A SERIES FROM THE EDITORS OF FORTUNE AND Sports Illustrated
WHEN PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES amble off the field for good, their decadeslong sense of purpose often fades as well. At that juncture, says former Bengals tight end Tony McGee, they can be sorted into three strata: those with nothing going on, those with too much going on and those who have their futures all figured out.
When McGee, 43, hung up his cleats in early 2004, he imagined himself in that rarefied last group. His evidence: a gig with ESPN's Cold Pizza and a sports radio talk show in Orlando, where he also held stakes in a restaurant and a sports complex. Soon he learned that he was really in with the spread-thin lot. "When you have all this stuff going on, you can't concentrate on any one thing," says McGee, still fit at 6'4" and 220 pounds, over chicken tacos at a lakeside Orlando restaurant. "I was the quintessential jack-of-all, master of none."
And so McGee's business interests became more streamlined and efficient, until streamlining and efficiency became his business. Four years ago he founded and became the CEO of HNM Global Logistics, which connects those who move freight (trucking companies, airliners, rail transporters) with clients whose freight needs to be moved, getting it from one place to another as painlessly as possible. HNM's Orlando headquarters is attached to a 30,000-square-foot warehouse lined with white boxes stacked high on orange metal frames, one of four similar facilities currently owned or leased by HNM. It's a far cry from the 500-square-foot office 12 miles away, where McGee took his first steps in an industry he learned of during a chance dinner conversation. "I just figured it out," he says of those early days. "You get on the phone, start calling, networking, tapping your resources.... You don't think why or how. It's just: I gotta get this done."
If none of this was in his original plans, neither was an NFL career. McGee grew up in Terre Haute, Ind., and like many a young Hoosier fancied himself a basketball player, even earning scholarship offers from Indiana and Pitt, among others. But as an undersized post player, McGee knew his prospects were brighter on the gridiron. He accepted a scholarship from Michigan, where he played tight end and studied communications. For his first three years, however, McGee spent most fall Saturdays as just another spectator. "When you have four catches going into your senior year," says McGee, "you're not trying to sign an agent."
Then things changed. In 1992, McGee was second on the Wolverines with 38 receptions for 467 yards and six touchdowns, including two in a 38--31 win over Washington in the Rose Bowl. The Bengals drafted him in the second round and immediately installed him in the starting lineup, where he would remain for the next nine seasons, catching 299 passes for 3,795 yards and 20 TDs. These were not high times in Cincinnati: During McGee's tenure the team went 45--99 with no playoff berths and nine starting quarterbacks. The circumstances forced McGee to look inward. "There are so many things surrounding the team that you can't control," he says. "You had to say, As an individual, how am I playing?"
Cut by the Bengals after a knee sprain shortened his 2001 season, McGee spent a year with the Cowboys, but the arrival of future All-Pro Jason Witten made him expendable during training camp in '03. The Giants called a few months later when their starting tight end, Jeremy Shockey, was injured, offering McGee a roster spot and a shift in perspective. "I remember [in Cincinnati] we would look at the veteran that comes in halfway through the year and be like, Man, we never want that to be us," McGee says. "Then that's you." As the season wound down, he knew he was done.
AT FIRST THERE were restless mornings, times McGee would wake up and work out and then not know what to do, but still, by most standards, he had a full plate. Warm weather and affordable real estate had brought him to Florida, where he had his show on Orlando's ESPN Radio affiliate. (That quickly proved a grind: "You do a radio show in Orlando in June when the draft is over, NBA playoffs are over. That third hour was a struggle.") He had a 5% stake in The Beacon, a trendy lounge that counted former Reds shortstop Barry Larkin and NBA guard Dee Brown among its co-owners, and a 10% stake in Champions Sports Complex.
And he soon discovered he could make easy money in Orlando's booming real-estate market, buying eight properties in a two-year span and flipping them for $1 million in profit. "At that point I'm like, I'm never doing a business," McGee says. "I'm just doing this forever." That fantasy collapsed with the subprime mortgage industry. The resulting recession wiped out The Beacon, which shuttered in 2009.
McGee launched a small roofing supply company with a partner, who suggested McGee attend a meeting about FF&E (accounting jargon for furniture, fixtures and equipment) to drum up business. Without even knowing what the term meant, McGee charmed and angled his way onto a team that successfully bid to outfit the suites at Orlando's Amway Arena. More contracts followed for nearby theme parks and hotels, until one night an acquaintance mentioned having recently granted a $93 million contract to a logistics company. McGee's ears perked up. "What's that?" he asked.
Inspired, he flung himself in a new direction. The fit proved natural. In early 2011 he landed his first contract, moving seized contraband for U.S. Customs. "He's got the personality," says John Jordan, owner of Total Logistic Services and a mentor to McGee. "He's got the charisma it takes, and he's not afraid."
After using his personal computer to draw up those first invoices himself, McGee hired six managers from a competitor and expanded. "Our situation was, Hey, you guys bring your skill set, I'll provide the platform," says McGee. HNM Global did more than $1 million in business in its first year, says McGee, an amount that has since swelled to eight figures in annual revenue. His staff has grown to 27, with clients that range from fireworks retailers to cruise lines to German motorcycle tours.
In 2013, McGee launched an offshoot of HNM Global, HNM Express, which provides trucking and freight-moving services, and he's in negotiations to open a group of Dunkin' Donuts franchises back in Indiana. (His research: daily taste tests at Orlando locations.) He remains as active as he is ambitious, rising each morning between 4:30 and 5:00 to hit the gym. The physical toll of his NFL career is, at least for now, negligible: pronounced thumb joints, manageable ankle inflammation, minor aches and pains. He harbors no regrets about his football days and sees his success as tied to the sport, not only in the discipline it instilled but also in the financial security it provided. "That's what the NFL does," McGee says. "It gave me a head start in my second career." Even if he committed a few false starts.
To watch a video about Tony McGee and to see the entire Pro-Files video series, go to SI.com/pro-files