Some NFL players retire to an analyst chair, others to a world of golf and speaking engagements, but former San Francisco 49er Jason Hairston ended up in the hunting gear business and avid hunters such as Carson Palmer and Jeremy Affeldt are glad he did.
Palmer, the starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, and Affeldt, a former pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, consider hunting to be more of a passion in their lives than professional sports (more on that later) and sing the praises of Hairston’s Kuiu (pronounced koo-yoo) line. They’re not the only ones who share that sentiment among the pro-athlete-as-hunter crowd as San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns and San Francisco Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland are big Hairston fans too—not that the founder and CEO of Kuiu ever imagined himself in this line of work.
Like many kids growing up in southern California, Hairston played football, but he didn't land a scholarship coming out of high school as an All-Orange County (Calif.) defender. He started thinking about a possible NFL career after the University of California Davis Aggies named him a starting linebacker in 1993. Unfortunately, the perils of the sport got the better of him. While making a tackle during a Division II playoff game his junior season, he incurred damage to his C5 and C6 vertebrae and struggled in football afterward. That didn’t scare away the 49ers and then-defensive coordinator Pete Carroll, who signed Hairston as an unrestricted free agent in 1995. He lasted a year with the 49ers, tried to latch on with the Denver Broncos, and eventually retired in 1996 due to his continuing neck problems.
Fast forward to 2016, beyond the unsatisfying stint as a commercial real estate agent and the fallout from his original hunting gear company, Sitka, and the 44-year-old Hairston currently sits atop a Kuiu brand that is among the top in its field, with expected sales of $50 million this year.
“I was struggling after football ended," says Hairston. "What is going to be more glorious than running out into Mile High Stadium and playing with John Elway? Even though I was making a lot of money doing commercial real estate, I kept searching for a more meaningful career path forward. I came up with the idea for Sitka and it just felt right. My gut told me to go after Sitka, so I sold everything I had and leveraged everything. I created the entire [mountain hunting] category for the hunting market, which is a humongous market, and since then I realized this is really my gift to the world as far as building brands.”
Many of the hunters involved with Kuiu are deeply rooted in mountain hunting, some of them taking three-day or longer trips to remote locations across the country. Staying warm and being light on gear are a few of the details they heed to in an attempt to gain the slightest advantage in the wilderness. Oftentimes that has them gravitating to Hairston's high-performance products.
“With Jason being an ex-athlete, athletes a lot of time have long arms, long legs, they just have long levers," says Affeldt. "He makes stuff with that understanding. A lot of athletes have that length and need that length. Overall it was a good fit for me and who I was as a hunter. If [the gear] doesn't fit right or fit the kind of hunting I do, it doesn't make sense to wear it. I don't want to look like a big marshmallow walking around in the winter."
Because Kuiu is a direct to consumer company, Hairston can see every purchase. "If we get a celebrity or a professional athlete, we know it," he says. "That customer info is given to me and I will write a note, put my card in there and say thank you for the business. We get a ton of response off of that. We have been able to connect with all of the San Francisco Giants that hunt. Jeff Fisher is a Kuiu customer. A lot of MMA fighters are Kuiu customers.
Palmer learned of Hairston and Kuiu via his old quarterback coach Ken O'Brien and says, "I love to hunt and I love their stuff. It's the best I’ve found. There's nothing more important than being warm and dry. And his stuff has held up extremely well."
Strickland, now in his ninth season of professional baseball, says he went on his first elk hunt a few years ago with Kuiu gear and has a couple more scheduled this off-season. "I am definitely falling in love with that style of hunting. It's tough hunts. You're out there in the woods for two weeks at a time. Cold weather, what not. Having to filter out water. I mean, it's definitely a survival challenge."
Says, Hairston, "If you're dedicated to the type of hunting I do, it's a lifestyle. It is not just, Hey, let's go hunting tomorrow. We train for it year around. We do specialized training when we get closer to the trips. We carry heavier loads with packs with the equipment we're going to be wearing during the trip to make sure it fits and wears correctly."
"In the fall, I normally will be gone almost all of August, September and October—on multiple trips in different environments. In August we go really far north as that is the only weather window when the hunting season is available where you can get in and get out without getting snowed in or stuck in the mountains."
Palmer hasn't yet been on a big elk or sheep hunt but says it's something he looks forward to doing when he retires. "I’ve missed out on so much," he says, "because football season begins right when hunting season begins and football ends when hunting season ends.
"To me, hunting is a passion and football is a job. I love the Sundays, but the workouts, and all that goes into keeping your body in shape during the off-season, I don't know anybody who enjoys that. There’s a big difference between work and hobby and obviously hunting is a hobby."
A hobby that Hairston and Kuiu have made a lot more enjoyable.