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Saturday, June 22, 2024

New Conference Seeks to Bridge the Gap for NFL Players and Military Veterans into Careers in…

An earlier than expected exit from a career fuels an effort to ease that entry for others.

Photo via Baja Athletic Conference

Transitions in life are never easy. Turning the page can cause trepidation and anxiety and often, just isn’t that simple to do.

Former 1st round NFL Draft pick Sedrick Ellis found himself in an earlier than expected transition. Now he’s helping others handle and prepare for that same problem whether they come from the gridiron or the battlefield.

A recent venture, first launched last year, is hoped to be a catalyst to allow others to succeed and foster relationships that can serve them for the rest of their next careers.


Sedrick Ellis is a former defensive tackle in the NFL. Before he was selected seventh overall in the 2008 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints, he attended high school at Chino High in Southern California and played under Pete Carroll at USC.

He went on to be a starter on the Saints’ team that won Super Bowl XLIV under Sean Payton in Miami, but due to an injury to his knee, his career wrapped up a whole lot sooner than he ever expected.



It was back at Chino High School where Sedrick Ellis became friends with a fellow classmate, Jason Smartt. Smartt went on to career in marketing — starting his own finance company.

After his playing days, Ellis and Smartt connected on the idea of founding the Baja Athletic Conference as a leadership conference to serve the need of helping players prepare for and transition to business life.

All too often, he was aware of fellow players that found it tough to find guidance and support for taking the next step.

Additionally, Smartt an Army veteran, saw parallels between athletes and military veterans returning home from combat looking to transition into careers and found a perfect match. The similarities were across all lines: mental, emotional, and physical.

These two groups are comprised of those at the pinnacle of their profession. From such heights, it can be very daunting to transition back into what might be considered more “normal” life.

Yet the leadership skills (e.g. how to take and apply direction) these groups have acquired from their non-business careers to this point translate very well into the professional world.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This past year, the two held the very first Baja Athletic Conference in Cabo San Lucas — where Ellis himself resides for a portion of the year.

The event is held over five days and, in addition to many side excursions and networking events, focuses on four pillars.

In meeting the needs of pros and veterans, the four pillars include leadership, networking, mentorship, and development.

In the event’s military partnership, their ally is the Nine Line Foundation, which is dedicated to meeting financial and special needs for those veterans (and their families) who have been severely injured in combat.

The third part of the equation is reaching out to include experts and executives in the field of business to help foster the learning and allow for the groups to build lifelong relationships to ease into the business world.

The conference takes reservations from business executives eager to share their expertise with these groups who are interested in building these relationships.

To both Ellis and Smartt, the experience has been that high-level, executive “sports enthusiasts” are the ideal match for someone potentially looking to attend the conference. The conference is there to help connect leaders in the field of business with those in the sports world and those who have bravely served.

In this conference, the concept of the society has been referenced as a bond that will foster lifelong friendships between attendees.

Photo via Baja Athletic Conference


The very first conference was held this February where 64 NFL players, 70 veterans, and more than 200 businessmen were in attendance.

The conference took an organic approach with a format that was a change from the standard leadership conference to help fit the audience, Ellis noted.

“We were really happy last year with the relationships made. It was a loose format where everyone could get to know each other, their families, and even what they do in their spare time.”

Another unique aspect of the event is that it is the largest group of Pro Football Hall of Fame athletes assembled outside of the Hall of Fame Festival in Canton attended according to Ellis.

“There’s a waiting list of Hall of Fame players to attend.”

In addition to current players attending, the Hall of Famers were noted for being very interested in and poised for new business ventures and were there with cards in hand.

“Everyone is there for the conference. The setup is disarming.”

Ellis pointed out that a key part of the design of the five-day event is to get the fan part of meeting the pros and Hall of Famers out of the way early with a signing event on the second day of activities. That way both sides can see each other as fellow business professionals.

Both Smartt and Ellis made a comparison of what the conference might offer for the seasoned business executive who might attend.

The conference features an arguably unbeatable location combined with a unique immersion with professional athletes and veterans. Sure, it’s impossible to compete with the Super Bowl itself, but with opportunities for near one on one interaction at times, the conference’s focus on immersion, provides a contrast.

Not many events can involve a veteran teaching former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle and Hall of Fame player John Randle how to parachute out of Medivac plane as an example of a discussion that actually happened there.

