INDIANAPOLIS — Gary Brackett terrorized opposing offenses for nine years as an undersized but overachieving linebacker in the NFL.
These days the athlete-turned-entrepreneur is bum-rushing the business scene in an aggressive expansion as owner of the Stacked Pickle, an Indianapolis-area-based sports bar and restaurant chain.
For Brackett, who was a player on the Super Bowl XLI champion Indianapolis Colts, managing a team of burger-smashers is a skill set closely related to coordinating a posse of defenders intent on pancaking quarterbacks, with teamwork being the common denominator.
"I have jokingly said that the restaurant industry is ultimately a team sport," said Brackett, who is eyeing expansion opportunities in markets like Jeffersonville in Southern Indiana and Mishawaka in the northern part of the state, and as far away as Florida and Colorado. "From the hostess to the servers to the bartenders to the manager, everyone has a job to do at a high level and has to perform."
Brackett has joined others of similar athletic pedigree in launching second careers as business owners, diving into their leadership-centric past on the playing field to guide them in the often merciless landscape of entrepreneurship.
"Being a former athlete, I know what it's like to be on a successful team," said Brackett, a New Jersey native who played his entire career with the Colts. "People only remember the legends of the world. It's no different in the restaurant game. People remember legendary service, and they want to come back time and time again."
THE COMPETITIVE EDGE
According to Gerry Hays, a senior lecturer of venture capital and entrepreneurial finance at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, former pro athletes have a few built-in advantages when it comes to starting a business, including:
• name recognition, if a consumer-facing business is in the town the athlete played;
• capital, perhaps the ability to put some of the earnings from professional sports to get a business started;
• proven work ethic (which is a must for a professional athlete).
But regardless of a person's background, "the key for any entrepreneur is to do something you love and understand," Hays stated in an email. "Barring these two dynamics, the risk of failure goes up dramatically."
As a former Major League pitcher, Joe Thatcher certainly understands the risk of failure — and the fruits of success.
Thatcher, a native Hoosier who played for nine years in the big leagues, expects to open a roughly $6 million facility at the end of January to house his Pro X Athlete Development at the Grand Park Events Center in Westfield, a suburb of Indianapolis.
An undrafted free agent out of Indiana State University, Thatcher's long journey to the majors would inform him later in his business career.
"I think it's just kind of the dedication it takes," said Thatcher, a Kokomo native, about being a successful entrepreneur. "Looking back on it I'm proud of that journey, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. Also I knew I had to work harder than everybody else.
"Just the hours and hours it takes to be successful is part of it. Just kind of enjoy the journey. For anything you want to be successful at, nothing happens overnight."
Pro X employs a roster of other former pro athletes, including NFL veterans and former Colts Dan Muir, Justin Snow and Curtis Painter, all of whom happened to play alongside Brackett. A handful of recent college graduates are training with Pro X in anticipation of the upcoming NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
The facility at Grand Parks will have 34,000 square feet of open turf, including two baseball diamonds and a 40-yard football field, a high-performance weight room, two golf simulators, 22 batting cages and office space, to name some of the amenities.
"It's a big investment, but it will be a training facility that will be unmatched," Thatcher said. "We're excited."
ON PACE FOR SUCCESS
Finding something that satisfies a former pro athlete's competitive appetite, while offering a rewarding second career, is crucial to life after sports. In Brackett's case, he's "a foodie and his heart is focused on helping others," Hays stated. "So the restaurant business is a great fit for him."
Which is why success on the service line, according to Brackett, is every bit as fulfilling as sacking a quarterback.
"Initially I wanted to be a head coach in the NFL, but what I'm doing right now is an extension of that as a head coach at the Stacked Pickle," Brackett said. "I give the mangers and employees the tools to be successful, and that excites me. I've always been a servant leader, and that's something I'm really exited about."
Even former pro athletes suffer through the rigors of building a business from the ground up. But what separated them on the athletic field is something available to any entrepreneur: persistence.
"You feel overwhelmed sometimes," Thatcher said. "But as long as you get home every day, and you feel like something was accomplished, before you know it you look up, and you've built something."