KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The memories are of Neil Smith bringing down a quarterback, then rising to deliver his trademark celebration: a swing of an invisible baseball bat after one of his 104 1/2 career sacks.
Smith was, for nine years, a Chiefs icon, a Kansas City businessman and philanthropist, and a key part of the local culture during the 1990s. He also played for Denver and San Diego in his 13-year NFL career.
But a dozen years after retiring, the memories have given way to a different reality. Smith, 46, has struggled financially in his life after football, joining a growing list of ex-athletes who suffered financial distress after the million-dollar contracts ended. Smith, once among the NFL's highest-paid players, owes more than a half-million dollars in back taxes, and his sprawling home in Blue Springs, Mo., was foreclosed upon in 2007.
The NFL's annual draft ended Saturday, the birth of more than 250 new careers. Many of those players will sign contracts worth millions -- money that, if managed properly, could last a lifetime. But the influx of income will bring new temptations: of free spending, risky investments and support for friends and family.
"A lot of guys don't look to the end of their careers, because it's just starting," former Chiefs wide receiver Eddie Kennison said. "Once they see the checks, they say: 'Man, these checks are going to last forever.'"
Although plenty of former NFL players remain wealthy, some have made news for squandering their riches. Former defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who in 2004 signed a contract worth $36.6 million, filed for bankruptcy in March. Former Dallas receiver Raghib Ismail, former New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister, and former wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad also are among the high-profile former players who lost millions in bad investments or attempts to maintain the celebrity lifestyle many players come to know -- and struggle to give up.
"You can live like a king for a certain period of time, or you can live like a prince forever," said Drew Pittman, an NFL agent whose company represents about 40 players, including the Chiefs' Ryan Lilja. "You've got to make the decision: What do you want to do?"
He removed the card from his wallet, yellowed and creased now from the years. It might not look like much, but this card is worth millions.
For his first year or two as an NFL player, Kennison spent without care. If he dropped $200,000 in a month, as he said he occasionally did, so what? He was a professional athlete; more millions were always ahead.
"Whatever was there, party was going on, whatever trip there was to take, whatever -- I was doing it," he said.
But in 1997, he said, the league invited players to attend an NFL-sponsored seminar on financial responsibility. Kennison said he doesn't remember much about what was said at the session, but he stuffed a white card into his pocket that day. The words resonated: "Will you be ready when the fat lady sings?"
According to a piece published in Sports Illustrated in 2009, 78 percent of NFL players go bankrupt or suffer financial distress two years after retirement. That number was up from '97, when Kennison's card read that 75 percent of retired players were bankrupt, divorced and unemployed after two years. Another number jumped from the card: 100 percent of players will experience career termination.
"Some players hear me coming," the fat lady said to Kennison from that card, "and others don't. But eventually, I sing for them all."
Kennison retired in 2008. Although he has been careful with his money, particularly cautious during the economic downturn, he's aware that mistakes happen -- sometimes with devastating financial consequences.
"Just because of the way that the stock market is and the risk that you take in some investments, some businesses, it's still a possibility that it could happen. And it still scares me to this day," said Kennison, who lives in the Kansas City area. "Thank God that it hasn't happened yet."
Pittman, the NFL agent, said he encourages clients to align themselves with a trustworthy money manager. Trustworthy not only because the player's money won't be invested haphazardly, but also because the manager will tell the player when he's overspending or approaching a dangerous investment.
"Some people always seem to have to learn things the hard way," he said. "... Some people don't ever learn."
Kennison said he learned something important from that card: The end will often arrive sooner than some NFL players would like to believe. So for 15 years, he has carried the card in his billfold, never far from his eyes or his dollars, as a reminder to say no. He estimated that he has declined far more investment pitches -- a car wash and a neighborhood convenience store come to mind -- and invitations to spend than he has accepted.
"So many leeches that are out there," he said. "People that are digging in their pocket and taking and taking and taking, and not really giving anything back."
Kennison owns a wine store in the City Market, and his wife runs a cosmetology and esthetics college in Lenexa. He said those businesses are profitable and that his family lives comfortably from his years as an NFL player.
He said he traces that fact to his yellowed memento, and the fat lady's warning; it protected him when she sang for Kennison in '08.
"Who knows where or what I would be doing," he said, "if I had not reflected back and seen that card and said: 'I do not want to be a statistic.' "
Years ago, Marty Schottenheimer's wife issued an ultimatum: Go ahead and open a restaurant, but just know that you'll be choosing it over your marriage.
"She wasn't going to be a part of it," the former Chiefs coach said.
Schottenheimer was the Chiefs' coach in the 1990s, when NFL players' salaries began to skyrocket. In 1996, Smith and Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas were among the league's highest-paid players. Both earned at least $3 million annually, and in Kansas City, they lived like kings. But they also gave back: Thomas started the Third and Long Foundation, a program devoted to curbing illiteracy among urban youths.
Smith remains involved in that program, and others.
"Since he's been here, he has just been a pillar to the community," said Bill Maas, a former defensive linemate of Smith's.
In 1996, however, Smith did what Schottenheimer never would, opening an Overland Park franchise of Copeland's, a Louisiana-inspired restaurant chain that began in Smith's native New Orleans.
