He banked millions carving running lanes and catching touchdown passes in the NFL. His new mission aims to secure millions for his peers.
Zach Miller gives coach Pete Carroll a celebratory Gatorade shower after thrashing the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. Miller said it’s difficult to describe the feeling of winning a championship at the highest level. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
PHOENIX – Zach Miller’s response is fast. In a split second, his mind wanders back to the Meadowlands – MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, to be exact. The former Arizona State tight end swiftly summons his grandest juncture in a National Football League uniform: hoisting the Lombardi Trophy along with his Seattle Seahawks teammates and coaches, toasting a crushing triumph over the Denver Broncos at Super Bowl XLVIII.
Miller, who started 106 career games across an eight-year stretch with the Seahawks and Oakland Raiders, recalls the championship celebration as if it were yesterday, despite the six-plus years that have sped by since.
That’s because February 2, 2014, encapsulates the best of Miller’s days as a professional athlete, he said. And remembering his apex as a football player is effortless, trouble-free.
Now he sports a distinct jersey. He’s more buttoned-up and removed from the spotlight that once followed the 6-foot-5, 255-pound second-round draft pick. He’s every bit as determined to succeed except his enemy appears dramatically different than a tenacious inside linebacker or a walked-up, slugging safety.
It’s an enemy that has led to an epidemic of deceit, cheats and broke professional athletes.
More than a decade ago, Sports Illustrated reported 78% of NFL players are bankrupt or suffer some form of “financial stress because of joblessness or divorce” within a two-year window post-retirement.
From Major League Baseball’s Lenny Dykstra to the NFL’s Warren Sapp to the NHL’s Darren McCarthy, financial devastation is indiscriminate in the sports world.
Upon retiring from the NFL in 2015, Miller returned to ASU so he could finish his undergraduate studies. After earning a Bachelor of Science in Finance degree, he immersed himself in certified financial planning coursework. In March he passed the certified financial planner exam — calling it the toughest test he’s ever taken — earning his CFP designation.
AWM Capital recently tapped Miller to be part of a team attempting to revamp the current financial system plaguing an abundance of professional athletes. AWM specializes in the oversight and management of the wealth of players and entertainers, business founders and their families.
Miller may be unable to drive-block or stiff-arm his latest competition, but at least he’s battling in familiar territory.
“Players need people who have been in their shoes that go out, and do the necessary things to learn the knowledge and gain the competence to be a trusted adviser,” Miller said. “I’ve always had an interest in finance, investments and capital markets, so getting a chance to go back and finish my degree at ASU gave me time to figure out what I wanted to do as a second career.”
What the husband and father to four who lives in the Valley seems to realize is his next venture could wind up being more impactful than his first.
“I don’t need the money. I want to help as many players as possible reach their full potential, and that includes taking care of their finances so that when they’re done playing football, they can pick a job they love, and live the type of life they want to live,” said Miller, emphasizing his disheartenment seeing report after reports emerge on his Twitter timeline detailing another athlete in financial ruin.
The issue Miller plans to address, an admittedly convoluted one, is not brand new, nor is it out of the ordinary. But, that doesn’t diminish its severity.
Too many athletes find themselves stuck in a financial quagmire.
“A lot of times, you don’t hear the stories of guys losing money until it makes some type of national news,” said Miller, displeased with the culturally confidential nature of finances in the United States. “People don’t want to talk about their finances. Either, they don’t know enough about it, or no one wants to talk about their (losses).”
It’s a paradox that Miller knows won’t solve itself — players must view their long-term financial wealth, and mental health as top priorities. Yet they shouldn’t shortchange the focus they apply to their athletic endeavors in the short-term, or they’ll risk becoming another statistic.
A 2016 analysis by The Wall Street Journal examined player and position-specific data collected from Pro-Football-Reference over a six-year period beginning in 2008. According to the study, the average NFL career shortened in length by more than two years, falling from 4.99 to 2.66.
Raised awareness about traumatic brain injuries and perpetual effects of other serious ailments sustained in the sport are reasonably viewed as the biggest career detractors, but financial tolls like divorce settlements, child support payments and alimony are destructive by the same token.
There are reasons people tease the NFL acronym means ‘not for long,’ and financial schooling stands atop the pyramid of possible pathways to pause plummeting player longevity.
“Each draft class, each year that goes by, there’s another set of young guys in the NFL. It’s going to keep happening,” Miller said, “as much as someone can tell you to look out for it, it’s not as easy to see when it’s happening to you firsthand.”
As a result, there’s been an uptick of former and even current NFL athletes joining the finance space because they’re acutely aware of the mismanagement, negligence and, at times, criminality that juicy player salaries and endorsements attract.