There are also still some competitive juices flowing among attendees for Marshall Faulk winning the golf competition last year.

Add that to the opportunity to do good and find mutually beneficial relationships, and the proposition is that the overall experience can be as, if not more, rewarding.

Photo via Baja Athletic Conference


Even with the intentional design of the conference to combat what can often be a more impersonal setting with a lack of intimacy for networking, the first Baja Athletic Conference still offered a few surprises to the duo of Ellis and Smartt.

One thing that really stood out to them was how the NFL players were more enamored by the vets than anything.

Many were asking about the stress of deployments they had been on. They wanted to know if there were some skills the veterans used that they could teach the players as well as what it was like to fly missions as just a couple of examples.

Business executives were surprised by some of the business and charitable opportunities that opened up for them out of the event, including several opportunities for sponsorships developed from the first conference.

More than anything, the founders of the conference were particularly proud of how the three groups interacted — sharing phone numbers and cards right off the bat instead of sticking to their own groups.

This past week, the two were back in Chicago to sort through several of the testimonials that Hall of Famers and current NFL players took the time to produce from the first event.

Alongside current pros, like New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate, and New England Patriots running back James White, two Hall of Famers from the Buffalo Bills had provided tape on what the conference meant to them.

Former Bills running back Thurman Thomas is an accomplished businessman in Upstate New York having founded and developed an energy company in the Buffalo area. According to Ellis, he was working through discussions on how his experience can help with infrastructure in the local Cabo area.

Pro Football Hall of Fame players Andre Reed, Jonathan Ogden, and John Randle — via Baja Athletic Conference

Meanwhile, former Bills wide receiver Andre Reed (@Andre_Reed83), now living in San Diego, founded the Andre Reed Foundation to help underprivileged youth in the community alongside initiatives to help children grow in their reading comprehension.

Reed shared much of his experience at the event, and why it meant so much to him.

First, Reed noted that his former coach with the Buffalo Bills, Marv Levy, always said that a season is four quarters. Similarly, one takes their business through four quarters. Reed now sees himself in the fifth quarter of his life.

To him, the camaraderie at the conference really stood out — especially between the current professionals and the Hall of Fame players. They would be asked what their experiences were in the league and what they thought the league might look like in 15 years.

Overall, though, the focus was on transitioning successfully out of your initial profession.

“I think if you roll that all up into one ball, that’s such a positive experience. It’s a win-win situation for everybody involved… a great experience to talk to the military guys and to talk to these young players… and for them to throw questions at us to throw questions at them and the military guys.”

He saw similarities in partnering with veterans on hand at the event from when he and some of his former Bills teammates and other pros participated in a USO tour in Iraq in 2010.

“They (the military forces) were so excited to see us … it was like, why are you so excited to see us. We’re excited to see you guys. You are what this country is about.”

On the subject of the conference’s four pillars — and particularly on mentorship, Reed shared this:

“I think we all need mentors — there’s no doubt about that — in life. Doesn’t matter what age you’re at, there’s somebody that can tell you something you don’t know. Somebody can help you at something you need — if you’re doing something, there’s somebody that’s been there before or done something before can always give you a word of encouragement. …as a former player, you always have voice. It’s up to you to use that voice in certain situations for the better.”

Sedrick Ellis looked at Thomas and Reed and noted that the Hall of Famers “get it” when it comes to seeing and seizing the opportunity when you have the platform, how to invest your earnings the right way and seek entrepreneurial opportunities.

They worked hard to stress — especially with current players that they need to focus on these aspects now. They were also the first to jump in with business cards at the event.

They see the importance of building these relationships with attendees, knowing all too well that people can feel on their own after retiring or leaving the battlefield.


For those executives considering attending this upcoming February 2018, the conference will return to Cabo San Lucas. The calendar will once again include several team activities including golf, fishing and other special events mixed with countless networking opportunities along with a full-day speakers forum.

Finding time to give back and help others transition from the peak of their professions as they enter the world of business has strengthened a lifelong friendship that Sedrick Ellis and Jason Smartt began themselves in high school.

By founding the Baja Athletic Conference, they’ve already started the path for creating such friendships and partnerships for others to help them grow and flourish in their careers and future endeavors as well.

This piece has been presented to you by SMU’s Master of Science in Sport Management.

Front Office Sports is a leading multi-platform publication and industry resource that covers the intersection of business and sports.

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