GAME CHANGERS | How Three Pro-Athletes Tackled New Opportunities in Their Off-the-field Journey, Part 1

Written by Adam Gorski

Every professional athlete knows the unavoidable truth: one day, their playing career will come to an end, and they’ll have to hang up their equipment and look for work elsewhere.

The big decision to retire from professional athletics comes at a different time through different circumstances for every player. Sometimes it’s injuries, sometimes it’s age, sometimes it’s a lack of opportunities, but the one certainty in all of this is that every athlete needs a plan for when their career inevitably ends. It doesn’t help that the NFL is notorious for being a cut-throat business for athletes looking to make their dreams come true; if somebody is unable to play at the level expected, there are plenty of others willing to step in and take that job.

Retirement from professional football came in different ways for former Buffalo Bills Christian Gaddis, Marlon Kerner and Kurt Schulz; but there was one thing all three had in common: despite growing up all over the country, they made the decision that Buffalo would be their post-career homes, and all three have made the most of it.

For Gaddis, a native of Miami, Florida., his eyes were set on football from a young age, confidently telling a teacher as a freshman in high school that he would be playing in the NFL one day.

Christian Gaddis

Needless to say, he called his own shot. After an impressive high school career, he went on to play at Villanova as an offensive lineman, starting 33 consecutive games to finish out his career as a Wildcat in 2006, including being named to the All-Atlantic 10 first team as a center his senior year. He went undrafted but signed with the Bills to their practice squad in the weeks following the 2007 NFL Draft.

“I vividly remember sitting in my mom’s house, watching the draft go by, and then getting the call from Bobby April, the special teams coach of the Bills, calling me and saying he’d love to have me in Buffalo,” Gaddis said. “I remember … in my first meeting after the roster had been cut down, Dick Jauron introduced the then-GM of the team, Marv Levy. It really snapped me back to my childhood and I was like, ‘whoa, I sat and watched this guy coach as a kid, and now I’m working for him.’ I’m sure I had this giant smile on my face, but I had to snap myself back and realize this is my job now.”

Christian Gaddis

Gaddis would bounce around practice squads both on the Bills as well as the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns, earning a couple promotions to the active 53-man rosters during the 2007 and 2009 seasons, but his career came to an end in 2010 when he would officially retire.

Gaddis’ passion was in the communications world, as he graduated from Villanova with a degree in that field. He went on to work for New Era in downtown Buffalo as well as a debt collection agency before finally securing a position in the public relations world.

Nowadays, he’s the head of 43North’s Forge Buffalo initiative, a position he describes as extremely rewarding. His position involves working to retain and attract high-growth start-up businesses to Buffalo, helping to show them the multitude of opportunities the city has to offer.

“It was a long road, it wasn’t easy,” Gaddis said. “I think what helped me was having a direction and knowing what I wanted to do … In doing (work with Forge Buffalo), I know that I’m helping to build this community that has done so much for me. I remember when I first came here there weren’t a lot of opportunities at start-ups, so to bring companies here, it’s rewarding to share the secret that is Buffalo to the world.”

In the case of Marlon Kerner, football just seemed to come naturally to him, even though one of his earliest memories of the game was falling face first onto concrete while playing backyard football as a kid. A native of Columbus, Ohio, the former Bills cornerback was a quarterback in high school and planned to follow through with that and attend Notre Dame, but the recruiting process had other plans in mind. During a session, a coach from Ohio State asked Kerner if he would mind trying to play cornerback for a couple drills, which he obliged. From there, the Buckeyes offered him a scholarship as a defensive back, which he took, and it kickstarted an impressive four-year career at the college level.

Marlon Kerner

Kerner was drafted 76th overall in the 3rd round of the 1995 NFL Draft by the Bills, which led to a four-year career in the NFL that saw him snag three interceptions in 43 games, starting seven of them.

“[Getting drafted] was a surreal moment, I made that goal and it happened,” he said. “Coming to minicamp, getting to see Jim (Kelly), Andre (Reed), Thurman (Thomas), it was a crazy experience … Them opening up, welcoming me, saying ‘Hey, we want to get back to the Super Bowl, we have this idea of what success looks like and you’re going to be perfect,’ … That was when I really realized I was in the NFL and this was my real job.”

Unfortunately for Kerner, multiple knee injuries cut his dream of a lengthy NFL career short, and forced him into retirement in 1998. After getting healthy, multiple different jobs came his way: banking, retail, and then into a role with the Bills as their alumni director and later their director of player engagement. Currently, though, he has a relatively new position: he is the community director for Entrepreneurs Forever. The gig consists largely of connecting small business owners with the right people and the right resources to help solve problems and overcome obstacles, and it’s something that he is confident can benefit a lot of people.

“I really wanted to work on something that would benefit our community,” he said. “One of the things I realized from the process of transitioning from a player to employee was you still have to have a plan. I took some inventory (after the Bills position) and thought about what I wanted to do … At the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in football or not, but I know with E-forever, it was something interesting to me and I can focus on the Western New York community and their small business owners.”

Marlon Kerner

The road to the NFL was slightly different for Kurt Schulz. Originally, he played soccer and had just one year of high school football under his belt before going to play at Eastern Washington as a defensive back, where he credits his coaches for helping him get to the point he is today.

After a strong career as an Eagle, the pros came calling, and with the 195th overall pick in the 7th round of the 1992 NFL Draft, the Bills, who were coming off their second straight Super Bowl appearance, selected Schulz. While it was impossible to know at the time, a lengthy 10-year NFL career was born.

Schulz would be a member of the Bills for eight years, playing in 107 games in Buffalo and starting 72 of them. He finished his career with two seasons as a member of the Detroit Lions, where in 2000, he tallied a career-high seven interceptions in a single campaign.

Two Super Bowl appearances, 30 interceptions and 434 tackles later, Schulz would retire after the 2001 season.
“I was a hard worker, a quick study, and I wanted to be on the team and do whatever it took,” he said. “I remember, first minicamp out of the gate, I had to guard Thurman Thomas out of the shotgun and I hung with him for the most part. That stuck with my mind as a ‘hey Kurt, I think you can do this, you’re here for a reason.’ All these guys are all phenomenal, but when you’re on the field, you kind of know that you can hang with them.”

After his NFL days came to a close, Schulz, an accounting major at Eastern Washington, knew he had interest in numbers and the finance industry. After speaking with a neighbor, he got in touch about a position with Merrill Lynch and has been with them ever since as a wealth management advisor and consultant.

Kurt Schulz

“I’ve always loved the industry, finance, and I’m able now to help players with my own experience,” Schulz said. “The only two things certain in life are death and taxes, and somebody’s got to do your taxes, and I figured that would be a great position for me. I find business, math, taxes, all that interesting … I’ve been at Merrill Lynch for the past 17 years and I’ve got a good niche of players that I work with, and it’s a wonderful job. I’m super blessed.”

Despite being from Washington and not finishing his career in Buffalo, Schulz still stuck with the city after his playing days ended. While he splits much of his time between Western New York and his home state of Washington nowadays, the former Bill still has a passion for the Queen City.

“What made me stick in Buffalo was the people, they make the city what it is,” he said. “You can talk about the Great Lakes, the proximity to other places around the northeast, Ellicottville for skiing … It just comes down to the relationships I built. It’s a small town and the people are so welcoming, and that’s 100 percent the reason I wanted to stay.”

This feature article is part one of a three part series on professional sports players who have pivoted their careers in Buffalo. 

Author Adam Gorski
Photography Vincent Berbano
Editing Vincent Berbano, Addison Shoonmaker, Zoe Oleshansky

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