When we watch National Football League (NFL) games, we marvel at the abilities and accomplishments of the game’s best players. And year after year, new players enter the league, earning star status among their peers and adoration from the fans.
But what happens to those older players whom we used to marvel over, especially after their careers come to an end? Some go into coaching, some go into broadcasting, but many go into relative anonymity.
To that latter point, let’s look into what some of those NFL players who were stars in the 1990’s and 2000’s are doing these days – especially the ones whom we haven’t heard from in a while.
In 2016, superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson shockingly announced his retirement from the NFL after nine seasons. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest wide receivers of all time despite his early retirement at age 30 in 2016, having been named to the All-Pro team five times and earning six Pro Bowl selections.
In February of 2019, Johnson and his wife, Brittney McNorton, were granted preliminary approval to open a medical cannabis dispensary. He has since proceeded with plans to launch several cannabis facilities across the state (along with his business partner Rob Sims) under the brand name Primative. In August of 2019, Johnson was named to the board of directors of the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association.
Marvin Harrison of the Indianapolis Colts was one of the most productive wide receivers in NFL history. In 2002, he set the NFL record for most catches in a season (143), and currently ranks 5th all time in most career receptions (1,102).
Harrison, who retired from the NFL in 2009, runs a company that owns roughly 80 properties around Philadelphia, including housing, a sports bar, and a car garage. You’ve heard his name pop up recently on the web because of his son, Marvin Harrison Jr., is four-star wide receiver prospect and among the 10 best players at his position in the 2021 recruiting class.
No running back in NFL history ran for more yards over their career than Emmitt Smith. He is one of four running backs to lead the NFL in rushing three or more consecutive seasons. Smith led the league in rushing and won the Super Bowl in the same year three times (1992, 1993, and 1995), a feat that had never previously been done before.
In his post-NFL days, Smith has become an avid Real Estate developer, using the copious earnings he made while playing football. In his first deal, Smith helped the firm sign Mervyn’s, a California-based department store chain, to anchor a $45 million, 230,000-square-foot project in Phoenix, Arizona. Smith also co-founded ESmith Legacy, a Baltimore-based company that specializes in commercial real estate development and investment management. He serves as its Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer. He’s also made various television appearances, including on Dancing with the Stars, the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, and the game show Deal or No Deal.
One of the first true “dual-threat” quarterbacks of the modern era, Randall Cunningham played in the NFL for 17 seasons, starting with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1085 and ending with the Baltimore Ravens in 2001. He was famously the quarterback of the record-setting offense of the Minnesota Vikings in 1998.
In March of 2013, Cunningham authored Lay It Down: How Letting Go Brings Out Your Best,” a book showing readers how to use his “lay it down” principle in all phases of life. In December of 2014, Cunningham was named head coach at Silverado High School. In his first year, he guided the school to its first playoff victory since the year 2007. He helped coach two National All-Americans who were chosen to participate in the Blue-Grey All-American Bowl games.
Going down in the storied history of the middle linebackers for the Chicago Bears, alongside names like Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher won the NFL Rookie of the Year Award in 2000, was elected to eight Pro Bowls, and won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2005. He eventually retired in 2012, finishing with a team-record 1,779 tackles, 41.5 sacks, 22 interceptions, 16 fumble recoveries, and 11 forced fumbles.
While Urlacher stated that he hadn’t always felt comfortable in front of cameras, that hasn’t stopped him from appearing on television in his post-playing days. Urlacher has appeared in several commercials for McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, Comcast, Nike, Campbell’s Chunky soup, Old Spice, and Glacéau. He also shared the spotlight with Peyton Manning in a MasterCard commercial at a spa. Nike also aired special commercials about Urlacher’s high school career containing clips and commentary of plays he made.
Defensive end Jared Allen was one of the most productive pass rushers of this era, tallying 136 quarterback sacks during his 12-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, and Carolina Panthers. He was a five-time Pro Bowl and four-time All-Pro selection.