Miller joins the likes of retired NFL running back Ronnie Brown, now a financial adviser; ex-New York Giants pass-rusher Justin Tuck who works with Goldman Sachs as a vice president in the private wealth management division; Patriots reserve linebacker Brandon Copeland, an alum and professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, The Wharton School; among so many others.
“That story is kind of as old as time,” said Erik Averill, one of the co-founders of AWM Capital. “There are hundreds, if not thousands of former professional athletes that become financial advisers, but unfortunately they really just stop at being salespeople. They don’t develop the expertise to deliver the financial advice a complex athlete needs.”
Miller’s designation as a CFP separates him from the pack.
“To put it into context, there’s over 300,000 people that use the term financial adviser,” Averill said. “Anybody can get it. It’s like going to take your SAT or ACT, the test is kind of a joke.”
Approximately 82,000 people in the country have CFP designations, thus positioning Miller in an elite class of financial authorities.
“Zach was not content with just being a former NFL player who now becomes a financial adviser,” Averill said. “He’s driven to win, he’s intellectually curious and he takes ownership of his career.”
Miller, ultimately, aspires to impact the culture of financial advice given to athletes, and hopes to share with others the knowledge he’s accumulated since his departure as a consensus All-American, and underclassmen for the 2007 NFL draft — he said he wishes he knew then what he knows now.
“If you don’t understand investing, the power of compounding and the time value of money and opportunity cost of investments, then you won’t actually understand how to grow your wealth the right way,” Miller said. “That would have been huge for me early on, and it would have given me even more opportunity to focus on being the best football player I could have been.”
Miller’s peak payday in the NFL came during free agency in 2011 when he inked a five-year contract with the Seahawks worth $34 million, including $13 million in guaranteed money.
He retired one-year premature after ankle surgery forced him to injured reserve for most of the 2014 season, and was subsequently released in the spring because of a failed physical. His career earnings, combining contract totals from stints in Oakland and Seattle, well exceeded $30 million.
Miller’s average annual salary over the last four years of his career — $3.9 million — eclipsed the league’s most recent yearly average salary per player, as well.
In 2019 SportingIntelligence.com’s Global Sports Salaries Survey gathered the NFL’s mean pay for players on active rosters hiked to nearly $3.3 million; a mighty 17.7% increase from the previous year, and a striking figure which can elicit an uproar of financial gambles orchestrated by nefarious minds.
“These individuals are the best in the world at what they do, and money is a byproduct of that success,” said Averill, noting players’ public salaries, additionally, make them extremely vulnerable. “They don’t necessarily have the skill-set to steward that, (or know) how to grow that, and really maximize it. They’re left to choose advisers that can help them, but they don’t, really, know how to navigate who is qualified to do that.”
Averill has a firsthand understanding of the minefield athletes must traverse in order to make smart financial decisions. It’s not just about the money, he said. Players must nurture relationships with trustworthy individuals, and carry themselves in an affable light to successfully grow personal brands.
“Money is just a tool, it’s not a measuring stick,” Averill said. “That’s really, I think, a big part of the story.”
In 2005, Averill was selected as a junior pitcher out of Arizona State by the Detroit Tigers in the 20th round of the MLB draft. Before co-founding AWM Capital, he played three seasons in the minor leagues for the Tigers and Seattle Mariners organizations.
Averill proceeded to do what most other 20-somethings who suddenly receive a hefty check with their name on it, would: He sought advice from his alma mater and the local community, and was quickly connected with an adviser who had been tied to the Sun Devil baseball program and booster club for decades.
“I turned over my signing bonus, which comparatively, wasn’t what Zach signed for, but it was all the money that I had,” Averill said. “He put me in a bunch of individual stocks, acted like he knew what he was doing, and then the ’08 financial crisis hit.”
Averill was conned by the adviser’s client list and blinded by the big, boldfaced company the adviser was attached to, he said. Frustratingly, in hindsight, he placed more importance in another person’s word than his own due diligence.
“I lost everything,” he said, “I thought I checked all the right boxes. He worked with athletes, he’s from our internal community, he’s been an adviser at a big company, but realistically I just got a salesperson and didn’t get an expert. And I lost all my money.”
It was the impotence that led Averill, his brother Brandon and long-time friend Robert McConchie to bolster their own educations and enter the financial advisory sector, founding a company that prides itself on handling the nuances that athletes in their respective sports face at every corner of their careers.
A detested act from the past that has fueled Averill to ensure he does everything in his power to save former, current and future athletes from experiencing preventable financial turmoil.
