Sept. 4 marked the first day of another school year for students across the globe. But the experience was brand-new for students at Woodley Leadership Academy, who refer to themselves not as students but as leaders. The charter school named after Super Bowl champion LaMarr Woodley was formed just three years after he retired from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Woodley, 33, is using the new school to promote education in Saginaw, the Michigan city where he was born and raised, and build something bigger than his name on the door.
“Education is key,” said Woodley. “Coming up, I saw a lot of athletes that weren’t able to go to college because they couldn’t make the grades, and I’ve seen a lot of athletes in college fail because of grades. I’ve seen guys in the league fail, lose money and lose everything they have simply because they lacked education.”
The charter school, tuition-free and authorized by Eastern Michigan University, will start with kindergarten through fifth grade and add a grade each year until the eighth grade.
“I want to educate the youth because I know the talent that we have in our city. If we have strong education behind them, a lot of them would have more opportunities to go to college. So I’m just playing my role to make sure that I’m giving people an opportunity and a chance.”
The Woodley Leadership Academy offers after-school programs to teach financial literacy, entrepreneurship, drama and nutrition, among many other programs to help students better prepare for their futures. Woodley is at the school a few times a week to check in and interact with the young leaders. In addition, community members will visit the school to speak about their experiences and how they overcame obstacles in their own lives to get to where they are today.
Woodley prepared for this life after football while he was still in the league. The former outside linebacker was always aware that at any given moment his career could be over because of injury or being cut from a team’s roster.
It was the words — “You have to build something by using football and not let football use you.” — from his mentor Sam Sword, a former University of Michigan linebacker and ex-NFL player, that motivated him to use the game as a platform in all he pursued, whether through radio shows, partnering with companies or buying commercial real estate.
Woodley has been investing in his city since college, so it’s no surprise that he recently bought his old recreation center from Saginaw, a building he’s going to reconstruct into a learning center for adults and kids.
Even though Woodley’s playing days are behind him, he’s not far from the game. He went back to school and earned a master’s degree in sports counseling from California University of Pennsylvania. In 2017, Woodley traveled to Oakland to speak to the Raiders’ rookie class about his experiences during his eight-year career.
Through his media company, Area 56 Productions, he’s written and produced a miniseries called Draft Day that sheds light on the problems that athletes encounter when they make it to the league. He wrote about things that actually happened to him, such as getting tricked into co-signing on a $20,000 loan.
“I want athletes to be aware of what they are getting themselves into,” Woodley said. “With money comes problems, and these are issues they will have to face.”
Leaving the game was easier than one would think for the Michigan native.
“Football was just a part of my life,” said Woodley. “I had an identity outside of the helmet where most guys, sometimes, find it hard to leave the game because football became their identity. I made good money from the game, and now I have a chance to really build things for me, my family and my community.”
Now, his mission is to educate others, whether it be the students at the Woodley Leadership Academy or the rookies in the NFL.
If there’s one thing that’s undeniable it’s the love LaMarr Woodley has for his city, Saginaw.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Sam Sword told me to become more than a football player. Use football to open doors that aren’t usually opened for you.
Do you miss playing?
I accomplished everything that I wanted to in the league. I played for my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, won a Super Bowl, won a Pro Bowl, had a chance to have different records across the league and built great relationships. There was nothing else to accomplish. I had fun. Now I can enjoy the time I missed away from family and friends.
What would you tell other players who are preparing for life after football?
Start preparing now for it. Don’t be blinded by the big check that is coming in now, because one day those checks are going to stop coming in, so you have to find other streams of revenue to allow you to maintain the lifestyle you want to live.
What was your first major purchase?
How have you taught your own kids about leadership?
I’ve led by example. They might not understand this now, but when they’re older they will know.
Who are some leaders you look up to now?
Damon Dash. I’ve been watching his videos and I read his book. I like his philosophy about being a boss and taking ownership and creating your own opportunities.
Who was your childhood hero?
The Saginaw football high school players.
Who was your role model growing up?
Otis Washington. He was a junior when I was a freshman at Saginaw High School. I respected Otis because not only was he a star football player, but he also treated everyone with respect. I watched him around the hallways, on the football field, and I studied him. He was always so humble, and I never heard him say anything negative about anyone on the team.
I told myself if I’m ever a big-time athlete, I want to be like Otis Washington.
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