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NFL players tackle new playbook off the gridiron, using careers as 'second chance' to build dreams

Former NFL teammates Garrett Gilkey and Ryan Jensen talk to FOX News Digital about the growth plan behind their real estate firm Gilk, and helping to bridge career gaps.

Finding solid footing when going all-in on a new career could be daunting – especially for those looking for their next opportunity. 

However, the right formula of work plus financial and emotional mentorship could equal "that second chance, that third chance" at success, according to recently retired NFL players Ryan Jensen and Garrett Gilkey.

"Originally, I thought that I was just going to kind of flip a couple homes while being in and living in a construction management kind of role. And I fell in love with it very, very quickly," Gilkey, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive lineman, told FOX News Digital. "We get to live in a pretty interesting world of creating, extrapolating vision and creating amazing spaces for people, while also protecting our clients as shepherds and in a very volatile market."

"I was solely focused on football, that was my life. I didn't know really what I wanted to do post-football career. And, luckily, having a mentor and a friend in Garrett who went through that exodus of the NFL quite a bit earlier than me has been helpful," Jensen also told Digital. "That's something that's really important for NFL players or anybody really, who's in a big transition, a big transformation in their life from one profession to the other."


Gilkey founded his full-service home build and design firm, Gilk, in 2012, utilizing both his family experience in architecture and his Master’s of engineering degree. Jensen joined the Gilk team three years ago, and now with branches in Tampa and Denver, Gilk’s growth plan is to build dreams while transforming lives. The duo's alliance began in Colorado as college gridiron rivalries, following them to Tampa where they eventually joined forces in business. 

While catering mostly to higher-end, luxury homes for sports and entertainment clients, Gilk’s internal team is comprised of other retired professional athletes, military veterans and formerly incarcerated individuals.

"The community outreach and everything like that was super inspiring to me and made me want to be a part of it," Jensen – a Bucs center who just announced his NFL retirement after a knee injury caused him to play only one game over the last two seasons – said. "There's so many people out there that just need that second chance, that third chance that are good people that just have made mistakes or fallen into a problem with addiction, that they just need a hand to help them get back on their feet."

Take their warehouse manager, Jay, for example: He was serving a life sentence handed to him at 17 years old when recent state reform eventually granted Jay parole. The Gilk founder met him via ministry-based outreach, and now he earns $20 per hour serving as "this amazing example of what grace does for people, what love does for people and what opportunity does for people."

"Jay's the longest-running story of that. But we've had NFL players, we've had special operations guys part of our organization," Gilkey detailed, "and we've had a ton of people who just join and are part of our firm for a period or a season of life, and then move on to something different, in something with a greater calling or purpose."

Gilk’s intrinsic motivation doesn’t stem from the bottom line or dollar value of projects, but rather from leading with "client advocacy" and vulnerability. The founder noted the importance of catering to trust issues employees and homeowners may face.

"Ryan and I can tell stories for hours about being seen as a transaction and being seen primarily as a dollar sign, being seen as the big dumb football player and being seen only as the guy who plays on Sunday, who then just gets a big check on Monday. That's never been who we are. That's not what we are. That's not our identity," Gilkey said.

"We are super committed to communicating the vulnerabilities and opportunities of our industry in a way that is more broadly received and accepted in our industry," he continued. "We want to see the vulnerable people who are doing projects walk through this experience in ways that really affirm who they are, and their needs, and their issues and their concerns. And we want to see people at the blue-collar level in the trades be empowered and not be used and not be transacted against… We want to see the gap bridged of clients who are used to being burned and trades who are used to also being burnt."


The average length of a player’s career in the NFL lasts around 3.3 years, according to data from Statista. The minimum salary for NFL players in the 2023 season amounted to $750,000, per the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. The highest-paid sport in America, however, is the NBA, where, on average, each player takes home a little more than $8 million each year. The Gilk guys noted the biggest challenge when transitioning away from a rich-and-famous lifestyle is the mental one.

"That's something we try to preach, whether it's with our clientele or with people that we interact with every day that are in a position of high net worth at a young age, is just making sure you stay grounded from a mental health standpoint," Jensen said.

"When you're a Navy SEAL, when you're a Special Forces guy, when you're a veteran, when you're a professional athlete or an entertainer, you aren't given the opportunity to be weak. You're not given the opportunity to be vulnerable," Gilkey said. "There's strength in expressing the weaknesses that we wrestle with… so we create spaces for that to be true for our clients when that's something that's desired and appropriate, or with our employees."

"It's in that freedom," the former lineman added, "that we start to find our true identities and we start to find and experience true purpose, and then moving forward out of these worlds of being super successful athletes or entertainers."

Despite working in a market with steadily high-interest rates and decades-low new home builds, Gilk projects reportedly continue to churn. The former NFL players claim their commitment and competitiveness have helped as a catalyst to becoming real estate victors.


"I'm called to a bigger purpose than just playing football for 11 years and then retiring and not moving forward," Jensen said. "This kind of fell in my lap and I fell in love with it. I would have attacked anything new with a passion that I attacked football with. And for me, coming into a highly competitive, high-tempo trade such as construction and design-build has been something that has really motivated me to keep pushing forward and keep climbing that next mountain of life."

"At this point, it's about living out what we're doing with the greatest amount of purpose. And so that's why I think the biggest thing we want people to know is that we're really, really committed to disrupting our industry by bringing a greater degree of purpose," Gilkey said, "and pursuit of relationship and restoration of relationship to the consumer, into the trades."


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