“We always say that it’s our job to educate and empower our clients,” Averill said. “At the end of the day, we handle people’s financial lives, and really, it sounds cheesy, but it’s their hopes and their dreams and their legacies.”
Today, AWM Capital supports around 150 professional athletes. Clients are scattered in states all over the map. Offices are fixed in Scottsdale, near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, just east of Dallas in Texas and the company plans to open a location in Nashville during the first quarter of next year.
Like Miller, Averill’s heart is set on sharing his knowledge, an acquired financial wisdom that was first revealed after enduring or witnessing some form of personal distress with the fractured financial system, ever-present, aimed at professional athletes.
“What I know now because I’m on this side of it —12 years in the industry — is that individual actually had very little expertise,” Averill said. “They were a salesman and, still, today, that person works with athletes and works at a retail brokerage firm. It’s unfortunate that (he) is still in the industry, and technically successful because he’s good at selling.”
Chase Carlson, a Miami-based investment fraud attorney, knows this treacherous sequence all too well.
Carlson specializes in representing professional athletes when they’re swindled out of their money.
“There’s some real anger, sadness (and) embarrassment, it’s usually not a pleasant experience,” Carlson said. “It can be really devastating.”
He’s currently in litigation defending two former baseball players, along with an active and a former NFL player. On top of his paid responsibilities, Carlson willingly probes players’ financial portfolios if an inquiry is made.
He’s a sympathizer and a quintessential ally for professional athletes. He jumps at the chance to help players recover their losses, even when others might be spooked by seemingly insurmountable odds.
“Some of the cases are just outright negligent investments that were totally unsuitable for the athlete, and the other half (are) actual frauds committed,” Carlson said. “Every once in a while, somebody at a big company will make a bad mistake, and (for) those guys we’ve had great success in recovering the money.”
It’s rarely an easy task, but he said he loves being in a position to help people who legitimately need his expertise.
“When you take on a case, you’re dealt a hand, and you have to try to play that hand the best you can,” said Carlson, who a little more than a year ago, was profiled by The Washington Post Magazine for carving out a niche in the sports and entertainment industry. “Sometimes, you’re not dealing with the best hand but you took on a case because you really believe in it.”
Carlson said he sees the exact same financial issues within most professional sports leagues, or at least the ones where players are signed to lucrative deals and receive a percentage of guaranteed money. But because of contrasting roster size, and enlarged inner-circles, he’s regularly consumed by cases related to the NFL.
“You probably hear about more stories with NFL players having issues because of sheer volume,” Carlson said. “The amount of NFL players out there far exceeds the other sports.”
Even Reggie Bush, who has never strayed from the limelight after an 11-year NFL run, immediately jumping into the studio as an analyst, made waves when he said he wished he’d received superior financial advice earlier in his career. Bush earned $63 million, second-most in NFL history at the running back position.
That’s not to say toured golfers, UFC fighters or NBA all-stars are immune to the predatory deeds of financial sinners. Unethical people follow the money-trail, abetted by a dismal culture of financial advice prescribed to hapless competitors in their primes.
“I think that folks like Zach and myself understand that there are a lot of problems in professional sports, it’s not just the National Football League,” said former Arizona State and NFL quarterback Rudy Carpenter, noting he has never quite understood the notion that people are stunned when professional athletes, notoriously, make headlines. “My response has always been, I’m surprised that every athlete doesn’t go broke.”
Carpenter, who lives in Arizona and serves as a radio personality and private quarterbacks coach, didn’t make tens of millions over a lengthy, storied NFL career. Instead, he bounced between practice squads and active rosters from 2009 to 2012, enjoying time with the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Still, his intimacy with NFL locker rooms, paired with a desire to advance the financial intellect of current and former athletes, makes Carpenter’s voice key in fighting for what’s right.
“It’s definitely an epidemic,” Carpenter said. “It’s not getting better. I don’t know if it’s getting worse, but it’s definitely not getting better.”
Eighteen months ago, Carpenter formed his own company, under the umbrella of financial institution Muriel Siebert, so that he could offer financial advice to former teammates and contacts he made through athletic or business engagements.
He’s familiarized himself with the inner workings of finance over the last year-and-a-half, and attests he’s even seen and heard of akin issues victimizing players in the National Hockey League. Carpenter’s wife, Marina, tends to the Arizona Coyotes as General Counsel and Chief of Staff.
“It’s very easy to suggest, well, a lot of athletes go broke because they’re young. That’s a true statement,” said Carpenter, insisting it’s only half of the complete picture. “A lot of athletes go broke because they have a very short amount of time to make money, (and) it’s hard to budget over the long-haul, and many athletes who have been playing football, or baseball or basketball or hockey at a high-level for a long time, they don’t have a lot of other skills outside of their sport, so it’s hard for them to make the transition back to the real world.”
