Former NFL Football Player Tackles a Foster MBA

Brian Russell, MBA 2012When Brian Russell (MBA 2012) decided to exchange Xs&Os for P&Ls, the former National Football League player also had to give up bone-jarring open field tackles. That hurt. But soon after he enrolled at the University of Washington Foster School of Business Full-time MBA Program, Russell discovered a new passion—high-finance real estate.

“I didn’t know what that next thing was going to be,” Russell said of life after nine years as a free safety in the NFL, which included a stint for the Seattle Seahawks in 2007 and 2008. He had taken his wife’s advice and left the game “a year early rather than a year late” and tried to retire and play golf but “just hanging out and doing nothing, it’s very boring.”

He thought about being a coach, but also considered going back to school. After talking with other players who had entered MBA programs and staff at the Foster School, he decided to explore a new career path.

First year as an MBA student
“My finance class first quarter—loved it. The classes since—love it,” Russell said. “Now, I am interested in real estate development and real estate investment syndication.” He also lined up a summer internship with a major real estate investment firm in San Francisco, though he intends to base his career in Seattle.

While Russell discovered a new direction for his professional life as a Foster MBA student, he said he has also discovered new approaches to leadership, strategic thinking and teamwork.

“In football, as in most sports, it is very hierarchical … I say, you do,” he explained. “But here, everything is thought out. You are allowed to challenge ideas. If someone is trying to lead with something you don’t agree with, you’re supposed to say something. If you are in that leadership seat, you have to understand that there are a lot of good ideas and smart people sitting around the table.”

Success on the field—and in teams
One thing has remained the same, however: “It was a physical thing in football, a little militaristic but ultimately you are striving for success. And we’re striving for success here, you just have to handle it in a different environment.”

In terms of developing strategy, Russell said, the collaborative feedback built into the structure of the Foster MBA is helping him learn how to make better business decisions.

“I am becoming better at understanding the feedback. You start with your idea. You gather input. You refine, and then hopefully you have something,” he said.

Russell also came to Foster prepared for mental challenges. “As physical as it looks on TV, there is a lot of chess going on in the game." There are hours of video and analysis to review for each player, every play by every team. As free safety, Russell was essentially quarterback of the defense, making changes on the field to counter offensive tactics.

“When you are watching the films and making a game plan, you know that you have to make these strategic decisions that can make or break a game,” he said. “That was something I was good at, and I enjoyed it.”

Then came his last NFL game.

It was January 2010 and Russell’s team, the Houston Texans, squared off against the New England Patriots with Tom Brady and Randy Moss, who had been a teammate with Russell in Minnesota for four years.

“I understood the way he operated, and I studied Brady and that offense leading up to the game and wanted to have a good game going out and I did,” he said. “I used my experience guarding Randy all those practices and the film study and prevented a lot of deep plays. It felt good going out like that, making a difference.”

The Texans beat the Patriots to achieve their first winning season.

Now Russell’s playbook opens in Excel. While the learning curve was “pretty steep” returning to school for his MBA, he wanted it that way. “I took the extra time to catch up as best I could. Now I think I’m kind of rockin’ and rollin’.”

"I didn't know what that next thing [after football] was going to be. My finance class first quarter—loved it. The classes since—love it. Now, I am interested in real estate development and ...investment."
Brian Russell, former NFL player
MBA class of 2012