Currently, Allen serves as an advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and raises funds through his “Sack Diabetes” program. Allen was also an active role model in the JDRF’s Children’s Congress 2009. He also moonlighted as an investor and player relations executive for the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. Allen spends a lot of his free time outdoors as well, as he’s an avid hunter.
A top 10 pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, Roland “Champ” Bailey arguably had the greatest combination of mental plus athletic greatness of any cornerback since he was drafted. He was selected to 12 Pro Bowls in his career, the most ever for a cornerback. He holds the current NFL record for most passes defended, with 203.
As his playing career began to wind down, Bailey already had eyes for what he would do in his post-playing days. Shortly after retiring, he and business partner Josh McCoy, his business partner founded a company where Bailey and his brother (and former NFL player) Boss Bailey would use much of the money they earned in the NFL to invest in smaller, up-and-coming companies, in the same way the “Sharks” invest in such companies on the hit TV show “Shark Tank.”.
Simply put: no player in NFL history has sacked the opposing quarterback than Bruce Smith, since the league officially began tallying the statistic. The #1 overall pick in the 1985 NFL Draft was the defensive stalwart for the Buffalo Bills teams that famously went to (and lost) four straight Super Bowls.
Having retired to home state of Virginia in retirement, Smith currently works as a large-scale hotel designer. One of his projects includes purchasing the Red Lion Inn in Blacksburg, Virginia, where his alma mater (Virginia Tech) is located. He also built a Hilton Garden Inn Hotel with 137 sleeping rooms and is working on redeveloping a hotel and restaurant complex. Smith also works with Thurman Thomas in their new business venture, Legends Energy Group. They promote energy programs across North America.
One of the most feared safeties of the 1980’s and 1990’s, hard-hitting Steve Atwater finished is career with two Super Bowl championships, capping a career that saw him elected to the Pro Bowl eight times and selected for two All-Pro teams.
In 2005, Atwater’s name was added as the 20th member of the Ring of Fame, five years after retiring. He tried his hand in various business ventures, dabbling in Real Estate and the stock market, while raising his four children. His two sons attended Georgetown University and Princeton University to play football. In 2017, Atwater was hired as both an insider for the Broncos’ website as well as fan development manager.
A breathtaking combination of size, arm strength, athleticism, and passing skills, quarterback Daunte Culpepper was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time All-Pro before his career was cut short due to a gruesome knee injury sustained in 2005 (where he tore three of the four major ligaments in his knee).
After retiring for good in 2009, Culpepper has done the usual “attend fan events as a famous former player on the team,” and also dabbled in various media appearances. In 2010, Culpepper appeared in an episode of George Lopez, along with Donovan McNabb. Culpepper also appeared in the movie 50 First Dates (starring Adam Sandler), where he’s shown throwing a touchdown pass to former teammate Jim Kleinsasser.
Arguably the most creative if not electrifying running back in the history of the NFL, Barry Sanders averaged over 1,500 rushing yards per season and just under 100 rushing yards per game during his 10 years with the Detroit Lions. In 1997, he became the third player to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season and was named the NFL Most Valuable Player. But in 1998, he shockingly retired, with most people believing he was still in his athletic prime.
A notoriously quiet individual in general, the most you heard of Sanders after he parted ways with the Lions was about his somewhat public divorce from his wife, after his marriage had lasted 12 years. More recently, Sanders rejoined the Lions organization in 2017 as an ambassador for the team, serving as a figure of goodwill for the team. His promotional duties include things like visiting suite holders during games and attending meet-and-greet sessions along with going to other team functions such as its draft party.
An invaluable cog in the vaunted “K-Gun” no-huddle offense of the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990’s, running back Thurman Thomas was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and five-time All-Pro selection, in addition to being named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player in 1991. He currently ranks 16th in all-time rushing yards in NFL history, running for 12,074 yards in his career.
Thomas established the Thurman Thomas Foundation in 1992, and has been involved in community issues since early in his career and in his days after it. He has talked about mental health and the effects of concussions suffered during his football career, and has been an advocate for player health in their post-playing days. Further, he was appointed as vice chair of the New York State Tourism Advisory Council in 2014.