Carpenter’s utterance rings hollow on most people’s ears: “The amount of guys that are either dead or in jail is heartbreaking,” he said.
But, it’s not flagrant, it’s just difficult to comprehend. It’s part of the mess that stems from misunderstanding or misjudging critical aspects of the financial system. Often, players are squared up with inherently uncontrollable circumstances, Carpenter said, that fester into larger issues, particularly for players achieving first-generational wealth.
“Their entire existence is wrapped up (in) their athletic identity,” Carpenter said. “You have kids that come from different backgrounds, such as me. … People usually think (of) one demographic, but there are plenty of — for a lack of a better term — white players who fall in the same trap. … I have a mom who has been married and divorced four times. I have seven siblings. I have a dad who’s been in and out of jail. My parents have never been homeowners. … We don’t grow up in an environment where we’re used to money, and so therefore we don’t truly understand the financial system.”
Carlson, the fraud attorney, is well-versed in the seriousness of this financial malady. He was featured in a 2016 episode of “60 Minutes” in a segment called “Thrown For A Loss,” which was centered around several NFL superstars losing a whopping $43 million in a risky venture that was originally proposed by a financial adviser registered via the NFL Players Association.
Carlson credits the NFLPA for the strides it has made in the interim but, of course, was not impressed by the faulty application process that admitted corrupt financial figures, like Jeff Rubin, to begin with.
“Many years ago, there were a lot of cases where, arguably, the NFLPA might’ve missed some red flags,” said Carlson, magnifying many of the improvements the union has made in the four years since falling under the nation’s watchful eye.
The NFLPA has tightened its eligibility requirements, boosted its background investigation and added further criteria that individual and institutional advisers must meet to pass registration. This is in addition to player resources that have grown exponentially over the last several years.
Carpenter, however, is not totally convinced that athletes are fully-aware of the chips at their table. In conversation with current players, he’s learned that financial discord subsists, primarily due to a lack of instruction, or absence of effort.
“All you have to do, if you’re a player, is create a login and your username and your whole financial picture comes up on that NFL benefits page,” said Carpenter, referencing nflplayerbenefits.com. “The vast majority of NFL players I meet have no idea that website even exists.”
And so, again, the moral of the story reverts back to Miller’s looming, lasting image: it’s not enough to just flaunt financial advice, it’s imperative to instill financial education and financial literacy in the next generations.
“I’ve never been that much of a vocal leader, I’ve always been a leader by action,” Miller said, “so I hope that being an adviser to as many players as I can, and delivering a service that I think they need and I know they need, I hope I can enact change that way.”
The stark reality of this rife misfortune is that it’s going nowhere any time soon.
As long as professional athletes, entertainers, lottery winners and others continue to bank mammoth amounts of money in a short window, dishonorable people will spare no effort to manipulate and steal their milk and honey.
“It’s something that always needs awareness,” Carlson said. “If you neglect it for too long, it’s going to get really bad again. It’s something that should always stay in the spotlight.”
The truth makes Miller’s mission more purposeful because education expansion is the crux of an indelible solution, and one of the company’s core values.
Since inception, Averill said, AWM has functioned steadfast in its belief that education equates to power. The forthcoming plan, with Miller leading the charge, is to approach the NFL market of financial advice in precisely the same manner.
The company has predominantly worked with established veterans and retired players in the past because their financial portfolios typically have the most complexities, but this blueprint will certainly be geared toward the professional athlete who possesses zero financial acumen, as well, because such players are often the most susceptible to outside influences.
“It’s really a perfect storm,” Carlson said. “You have very young people earning a lot of money, who don’t have investment experience, typically don’t have investment education and they also don’t know who to trust.”
It’s the same set of conditions that Miller faced as a rookie with the Raiders, when he didn’t have answers because he wasn’t raised in an overly affluent home.
“If you aren’t exposed to it, you just don’t know what some of that stuff means,” Miller said, “you’ve got to search for answers, and the earlier you do it the better.”
A significant piece to this puzzle rests on an athlete’s shoulders. People, after all, are a product of their own environment.
“If you look at our pop culture, just turn on any music that (players) are listening to, it’s about spending money, it’s about living a certain lifestyle, it’s about having baby mamas and jewelry, and all types of things. And, those things don’t lead to financial success,” Carpenter said. “I’m a huge proponent that fiscal responsibility and finance (should be) taught at a much younger age, and spend a lot less time on the utopian idealism teaching points that come from universities and trickle down to high schools, middle schools and elementary schools.”
