Reggie Wilkes says the biggest surprise of his pro football career wasn't the Joe Pisarcik fumble that handed his Philadelphia Eagles one of the most improbable victories ever.
It was the startling number of teammates who couldn't balance their checkbooks.
The linebacker turned financial adviser says ignorance has led many National Football League players — who will collectively make $4 billion this season — to make poor choices when it comes to financial advice. "Whether you are the starting quarterback or the long snapper, everyone has a horror story of an investment that went wrong or a rep that wasn't proper," he said.
The situation has created a business opportunity for hundreds of advisers like Wilkes, a vice president at Merrill Lynch & Co. in Philadelphia, who are working with the NFL Players Association.
In 2007 the union started a program to vet financial advisers for its player members, and this month it rolled out an online platform that gives players access to guidance. The efforts have taken on a new urgency because players face the possibility of a lockout in 2011.
The Financial Advisors Program is the first of its kind, and advisers say it benefits players and advisers alike. The players and the union receive access to a group of qualified and screened advisers, and the advisers can establish relationships with affluent athletes.
The union has been working with the NFL for eight years to incorporate financial education into its annual rookie symposium, said Dana Hammonds, the director of financial programs and adviser administration for the NFLPA. The union does not endorse or recommend advisers or monitor their financial performance, she said.
Inclusion on the list means only that the adviser has met the program's eligibility requirements and passed its screening process. "Our goal is to give the membership information and resources so they can become educated investors and so they can be prepared to work better with the financial advisory community," Hammonds said.
The National Basketball Association audits the financial performance of advisers who work with its players, but it does not do the extensive background checks that the football union program does, Wilkes said. He works with professional basketball, baseball and football players. He said he expects the NBA, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League to create similar programs soon.
Frederick Hubler Jr., the president of Creative Capital Wealth Management Group in Phoenixville, Pa., and a registered NFLPA adviser, said that the program has enhanced his credentials with nonathletes.
"There are about 65,000 registered financial advisers in North America and there are only about 450 people in this program," he said. "Being in this program is good for me even with my nonfootball clients. My clients know that because of this, there is a third party that says that I am as good as I think I am."
Hubler, who has been part of the program since last year, said that he recently met with a retired baseball player who told him, "I am making sure if I work with someone they have solid NFLPA standing, because that means that they have had a background check."
Wilkes has been involved in the program since its inception.
After graduating from the Georgia Institute of Technology, he played for the Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons from 1978 to 1987. He attended Temple University's School of Medicine during his first two offseasons with the Eagles and later switched to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. He went to work for Merrill Lynch in 1989.
Wilkes said that initially he avoided working with athletes and instead focused on African-American businessmen and unions. Then, in 1995, he was contacted by Mitchell & Titus LLP, an African-American-owned accounting firm, to take on as a client Rasheed Wallace, who had been selected fourth in the NBA draft, "and that sort of got me on the road of focusing in on a sports/entertainment group," Wilkes said.
Wilkes left Merrill Lynch in 1999 to start ProCap LLC, which specialized in investment and lifestyle management for pro athletes. He sold his firm in 2004 and returned to Merrill shortly before its sale to Bank of America Corp.
Wilkes and many of his peers in the financial advisory world keep in regular contact with the union's program.
Hammonds said that the NFLPA holds an annual conference for advisers. More than 200 of its 450 registered advisers attended its most recent one in May in Henderson, Nev.
"It all comes back to education," she said. "We are constantly beefing up our education both for the players and the advisers. Advisers are provided at the conference with information about the unique needs of NFL players."
To prepare for a potential lockout, Wilkes said he advises his clients to keep two years' worth of liquid cash in their accounts.
There are plenty of other reasons for financial planning, too, in a sport where careers are short and salary caps are firm.
Unlike other pro sports that feature guaranteed contracts, NFL players "can go from making $2 million to making nothing the day that they are released," Hubler said. "It requires a lot of specialization."
But his description of his role is simple.
"I am really the no-man with the players that I work with, because they have plenty of yes-men around them," said Hubler, who works with a "handful" of professional athletes, including football and basketball players. "When a player's brother-in-law says he wants to open a car wash" that serves fast food, "I get to be the bad cop."
Wilkes said that he is a "teacher as much as an adviser" with his pro-athlete clients, including the NBA's Wallace, Cuttino Mobley and Maurice Cheeks, and the NFL's Bart Scott, Steve Slaton and Marques Colston. Wilkes' first NFL client, Lance Johnstone, is now working for him at Merrill Lynch.
"We really home in on our players that they don't want to become part of the statistic that says that more than 70% of professional athletes are financially challenged or bankrupt within three or four years of retirement," Wilkes said.