When a child interviews for admission to a private nursery school, what the administrator looks for is the ability to transition. It’s less “Does she discern Beethoven from Brahms?” than “Can the kid move, without too much complaining, from story time to blocks?”
Transitions. That’s all life is, and it’s tougher than physics. From school to work to retirement to dead. For a professional athlete who wants to have a good existence as opposed to merely a good playing career, the toughest transition is often the shift from the last season of competition to the first year of work. He’s like the mobster giving up the life for witness protection, or the acrobat quitting the circus to sell insurance.
“I still have fun, but nothing will ever replace the excitement of football,” says Gary Fencik, aka the Hit Man, who spent 12 seasons roaming the secondary for the Bears, including an All-Pro campaign in 1981. “You always miss the immediacy and clarity of the game. You go to work on Sunday, and three hours later, someone has won and someone has lost. There are no postponed meetings, no wait-and-sees. It’s happened, and either you were good enough or not. And everybody knows it.”
If you want to understand the art of transition, you can do worse than to study the Hit Man. After his playing days ended in 1987—Fencik is the Bears’ alltime interception leader and played free safety with a wild, attacking style that is still talked about in Chicago—he spent some time selling commercial real estate and also worked as a broadcaster, first on CBS in ’88 and then, from ’90 to ’93, on the Bears’ radio broadcasts. He started at Wells Fargo in ’92, and since ’95 he has worked at Adams Street Partners—a Chicago firm that specializes in the type of trading that measures returns in billions—where he is currently a partner and head of business development. Every time I talk to Fencik, I ask him to explain this gig, as I find the barrage of terms as pleasantly confusing as the details of Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense. In my mind Fencik, as he speaks, morphs from a handsome defensive back covered in grime to a charming, 60-year-old executive. “We’re a private equity manager and manage primarily pension-fund money, worldwide, and have different products or strategies we offer different types of clients, depending on what they’re trying to invest in,” he tells me. “Some clients may want exposure to our venture fund, [while] some may say, ‘Look, I just want a broad exposure to private equity,’ so they go into a product we call a fund of funds, and we invest in venture and buyout groups and create a diversified portfolio for them.”
From a certain point of view Fencik’s football career was just an interruption, a daydream on the way to the office. Coming out of Yale, where he played split end and majored in history, in 1976, he was drafted by the Dolphins in the 10th round. After being Miami’s last cut that September, he went home to see his parents—he grew up in Barrington, a Chicago suburb where his father was a high school assistant principal—before he was to start in the junior banker program at Citibank. But the Bears called and asked Fencik if he wanted to come to Lake Forest, site of the team’s practice facility, to try out.
Even when he made the team, Fencik continued to consider the life he would lead after the game. “One of the benefits of going to Yale is the example of the people around you,” said Fencik. “My roommate was going to business school, my teammates were going to med school, law school, so I never stopped thinking about what I was going to do after.”
Yet for Fencik, the future remained stubbornly unreal. That changed in 1979 as a result of a series of minor disasters. He broke his arm in Week 1, and later he tore up his knee and shredded his ankle. “Everything bad happened on the left side of my body,” he says. He had surgery on the latter two injuries and was suddenly made aware of his mortality. Around this time Bob Huff, an old friend and business mentor, called. He said to Fencik, “Gary, I know this isn’t a good moment, but you need to start thinking about what happens later.”
In 1981, Fencik enrolled at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. Four years later, as the Bears made their run to a championship under coach Mike Ditka, he spent two nights a week studying finance. Says Fencik, “Eighty-five was good. I completed my M.B.A., we won the Super Bowl and I met my wife.” He and Sandy live in Chicago; they have two children, a son and a daughter, both in college.
I asked Fencik why so many athletes have trouble transitioning from the field to the office cube. “I can’t speak about every profession, but when it comes to finance, there is a period of time when you are supposed to be paying your dues,” he tells me. “Most people do that in their 20s. If you’ve played 10 seasons of pro sports, you’re going to be doing it in your 30s or 40s, which is tough and lonely.”
Of course, many current players retire with the sort of cushion unknown to even the -stars of Fencik’s era. His NFL locker rooms were filled with guys working in the off-season- to make the mortgage. While it seems unfair—what would a player like Fencik make today?—it was lucky, too. Needing to work, as Fencik did, meant having to reinvent yourself to survive.
When I asked Fencik if football prepared him for this other life, he says, “I go to meetings where they talk about goal orientation, teamwork, holding people accountable, and I laugh because it’s like I’m back in football. These things do translate. It’s about building a culture. And for me, having played 12 years for the Bears, starting with teams that were not so good and watching as the environment was remade and we climbed until we reached the Super Bowl, you learned the importance of attitude.”
Fencik paused, then said, “You know, when they were designing our Super Bowl rings, Ditka said he wanted two words on them: team and attitude.”
But for Fencik, the greatest lesson came not from succeeding but from coming up short, as when he was cut by the Dolphins. In this, football really does work as a metaphor for life. “At one time or another most of us who played in the NFL were the best player on a team,” he tells me. “Then one day, unless you’re a freak of nature like -LeBron James or Walter Payton, you are no longer the best. It doesn’t mean you can’t be great. It just means you are going to have to study and work and figure out how to play better than you are. Some guys can never do it, and they’re gone. The others realize the same thing: As you get older, you have to learn how to be yourself all over again.”