Carpenter is firm in his stance: Every professional athlete is equipped to control their financial wellbeing, but they must be self-motivated to do so. It kicks off with reading their own bank statements, genuinely wanting to learn about all of the resources provided by their player’s union, surrounding themselves with like-minded companions committed to serving a players’ best interest one-hundred percent of the time and, simply, caring enough about life beyond the spectrum of athletic performance to put temptations to rest in realtime.
“The easy answer is to talk about education. The easy answer is to talk about financial literacy. The hard thing to do is to talk about the ugly truths,” said Carpenter, adding it’s exhausting to watch and listen to athletes and critics blame the system, rather than individual autonomy. “At what point in time are players responsible for their own financial decisions?”
Carpenter also acknowledges there will always be more the NFLPA, for instance, can do to protect its current and former players. But he doesn’t view increased involvement in a player’s financial-life as a realistic option to remedy financial-related issues — mainly because athletes aren’t inclined to want a governing body dictating their financial protocol.
“If the NFLPA got involved and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to crack down. We’re going to start making you guys be fiscally responsible. We’re going to start deferring some of your money’…then you’d have a lot of players pissed off,” Carpenter said.
A degree of separation already exists between the NFLPA and its constituents because of what can be classified as somewhat poor timing, and implementation of certain programs that are intended to disseminate financial advice.
Over the course of a 17-week regular season, players are afforded weekly opportunities to sit in on webinars and receive personal finance coaching.
The most troubling aspect? Carpenter said this instruction is often made available on Tuesdays, the lone true off-day for players from August to January.
“Very few players participate in these meetings, and you can imagine why,” said Carpenter, detailing a grueling travel and practice schedule that players tolerate week-in and week-out: An athletes jam-packed timetable leaves little room for personal aspirations.
Miller served as his respective organization’s player representative for seven seasons. He credits the NFLPA with recently raising its standards as to which independent financial advisers and companies can receive certification through the union before they’re recommended in players’ handbooks. But, like Carpenter, he’s not overwhelmingly fond of the association’s scheduling, which can also interfere with a player’s offseason ambitions.
Each year, the NFLPA holds a personal finance bootcamp during the offseason. Over a three-day period in March, players and spouses are invited to listen to guest speakers, interact with financial experts and ask questions regarding investments, loans, retirement and pension packages and 401k plans. Keep in mind, this happens in the heat of the offseason, while players stay busy refining their crafts and, optimally, seek to maximize downtime with loved ones.
“As a player it’s hard because you want to enjoy your offseason, but so many of those things — if you pay attention, and ask questions — will take you so far,” Miller said, “and you’ll be so far ahead of a lot of guys who don’t attend, or blow it off.”
Miller and Carpenter, understandably, share many of the same sentiments. The former enjoyed a more fruitful NFL career, but both got their feet wet in the desert monsoons — and played together for two seasons — and both obtained empirical evidence of financial affliction amid the highest-level of professional football.
Both have regrets. Miller wishes he was already groomed in the financial-sphere during his playing career, so that he could have offered his teammates strong advice about investments or interest rates. Carpenter said he could have, wisely, saved $25,000 if he’d purchased a car for necessity rather than extravagance.
Each is now consciously aware of the dangers they avoided, and of the prospects that a stringent financial education is, perhaps, society’s best-bet to rectify widespread financial catastrophe.
“Athletes live this crazy life, this fast-paced life, this big ole’ celebrity life, making a lot of money, playing a professional sport and then all of sudden at 30 or 35 or 28, it’s over. And, your whole life changes,” said Carpenter, reflecting on what sadly amounts to a failed transition for a portion of professional athletes because of a disregard, early on, for their finances. “It’s like a rebirth, almost, and you’re entering a totally different life. (But) that (first) life is what finances the life that they’re still able to live right now.”
In Miller’s mind, his ideal scenario catalyzes a reduction of documentaries like ESPN’s 30 for 30 film “Broke” and a successive increase of stories pinpointing a player’s financial prosperity. He’s tired of the lies, of the duplicity, fraud and heartbreak that professional athletes are subjected to at alarming rates, he said.
Notably, though, Miller is hopeful to make a difference in his second-act, doing something he’s able to obsess over, something that will enormously impact his peers’ lives.
It’s fine if it’s not effortless or trouble-free. It’s fun all the same for the former Pro Bowler.
“I love the financial planning aspect of it,” said Miller, resolute to retain his status as a game changer, only operating from a vastly different huddle. “I guess I’m a finance nerd. I love getting into the gritty details.”