all types of people. As a supervisor, I am use to finding out how people operate. Not everyone will have the same mentality how to accomplish a task, and but I am responsible to figure out their purpose and how they contribute to the the team.
MSM: Do you have any advice for NFL rookies?
GM: I’ve heard it said before about spending the first contract and saving the next contracts. I’ll tell you now, save as much as you can. Invest it if you can, and put it in a mutual fund. Instead of being shocked by a check that says NFL, surround yourself with good people who will provide good advice; otherwise, you will be broke.
Do you know why the majority of athletes cry when they make it to the NFL. First, because it was a lifelong dream of theirs to make it into the NFL in which they achieved, but also because they think that their worries about finances are over. I’m here to tell you this is not true. The stress is only beginning as an athlete. There will be people that have your best interest, who’ve been there to help you grow who know who you are. But you need to know what your financial limits are.
Don’t let being a pro athlete identify you as who you are. People knew me as “Gabe the football player” or “the big dude that played football”. Your identity should be in Christ. If you don’t have a relationship with Christ, or if you have never heard of Jesus, attend church and find someone you can lean on to walk that walk.
MSM: Anything else you want to add?
GM: If I were to go back to high school and college, I would tell myself that I shouldn’t put all my eggs in one basket. Think about life after the pros. Give it all you got in the classroom and on the field. The coaches give advice and say, “Stay in those books.” The job market is a competitive market, and unfortunately you can’t showcase yourself through film like the NFL.
Looking back, I am so glad I didn’t make it at the time. I wasn’t mentally prepared, and I truly thank God everyday. I can show pictures that I played in the NFL to my children and less than 1% of football players can say that.