Preparing For Life After Sports During Your Playing Career: Detroit Lions RB Zach Zenner

As NFL training camps wind down and the countdown to the regular season kickoff approaches single digits, players around the league are vying for a very limited number of spots on a roster. With 32 teams in the league and 53 players per roster there are a total of 1,696 active NFL players each year. As is the case with other sports, players get hurt and the number fluctuates as to how many players there actually are, but this is a small percentage of people who have made it to the sport’s highest league.

For those guys who are unfortunately one of the last players to get cut from a team, there are hopes to sign on with another team or even remain on a practice squad. However, there are also other options such as the Canadian Football League (CFL) and Arena Football League (AFL). For those who decide to hang up their cleats and move onto a life after football, proper preparation is key.

Detroit Lions running back Zach Zenner began preparing for life after football before he even played a down in the NFL. He attended South Dakota State University where he rushed for at least 2,000 yards during each of the 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons and graduated with a biology degree with sights set on medical school. He was projected as a fifth or sixth round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but went undrafted and signed with the Detroit Lions as a free agent.

After making the Lions roster in each of the last two seasons, Zenner is vying for a back-up running back spot for the third season in a row. During a game against the Chicago Bears in his rookie season, Zenner suffered multiple fractured ribs and a collapsed lung which lead to him being placed on the injured reserve. While unable to play football, he put his biology degree to use and did research in a lab at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

The third year back has already been accepted to the Sanford School of Medicine at South Dakota after scoring a 30 on the MCAT, but deferred his admission to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL. While he knows that his football career will not last forever, Zenner decided to invest in his life after the game while still actively involved in the sport.

Instead of getting down about ending up on the injured reserve right when his career was getting started, Zenner spent his time gaining valuable experience that would help him achieve his goal of becoming a doctor. Zenner is the lead author on an original medical research study called “Free-radical scavenging reverses fructose-induced salt-sensitive hypertension.” In layman’s terms, the work centered around finding different answers to questions surrounding hypertension and blood pressure within high-fructose, glucose and salt diets.

Dr. William Beierwaltes, Zenner’s boss at Henry Ford Hospital, in an article for ESPN said, “The most important thing in science is publication. And this, a real research study as opposed to a case study or a review, there’s lots of different things you can publish. But the gold standard is an original research study, and that’s what this will be.”

His work could ultimately be published in a medical journal, which is rare for a medical student – even more-so for an aspiring medical student who is playing in the NFL. According to Bierwaltes and Dr. Noreen Rossi, for whom he conducted research during this past offseason at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Detroit, most medical students do not have studies like this on his resume. Bierwaltes went further and mentioned that some of his colleagues for more than a decade have not authored a publication like Zenner’s. Not bad for someone whose primary focus is cracking the Lions’ 53-man roster.

While not all current athletes have the opportunity to get their research published in a medical journal like Zenner, the key takeaway from his story is to take advantage of the resources available to you in order to best set yourself up for a career once the one on the field ends. For NFL players, this could come in the form of an externship hosted by the NFLPA where current players can gain valuable work experience in the offseason. For NBA players, taking advantage of opportunities such as Sportscaster U. if you are interested in a broadcasting career after retiring.

This is definitely easier said than done. For most athletes in the midst of their playing career, he or she does not want to focus on anything other than preparing themselves for the next game, match, etc. Maybe during the offseason there is a new focus on what path they will take when they step away from the game, but the offseason is a time to recover from the past season and spend time with family. By developing a plan for your next career during your playing career, your transition will be easier.

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