Sapp told the Tampa Bay Times this month that investments in the home-construction market led to his bankruptcy filing. Various failed investments led to Muhammad's financial difficulty, and McAllister's car dealership in New Orleans eventually failed. Ismail and Smith were burned by the restaurant business.
Ed Butowsky is a managing partner for Texas-based Chapwood Investments. He counsels pro athletes on how to properly spend, save and invest. He said one of the most common investments among athletes, and most frequent to fail, is in restaurants -- because it's something they believe they understand.
"Not how it works and how it makes money," Butowsky said, "but what it is. ... They put 90 to 95 percent of their money where they should maybe have 5 percent of their money. You combine that with overspending, and then you have a disaster."
For years, Copeland's was a popular hangout. Schottenheimer and other luminaries ate there. But in the middle of the last decade, it began struggling. Smith's friend and attorney, Kevin Regan, wrote in a statement emailed to The Star that Smith had signed personal guarantees for business-related debts.
According to public records, Smith owes $514,503 in taxes to the state of Kansas. In the last five years, the Internal Revenue Service also has hit Smith with three federal tax liens for a combined $390,898. Since 2005, Kansas has issued Smith six state tax warrants, each attempting to recoup sums ranging from $20,330 to $241,263. One of those, a liquor drink tax for $32,714.29, has been paid. The others have been transferred to a collections agency and remain outstanding. After being foreclosed, Smith's 6,200-square-foot home in Blue Springs, once valued at around $1 million, was sold at auction.
According to the Kansas revenue department, a tax warrant is issued after multiple failed attempts to reach a debtor. If the debtor doesn't respond to letters and calls, a process that usually lasts several months, a tax warrant is filed in one of the state's county courts.
A year after Smith's first tax warrants, three more were filed: $20,315 for merchandise purchased in other states on which no sales tax was paid; $130,233 for withholding tax; and $241,263 for sales tax. Copeland's closed in 2006 before reopening as Amor de Brazil, a Brazilian steakhouse. Smith remained involved after the rebranding, albeit with three partners.
In 2007, Smith was issued another tax warrant, this time for $32,714 for unpaid liquor taxes. The IRS also handed Smith a federal tax lien for $385,766 in November 2007. Amor de Brazil posted a net loss of about $216,600 that year and went bankrupt in 2009.
Smith also was a co-owner in the Kansas City Brigade, an Arena Football League team; the league went bankrupt and dissolved in 2009. The league was revived in 2010, and the Brigade recast itself last year as the Kansas City Command. A team spokesman said Smith did not rejoin the ownership group. The IRS issued Smith two more federal tax liens, totaling $5,132, in 2010.
Reached by The Star this past week on his cellphone, Smith said he was in a meeting and then hung up. Subsequent calls and text messages weren't returned.
Several of Smith's friends and former teammates said Smith has continued his work in the community in spite of his financial struggles.
"This guy does more in the community than most of the celebrities in town. He's always giving himself," Maas said. "He's always there for the cause. ... Neil will be back up. There's no doubt in my mind. Whenever he applies himself to what he's doing, there's always a good outcome."
Regan wrote that Smith's devotion to the community has not changed.
"He is a tireless advocate for meeting the needs of inner city children and their education," Regan's statement said. "He rolls his sleeves up every day and works for the betterment of our community."
Schottenheimer said he hasn't spoken with Smith recently and had no idea his former star defensive end had fallen on difficult times.
"Spending money wasn't Neil's business. His business was pro football," Schottenheimer said. "He was compensated very well for that, but we see people today, and I don't know if it's poor judgment or poor fortune, but money -- it can be there, and the next thing you know, it evaporates."
Some wore suits and sparkling jewelry when they waited for their names to be called, and others sat at home among friends and family. Lives changed during the draft's days, and many of the NFL's newest players will soon receive contracts worth millions.
It's impossible to know now how they'll react, and that's one of the draft's most well-known risks.
"There's an old saying: For every hundred people that can handle adversity," Maas said, "only one of those hundred can handle prosperity."
Twenty-four years ago, the Chiefs traded up to draft a promising defensive lineman from Nebraska with the No. 2 overall pick. Smith's career, and much of his life, lay ahead, and he would soon sign a contract that would pay him upward of $575,000 per year. Larger contracts would follow, and so would lasting memories.
"I'm happy," Smith said in July 1988, shortly after signing his deal with the Chiefs. "You can see me smiling."
On Thursday night, the Chiefs drafted another big defensive lineman, Dontari Poe, with the 11th pick in the first round. He'll face temptations and sales pitches, offers and opportunities. He'll also be surrounded by those who encourage him to be careful with money whose grandeur -- last year's 11th pick, Houston's J.J. Watt, signed a deal worth $11.23 million -- creates the illusion of being bottomless.
Poe, who bought his mother a Cadillac Escalade three months before the draft, said he won't allow his money to consume him -- or forget its limits.
"It's quite simple," Poe said. "Just be the person you've always been, don't change who you are, don't change what you do. I never was the type of guy that has been too flashy and gone out and tried to buy everything up.
"I've always been kind of a conservative guy, so as long as I stay that way, I think I'll be great. The main point of this whole process is being a football player, so as long as I remember that, I think I'll be good."