Recent NCAA studies have shown that of more than one million high school football players in the United States every year, only an estimated 6.7 percent go on to compete at the collegiate level. Beyond that, only 1.6 percent of college football players make it to the NFL.
Despite the harsh statistics, the NFL dream became a reality for four former BYU football players. Now retired, these players have been able to pave successful careers following their time on the gridiron.
Chad Lewis walked on to the BYU football team, starting 22 games as a tight end before going on to play for the St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles from 1999 to 2005. He caught 229 passes for 2,361 yards and 23 touchdowns over his NFL career.
Lewis said the transition from Provo to the NFL was a tough one.
“It was shocking, because everyone in the NFL was so good,” Lewis said. “Everyone was fast and quick. Everyone on the team was pretty much the best player on their college team. It was a business. You were fighting for a job … the competition was fierce. You got the feeling that this was a man’s game, and it was.”
The Lewis family traveled with Chad, living half of the year in New Jersey during the NFL season and other half in Utah during the offseason. Lewis’ wife, Michele, speaks highly of her family’s time in the NFL.
“Having our family in the NFL was wonderful,” Michele said. “I think of all the professional sports, the NFL is most conducive to the family. He was home most weeknights, and his hours were strict, but very manageable. As a family, we loved supporting Chad during his NFL years.”
Laura Denney, wife of former BYU player Ryan Denney, agreed that having her family in the NFL was a positive experience. Ryan played as a defensive end for BYU and then played eight seasons in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. The Denney family also lived in Utah in the offseason, but stayed in Buffalo during football season.
“When [we] got drafted, we were like 20 years old, so it was just what we did, and I didn’t know any different, but there were a lot of instabilities,” Laura said. “We really were blessed in Buffalo. We ended up in an amazing situation, with so many Christian families that came through there … looking back, it was super stressful, but [Ryan] kind of sheltered me from it all.”
Ryan quickly became impressed with the talent found in the league from top to bottom and the competitive nature of the players.
“I was made aware that there’s some amazing talent out there,” Ryan said. “When you’re playing at the top, you’re still looking at the mountains of people better than you. It was kind of a neat thing; it helped me to understand there’s always someone more talented or competitive, and you just need to do the best that you can.”
Former BYU tight end Doug Jolley played for the Oakland Raiders, New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his five-year career from 2002 to 2006. Jolley spoke about the difficulties many NFL players experience when transitioning into retirement.
“A lot of them didn’t have any other plans other than playing football, so they don’t have a lot to fall back on when they’re done playing,” Jolley said. “They don’t want to go work 40 hours a week for $50,000 a year; it’s not realistic. They’ve made all this money for so long, and they’ve kinda gotten spoiled, so when their playing career is over, they don’t have the education or the foundation to go get a real job, and a lot of them get depressed because they’re out of the limelight.”
Jolley, Ryan Denney and Chad Lewis all recognized that football wouldn’t last forever and pursued different opportunities following retirement. Jolley earned a master’s degree from Stanford while also working as a graduate assistant for the Cardinal football team. Ryan Denney obtained an MBA and is a local high school football coach. Lewis was involved in the business sector before coming back to BYU to work in the athletic department.
The NFL recently set up programs for players in the league, including a business management and entrepreneurial program, as well as their NFL Transition and Assistance Program to help players make the transition to retirement easier. They also have a coaches academy to help teach the players the ins and outs of coaching.
Lee Johnson was a punter on BYU’s 1984 National Championship team. Johnson played 18 seasons in the NFL for six different teams after graduating from BYU. Johnson now works in the BYU athletic department and said he didn’t struggle retiring.
“For me, it wasn’t difficult,” Johnson said. “For the normal person, it’s hard. I think they miss so many things. They thrive in the NFL. With the competition, the intensity; when you get out of the profession, you feel kinda lost. It’s such a good life.”
All four of them believed their LDS faith kept them grounded during the transition.
“If you can do the basics, then you can understand one thing: everything’s going to work out. It’s going to be okay,” Chad said. “Without the basics, life is pretty confusing and challenging and doesn’t make a lot of sense. The thing that I’ve learned the most is the basics are so important. They’re so easy; it’s easy to miss them.”