One of the most feared linebackers of the 2000’s while playing with the San Francisco 49ers, linebacker Patrick Willis made the Pro Bowl in his first seven seasons in the NFL, and earned All-Pro honors in his first six years. After struggling with a toe injury that kept Willis sidelined for most of 2014, he announced his shocking retirement prior to the start of the 2015 season.
Expect to hear Willis’ name a bit more in the news after the 2019 season. While Willis has dabbled in things like creating workout programs online (modeled after his own incredible work ethic in the NFL) and working towards a possible future in law enforcement, Willis is now among the favorites to be enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame in 2020, which would be his first year of eligibility.
Arguably the first owner of the nickname “the freak,” edge rusher Jevon Kearse possessed a scary combination of strength, speed, burst, and arm length, helping him earn the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1999, and make the Pro Bowl his first three seasons in the NFL.
Kearse has unfortunately run into some financial pitfalls in retirement. Kearse was among 35 NFL players who lost as much as $43.6 million to Denver financial adviser Jeffrey Rubin, who received an industry bar from the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2015. However, he states that he’s physically very healthy after retirement, and spends much of his time working with his philanthropic foundation.
The cornerstone of the resurrection of the previously moribund New England Patriots franchise, the team selected quarterback Drew Bledsoe with the #1 overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft, and he led them to the Super Bowl in 1996. Bledsoe would end his career with four Pro Bowl selections, and is still ranked 15th in all-time passing yards in NFL history (throwing for 44,611 yards).
Bledsoe is currently the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Summit High School in Bend, Oregon, having held the position since 2012. In 2007, after retiring, Bledsoe founded the Doubleback Winery along with close friend Chris Figgins, located in and around Walla Walla, Washington. His Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines were ranked among Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines.
The third overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, Andre Johnson is currently ranked eleventh all-time in NFL career receptions and 10th all-time in NFL receiving yards. The four-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowl selection holds nearly every receiving record in Houston Texans franchise history.
In late 2012, Johnson made headlines around the world when it was shared that he spent over $19,000 for kids aged 8–16 in Child Protective Services to have a shopping spree at Toys R’ Us. Johnson’s own foundation, the Andre Johnson Charitable Foundation, funded the spree. Johnson also joined the Houston Police Department’s Blue Santa program to surprise 800 students at Houston’s Bastian Elementary School with Christmas presents.
One of the foundational members of “The Greatest Show On Turf” offense of the St. Louis Rams from 1999 through 2003, wide receiver Torry Holt was named to the Pro Bowl seven times in eight seasons, between 2000 and 2007. He led the NFL in receiving yards twice in that span, and in receptions once.
In 2015, Holt became Heritage High School’s (NC) assistant football coach and wide receiver’s coach, along with former NFL players Dewayne Washington and Willie Parker. Holt has spent a portion of his days in retirement campaigning for a NFL Hall of Fame enshrinement. His biggest argument in his favor? He has the most receiving yards by a player in his first five years in NFL history. He was recently enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2019.
A gargantuan receiver who was virtually unguardable because of his combination of size, speed, and catch radius, Plaxico Burress had a long and distinguished career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants primarily. He was a part of the 2007 New York Giants’ team that won the Super Bowl, shocking the heavily-favored (and previously undefeated) New England Patriots.
Burress has dabbled in much of the usual endeavors for many former NFL stars after they retire. He appeared on a reality television show (Celebrity Wife Swap) in 2014, and joined SportsNet, New York’s SportsNite, making his debut as an NFL analyst that same year. In 2017, he joined the staff of the Arizona Cardinals as a coaching intern.
In the 2000 NFL Draft, Indianapolis Colts’ executive Bill Polian shocked the world when he took running back Edgerrin James ahead of ballyhooed running back Ricky Williams. James would go on to make Polian look like a genius, being named to the Pro Bowl and to the All-Pro team four times in his first six seasons with the colts.
