Sport fascinates, thrills and exhilarates. Mike Wahle, a former professional American footballer and now an MBA student, offers his view on the sporting life.
A former professional American footballer, Wahle played for the Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers and the Seattle Seahawks.
Being the best
I wasn’t interested in doing anything but being a professional sportsman. They pay you a phenomenal amount of money to be the best at what you do. I thought if they’re going to pay me this money and that’s what they expect in return, then I’m going to dedicate all my resources to being the best football player I can. I’m not going to spend my off-seasons trying to open a record company or whatever it is people do. I travelled around in the off-seasons to get new lifting techniques, visiting different position coaches and so on. You have an obligation to be the best and do the best you can do, the competitive edge is what it’s all about.
When you get into League 1, an agent’s going to sit there and tell you this isn’t going to last forever; you need to worry about how you spend your money, where you put it, all those kinds of things. But athletes are very used to a regimented lifestyle. That’s how most of us excel, so you really do put blinders on. You’re very myopic and focused on your competitive drive. Your reality is that all that other stuff is secondary. Your number one goal is to perform on Sundays or whatever the day may be.
Life in football
At 26 I peaked physically. It’s a very regimented schedule. After the season was over, I would take three days off and then I’d start training again. And I would train six days a week, sometimes twice a day. I was on about 7,000 calories a day trying to keep my weight up. I’m a lot smaller guy than is usual in my position, so I had to work really hard at that. During the season, it’s a seven day a week game. The day you have off is usually Tuesday, but you’re in the weight room for a couple of hours, you’re in the film room for a couple more. You’re playing for six or seven months, so it’s very intense. The hours are eight to five, eight to six, it depends. Those are the official times, but, obviously, you get there early, you stay there late. It’s all about preparation.
It’s like going into a miniature battle every week and it gets more and more important as the weeks go on. But the club makes it easy for you to be successful if you make sure you don’t allow outside elements to get in the way.
Playing through it
It’s a job and there are expectations. When you have an injury, there’s a conflict of interest from a team standpoint. I was fortunate to be with the Packers and they would always edge on the side of being cautious. But there are a lot of teams who will, if you’re really beaten up, treat you like you’re an expensive piece of meat and push you out there. I had to play with injuries all the time. It’s better not to talk about it. Some guys like to show how tough they are by mentioning it in the media, but if you have weaknesses you don’t want to promote them.
In search of greatness
The beauty of the game, from my standpoint of being a lineman, is that you get the opportunity each week, you go out there and you put yourself in a position through your preparation. I can go into the game knowing I’ve worked harder than the opponent and, by the end of the game, they’re going to know it. That part of it — the competitive greatness you aspire to — is really what makes guys like me love the game. You can look the other guy in the eye and he knows that he just got your best and vice versa. It’s not a question, necessarily, of who was born with better genetic talent. It’s a question of who can take what they have and work it into the best product.
The reason that guys can stick around as long as they do, despite losing their physical abilities, is because they become cerebral players. They know the tricks. They know each opponent and what they’re going to do. They know how to study film properly.
Watching and learning
I was fortunate to have a guy who was a 13 or 14 year vet who showed me how to watch film — what specifically you were looking for in each player, how to take notes and how to see things on the field. That takes a while. The learning process is a lot more difficult than you think, especially when you’re applying it at 100 per cent during the game. The carry-over is the difficult part; the film room is easy. But once you get to the point when you can play the game in your mind and everything slows down, then you can mask some of your physical limitations for a while. Eventually, when a 21-year old guys shows up and he’s 30 times bigger than you and also faster and stronger, it becomes a problem!
Probably the best coach I had, certainly, the guy with the longest tenure, was Mike Sherman at Green Bay. He could have been a lawyer. He could take anything you said and his ability to manipulate your words was second to none. But, at the same time, he was very passionate about what he did, although sometimes to the point of excess. He was what we call a grinder. He had a cot in his office, he’s the head coach and the manager, he was running the whole programme and he’d sleep in the office sometimes. The passion and the time your coach puts into the game reflects on the players. It is a source of motivation. At a professional level, you can’t really say that the coach can inspire you to play better or do something differently. They’re there to teach, to give you knowledge. But if you’re not a self-starter by that point, you probably haven’t made it.
It’s tough to find that juice that you get from playing football — something that excites you and where you can strive for competitive greatness. I really loved what I did, I wanted to do very well and nothing else mattered when I was on the field. It’s one of the few places that you can just go and exist.
Any problems you have at home, anything that’s going on, any other facts of your life, you get on the field and all that matters is you have got to beat the guy in front of you, over and over and over. And that becomes self-consuming and that part of it is probably what was so good for me. What I miss most, I’ve found, is just being around people. When you’re in a locker room, everyone’s coming from a different place, but you are all focused on the same goal. You miss it like crazy. And when I started trading, it was isolated because you’re glued to a computer screen all day.
One for all
I was a good player. I worked hard. I was never in a situation where there was anyone who was going to take a spot from me. At Green Bay we had the same starting line for five years in a row. We were good and we were all — and still are — very close. We were fortunate. I’ve been on other teams where there’s competition week in and week out. We’re all professionals and you try to be the bigger man. At the end of my career, when they were bringing young guys in, your legacy is showing these guys how to play, showing them how to be professionals. I took a lot of pride in taking guys aside and showing them how to watch film and doing all the things that people did for me. Carrying on that legacy of producing good players and good men is very important for the sport.
In my time in Charlotte with the Charlotte Panthers, I was very fortunate to meet a guy who ran a hedge fund. It was something I could see myself doing after my career was over so I talked him into mentoring me in the trading process. It was a small company and I got a pretty good breadth of education as far as trading, tax planning, portfolio management, all those different kinds of things and then how to run a business, day-to-day. I thought I can spend three or fours years really becoming an expert at what I’m doing, but being a professional football player is a double-edged sword. People love talking to you but they don’t see you as a person in finance. They want to talk to you as a football player. So, I am now studying for an MBA.