Leonard Wheeler currently serves the NFL Legends Community as Co-Executive Director. He played 8 seasons in the NFL as a cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers.
As you contemplated your decision to retire, what were some of the thoughts that went through your head?
“Oh no,” was one thought that went through my head. Another one was, “Am I prepared?”
Before retirement, I often asked myself, “Am I prepared for that big change? Do I have enough resources for my family to transition effectively?”
I also had to figure out what transition even resembled. I didn’t know what retirement looked like for me. I owned my first company as a rookie in the NFL, so I was always trying to prepare mentally for life after the game. The problem is, you don’t know when life after the game is going to come. It’s almost like having insurance. You don’t know when you’re going to need insurance, but you know you have to keep it. That's how transition is sometimes.
You know transition is inevitable, so you try two things: either prepare as much as possible to take away the blow of the emotional transition or run in the area of denial and act as if it will never happen.
"I also had to figure out what transition even resembled. I didn’t know what retirement looked like for me."
What was your support network like and who did you turn to for answers?
I had some amazing mentors who spoke life into me. Reggie Rice, a pastor in Texas who had a brother who played in the NFL for several years. Pastor Keith Johnson, who was my pastor in Minnesota when I played for the Vikings. Mike Bunkley, who was the chaplain when I played for the Panthers. Jeff Patton, who was the chaplain for the Bengals while I was there.
Those men had seen a lot of guys transition. Having them in my corner during my transition really allowed me to keep a lot of balance. Without having a solid relationship in the Word or God and in my belief system, my transition would have been a lot harder.
"Having them in my corner during my transition really allowed me to keep a lot of balance."
Looking back on your transition from the NFL, what would you do differently, knowing what you know now?
I would make sure I reached out and created a solid network of people for my transition. I don't think we as players do a good enough job since we don't know when the transition is going to happen. Most often we take it for granted, so I would have maximized my platform better. I would empower people in my circle better. I would have made sure my circle was more strengthened than it was.
Something I feel like I did do right during my transition was create SMART goals. I would encourage guys to create Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time Bound goals.
"I would make sure I reached out and created a solid network of people for my transition."
How does the NFL Legends Community provide a support network for all Legends?
When I think about The NFL Legends Community, I think about it as a covering. It is a community that celebrates a Legend’s contribution to the game while creating engagement and providing information that will assist them in their post-playing career.
The Legends Community focus is to maximize the message The Trust, the NFLPA, the Gridiron Greats and other partners give. We want to take all of those messages, put it together and give it to all the Legends and their families in one package. We want to help amplify all partner messages, so all Legends are thoroughly informed about every resource and benefit available to them.
Players can sign up by going to The NFL Legends’ website. Over 20,000 players have played in the NFL over 98 years. When you think about 98 years, there are Legends everywhere. If you don't feel like you're a legend in the NFL, you are a Legend in your hometown. You’re a Legend in your college town. Your nephews and nieces believe you're a Legend. It's really about walking in that and knowing they did something most people in the world couldn't do: played in the NFL.
"If you don't feel like you're a legend in the NFL, you are a Legend in your hometown. You’re a Legend in your college town."
What made you want to get involved with The Legends?
Troy Vincent and Tracy Perlman called and asked if I would accept the Co-Executive Director position. Troy and I were drafted together in 1992, so we've been friends for a long time. They both explained to me that The Legends is about celebrating, embracing and connecting. When I heard that, it was a no-brainer for me to accept. Peer-to-peer communication is something I love to do, so it took me every bit of five seconds to say yes.
My role entails service. At the end of the day, it is about serving the men and their families. Me being a Co-Executive Director just continues to propel the leadership portion of it, but bottom line is I'm in the business of serving. It’s making sure, along with Chad Pennington, we're serving our Directors, our Coordinators and our Legends and their families.