James’ name has popped up over the last few late summers, as he’s a three-time finalist for the NFL’s Hall of Fame, but still has not been selected for the honor. As he bides his time for the next Hall of Fame class, he’s busy working with his son, Eden Makes, a high school football star in James’ native Miami, Florida. James’ other son, Edgerrin James Jr., is also garnering notoriety for being another star in the making, despite being only in middle school.
After being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 12th overall in the 1997 NFL Draft, Warrick Dunn was named AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1997 and earned three Pro Bowl selections in his career. He was an ultra-productive dual-threat running back both with the Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons.
A noted philanthropist who spends much of his time in retirement with his charity, Dunn’s non-profit, Warrick Dunn Charities, partners with other non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity to build homes for disadvantaged families. His charity has awarded millions in home furnishings, food and other donations to single-parent families and children across the nation to combat poverty, hunger and ensure families have comfortable surroundings and basic necessities to improve their quality of life.
One of the most overlooked running backs of this era, few runners were more productive over the course of their career than running back Curtis Martin. After a distinguished playing career with the New England Patriots and New York Jets, Martin retired as the fourth leading rusher in NFL history in 2006.
In 2019, Martin received a honorary doctorate of humane letters from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, for his charitable works in the community. During the ceremony, Martin was praised for his achievements with the Curtis Martin Job Foundation, which provides financial support to single parents and people with disabilities. His foundation also provides medical help to people living in developing countries.
One of the greatest running backs in the history of college football, former New Orleans Saints head coach Mike Ditka traded an entire draft’s worth of picks to move up for the chance to take Ricky Williams. While his career had its ups-and-downs due to off-the-field stuff, Williams ran for over 10 thousand yards over the course of his career, and had 66 career rushing touchdowns.
Williams currently serves as an analyst for ESPN’s Longhorn Network and co-hosts the pregame show “Texas GameDay.” In 2018, Williams co-founded an herbal wellness company, with his wife Linnea Miron, named Real Wellness. Concurrently, he’s enrolled in a master’s program at Emperor’s College of Traditional Oriental Medicine in Santa Monica, CA.
An undrafted free agent out of the 1997 NFL Draft, running back Priest Holmes not only won a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, but he became three-time All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowl selection and was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2002 with the Kansas City Chiefs. The following year, Holmes set the NFL record for total touchdowns in a season with 27.
After being inducted into the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame in 2014, Holmes spends much of his time working with his namesake Priest Holmes Foundation. He is actively involved in the NFLPA Former Players Chapter of San Antonio/Austin, Texas as Vice President and serves on the NFLPA Former Players Board of Directors.
Running back Fred Taylor played for thirteen seasons during the 1990’s and 2000’s, largely with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and a brief stint with the New England Patriots. After leaving the NFL, Taylor held at least 42 Jaguars franchise records, including the most rushing attempts, yards, touchdowns, yards from scrimmage, and total touchdowns.
At least until recently, Taylor has kept out of the eye of the public. His name popped up when current Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook talked about asking former NFL running backs for their advice on career longevity. However, Taylor did earn some public notoriety when he blasted a recent list of the 100 greatest players in Jaguars’ franchise history listed him as #2, behind offensive lineman Tony Boselli. Taylor’s tweet included in part: “I did something only 21 players in history of the game done at my position. #WhatAJoke”.
As a 6’1, 287lb “tweener,” John Randle was undrafted out of Texas A&M (Kingsville). Teams thought he was too big to be a defensive end, and too small to be a defensive tackle. The Vikings took a chance on Randle by signing him in 1990, and three years later, he was named to his first Pro Bowl. That was the first of seven appearances he would make to the annual all star game. After a 14-year career in the NFL, Randle was enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame.
In his retired days, a famous mattress company decided to take advantage of the fact that Randle was a notorious trash-talker during his playing days. Randle recently appeared in a commercial for Sleep Number, where they’ve depicted him baking cookies for all the opponents he tormented while on the field.