In order to be at the top of their game, pro athletes condition their bodies until they operate like machines. As a result, their remarkable physical power often overshadows the invisible, mental element of success.
But as NFL Hall of Famer Nick Lowery discovered, sharpening your brain power is just as important as toning your muscles. Not only did he harness his mental capacity to weather intense game-time stress, but he also persevered in the face of repeated rejection. Ultimately, he transformed from a pretty good player into the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Still, even with a much-longer-than-average NFL career, Lowery says the post-football transition was tough financially and emotionally.
We talked to Lowery about the strategies he used to become and remain a top NFL athlete for nearly two decades, what he’s done since retiring—and the financial lessons he’s learned along the way.
Did you always have a passion for football?
I grew up playing soccer in London. We moved to the U.S. when I was in eighth grade, and I joined the football team. It felt as natural as riding a bike.
My high school coach introduced me to the fundamentals of sports psychology, and the idea that success on the field is equal amounts physical and mental action. He trained me to put myself in a focused, relaxed state. That branded my fascination with the unique position of kicking in the NFL. I’m biased, but there’s no position in sports where you have more pressure per square play.
How did you learn to deal with such enormous pressure?
You get used to it by doing it. The other part is persistence. Whether it’s learning to fly a jet plane, learning to be a brain surgeon, learning anything, it’s about putting yourself out there so many times that the initial sense of being an imposter… gradually dissipates into a certain level of ownership and master of the art. It can only happen by doing it.
The best learners are those that are at peace with the notion that to be great requires them to make not less but more mistakes than anyone else.
Early on, you were cut 11 times by eight different teams. Did you ever think about throwing in the towel?
At the end of my second year, I had pretty much given up and had a great job [in the off season] as a legislative aide. But I figured I owed it to myself to give the NFL one last go. I got an offer from the Kansas City Chiefs a week or two after tryouts. I went on to play for 17 more years and got the all-time record for accuracy for most 50-yard field goals and best percentage for extra points. None of that would have happened if I had given up.
How was the transition to post-football life after 18 years?
It’s a difficult transition and also an emotional one. The statistics show about 80 percent of athletes have financial issues within 2 to 5 years after leaving the NFL…so those are difficult transitions. And suddenly you’re not part of the constant limelight and you have to learn how to shift your focus to some things that feed your spirit a lot more and the players that do that early on are the ones who do better.
What have you been up to since you retired in 1996?
I learned that life is short, so you should do what you really love. I started the Nick Lowery Youth Foundation in 1996, which has several programs: Champions for the Homeless, which helps people regain a sense of support; Native Vision, a sports program for Native American youth; an anti-bullying campaign, All Pros Against Bullying; and Stronger Safer Sports, which addresses the connection between head injuries and domestic violence.
You’ve also helped pass legislation in Arizona mandating that students pass a financial literacy course to graduate high school.
I worked with [financial literacy advocate] Sharon Lechter on this effort. When the average college debt is between $30,000 and $50,000, we’re creating a generation of kids for whom the American Dream is being supplanted by the American Debt. We’re creating debt for them, but we haven’t taught them how to manage it.
If they go to grad school and have kids, they are looking at paying off debt until they are at least 50 or 60. That’s disturbing. And the connection between the actual document, and diploma, and the actual job—that margin has increased as well.
Tell us about why you got involved in Viktre, a social network site for athletes to connect with each other and their fans.
There has been something incorrect in every single article that has been written about me… So I thought having the capacity to express my own, unfiltered opinions and tell my stories [via a personal site] would be powerful.
We are living in what I call a post-government era, where the old boundaries of nationhood have melted away, and the government cannot or is unable to solve fundamental problems, like poverty. Athletes resolutely remain [among] the rare figures who are less political, yet bring social capital. They have the capacity to draw attention to important issues. My passion is to help athletes appreciate how blessed they are and motivate them to give hope to others and connect their lives to something bigger.
What financial lessons have you learned over your career?
I was not a number one draft pick, so I can’t say, hey, I got this million-dollar bonus and invest in this. My parents were not that wealthy… And even an 18-year NFL career is never long enough. There are an enormous number of NFL players and pro athletes who are bankrupt after a few years of leaving the game. So to be able to live within your means really helps you. Make sure you enjoy it, yes, but not getting ahead of yourself is pretty important.
Did you have to learn that lesson personally?
Like a lot of people, I got ahead of myself with the house I was in and we refinanced like a lot of people leading into the financial and real estate downturn in the market in 2008. So I’ve had to learn to be much more disciplined about it because I always want to pour more money into the foundation.
I love the house I’m in now. It’s smaller, it’s happier…When you have more money and you spend it on more things it also means that you have to manage more things. So there’s a big lesson right there: having more things does not give me peace of mind at all. So having a house that’s the right size, beautiful backyard, beautiful view, and making that my sanctuary is so much more satisfying than what I call the narcissistic athlete’s house I had before. You know, the look-how-successful-I-am house.
What’s been your best investment?
The investment I put into making a difference in this world. My foundation fills me up.
What financial advice would you give people in their 20s and 30s?
First, save at least 10 percent of everything you earn. Second, pick up what you pay on your mortgage—even if it’s only an extra $50 or $100 a month. It’s unbelievable how much [faster] you will pay it off. One of the most consistent sources of depression is feeling like you’re chained to debt. It’s important to have an intentional strategy for paying it all off, so that you can be free.
This interview has been condensed and edited.