A rare NFL move

Ray Lewis' local restaurant investment is seldom practiced by today's players, but was common in Colts' golden era.

February 18, 2005|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

When the Colts ruled Baltimore, you couldn't drive far without passing a player's place of business.

You could grab a burger at any Gino's restaurant, bowl at John Unitas' Colt Lanes in Woodlawn and fill 'er up at Dennis Gaubatz's Sunoco on Edison Highway.

That was 40 years ago.

When the Ravens' Ray Lewis opens his restaurant in Canton on Sunday, what makes it notable may not be the taste of the ribs but the rarity of the venture.

These days, few NFL players put their names or their money on enterprises in the cities where they play. Because of their handsome salaries, players are seldom businessmen on the side.

"Each one is the CEO of his body," said O.J. Brigance, the Ravens' director of player development. "He signs a multimillion-dollar contract to lease his athletic services to a team - so he is running a business already."

Staying in shape demands a fierce commitment to conditioning and nutrition, leaving little time for other pursuits.

"Players today are their own investments," said Kevin Byrne, a Ravens spokesman. "And their year-round workouts allow them to stay in the league at these high prices." (Today's average NFL salary is $1.26 million.)

How times change.

When he opened his first fast-food restaurant in April 1959, Gino Marchetti was driven by necessity. Football paid him $11,000 a year.

"I had to do something to feed my family in the winter," said Marchetti, the Colts' Hall of Fame defensive end.

There, in a glassy drive-in on North Point Road in Dundalk, he learned the ropes, grilling 15-cent burgers, mopping floors and signing autographs.

"We always had an audience," said Marchetti, who worked the kitchen every day that spring. "People would be pointing through the glass."

Business boomed. By 1980, there were 500 Gino's restaurants when the franchise was sold to the Marriott Corp.

Lewis' investment with his establishment - Ray Lewis' Full Moon Bar-B-Que - will be far less hands-on.

"I picked out every photo [of himself] on these walls," Lewis said this week. "And I'll be eating here when I'm in town. But I ain't doing no cooking. That would be like me telling my business partners to come out on the practice field with me.

"No, this [restaurant] would shut down if I cooked."

Lewis is the only current Raven to operate a business in Baltimore that bears his name, though several players have projects elsewhere. Linebacker Peter Boulware, a graduate of Florida State, is co-owner of a Toyota dealership in Tallahassee, Fla. And Marques Douglas, a defensive end, recently purchased an automotive care center near his home in Charlotte, N.C.

"You want to make a smooth transition to life after football," said Douglas, 27. "I don't plan to leave this game with a bitter taste in my mouth."

Most players today are more apt to make "quiet" investments, Byrne said.

"Many are buying properties and land," he said. "In his last year here as a player [2001], Tony Siragusa bought two condominiums in Canton.

"Goose is now selling one at triple the price."

By contrast, in the Colts' heyday, players managed everything from miniature golf to liquor stores.

Why not now?

"Players today just don't need the money," said Roger Caplan, president of the Caplan Group, an advertising and public relations firm in Columbia. "If you're a top draft choice, you're set for life. Why risk opening a restaurant when the failure rate is huge?"

For an athlete, lending one's name to a business or product is no ticket to financial success, said Stacy Robinson, director of player development for the NFL Players Association.

"We've seen tons and tons of bad business deals" over the years, Robinson said. In response, for the first time in April, the NFLPA will hold a business seminar for players interested in starting a second career.

Still, many athletes are leery of the limelight off the field.

"In the old days, if a player owned a bar and drank too much, sportswriters might turn their heads," Caplan said. "Now these guys have to be choirboys. Slip a little at 9 p.m. and you find yourself on ESPN SportsCenter at midnight - minus all of your endorsements."

Free agency and salary caps have destroyed much of the rapport between players and the cities they represent, Lewis said. Fewer of his peers now put down roots.

"If you're not an established player, you may end up leaving town in, what, two years?" he said.

Those who do start businesses - being public figures - leave themselves open to lawsuits.

"Ours is such a litigious society that if Raven `X' owns a restaurant, and an employee gets hurt, he's sure to sue," Caplan said. "Today's athlete lives under a microscope."

It wasn't always so.

In Marchetti's day, Colts players didn't cash big paychecks so they sought to cash in on their popularity in the wake of Baltimore's consecutive NFL championships in 1958 and 1959. (Fullback Alan Ameche actually opened the first of his four restaurants in 1957).

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