Where Does That First NFL Rookie Paycheck Go?
On the surface, this question looks basic in nature. Every NFL rookie will get paid if they make the team, but therein lies the rub. The player has to make the team. And each rookie is different.
The first overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, offensive tackle Eric Fisher, is going to have a much bigger check to spend than Mr. Irrelevant, tight end Justice Cunningham. Undrafted rookies have an even smaller first paycheck in terms of signing bonuses.
Every player who plays in the NFL has dreamed at one point of achieving that feat. They have also dreamed of how they will spend that first check. Depending on the size of the payday, it greatly affects the purchase power, and thus some dreams get put on hold.
When I signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1995 as an undrafted rookie free-agent linebacker, the team gave me an $8,000 signing bonus. For a small-town kid from Iowa, that was a lot of money, and I was ecstatic.
But I spent that bad boy before the contract even got to me. I know people preach smart money management, but let’s be real. It is easy to preach about saving money when you have money to save. To receive a first nice-sized check was a big deal to me, and I was thrilled to get even that much.
So what did I buy with $5,500 (Uncle Sam took his cut)? I bought a two-door Saturn coupe with leather seats and a kicking sound system. In my mind, I was being money-conscious.
Saturn cars got great gas mileage, and I wasn't blowing ozone toxins into the atmosphere. I was doing my part for society and rocking out to Pearl Jam at the same time.
As a sports agent now, I try to teach my clients to be smarter than I was with my money—but I am also a realist. Don’t get me wrong, players who go out and buy Maybachs or Lamborghinis with their first paychecks are idiots.
But if a guy wants to splurge a little, I have zero problems with that. These guys have worked hard to get in this position, and they deserve to have a moment to enjoy the limelight.
I have heard stories of grandeur, and I know any former or current players who read this story have some first-check stories to share as well. I know a former player who was a first-round selection before the current rookie salary cap. His signing bonus alone was north of $10 million.
That player had grown up hard, and his family didn't have a lot in terms of material positions. To him, that bonus was more money than he would ever spend in his lifetime. So he did what any 21-year-old would do: He blew through a million dollars in a month.
He flew girls into town from all over the country. He ate out every night and took eight to 10 people with him. He bought clothes, shoes and hats in triplicate. Instead of renting an apartment or buying a home, he decided to stay at the Ritz for his entire rookie season.
The crazy part about ripping through those million dollars in a month was that—later, when he was telling me the story—he said he had nothing to show for it except receipts, and sometimes those were hard to come by.
Now, it's easy to sit here and blast the guy. But before that happens, take a step back and think about yourself at 21 or 22 years old. Someone just walks up to you and hands you $10 million. As much as all of us want to say we would do the right thing, there are tons of temptations that say otherwise. I am not saying it's no big deal to blow through a million dollars in a month, but spending to excess is easier to do when the funds are there.
Now, there are stories from the other end of the spectrum, like running back Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins, who still drives his college vehicle he bought for $2. In his rookie season in St. Louis, defensive end Chris Long bought an old beater car off a grandma in town. He didn't want to rub his enormous contract in the veterans’ faces.
I know players who have used their signing bonus or first paychecks to buy their parents a house or start foundations. And, on the flip side, I have seen players who think they will play in the NFL for 15 years, “make it rain” in a night club or pick up the tab for the entire bar.
One of the hardest things about getting that first paycheck in the NFL is family. I am not saying family is bad, but saying “no” to people who have loved and supported you for years is very difficult.
I had a client whose father told his newly drafted son that the minute he cashed his signing bonus check, that money was to be paid to the dad. The father called it a “raising you” tax. When the player called me and explained the situation, I had to step in and handle the problem.
With the first rookie draft picks getting signed up already, hopefully all the rookies will make wise choices with their money and only spend a small portion on frivolous things.
And, for the record, a Saturn Coupe is not a frivolous expenditure.
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