For a man who once made his living looking backward—through his legs—Ryan Kuehl always has been intently focused on the future.
In the hierarchy of professional athletic glamour, long snappers—football players who specialize in snapping the ball on punts, field goals, and extra point attempts—rank somewhere near middle relief pitchers in baseball or members of the pit crew in auto racing. Although they're an important cog on a successful team, they toil largely in anonymity. If you see a fan wearing a long snapper's jersey at a game, you can safely assume they're a relative. McDonald's has yet to sign one to hawk Big Macs.
Over the course of a 12-year NFL career, during which he played for four teams, including the Super Bowl XLII champion New York Giants, Kuehl intrinsically understood the realities of his position. He knew he lacked the earning power or dreamy dimpled chin of Tom Brady; he realized that if he was fortunate enough to retire from pro ball before the league chewed him up and spit him out, he couldn't rely on his name, banked millions, or supermodel wife for his livelihood. So for seven long springs after each season ended, while his teammates lounged on a beach or teed up a Titleist, Kuehl, Kogod/MBA '07, dragged his battered and bruised body straight from the locker room to classrooms at AU.
"I remember very distinctly years when we would lose a playoff game in January, have final meetings on Monday with the team, and I had class Tuesday in D.C.," says the Washington-area native. "I would literally walk in limping. Forty-eight hours ago I was fighting for my life on the field, and now I'm sitting here in class."
Kuehl, 41, is perched at a high-top table in the Hungry and Humble Café, on the Baltimore campus of Under Armour. He joined the upstart athletic apparel company in 2008 and now serves as its senior director of sports marketing for professional sports. As the leader of a group of 15, he's charged with forming partnerships with athletes, teams, and leagues.
"Essentially what we do is provide the vehicles for our brand marketers and our storytellers to sell products and elevate the brand," he says, sounding very much like a man who paid attention in class—and at home. Kuehl's father, Philip, was a business professor at the University of Maryland.
"He felt football was a great get-in-the-door thing, but when people are looking to hire somebody, they're looking to see your value," Kuehl says. "There are 1,800 active NFL players, and we've got 8,000 to 9,000 retired players around the country. That's a pretty select group, but you want real select? Get your degree, show people outside of the sport that this guy is serious about being a contributor. Education is a long-term investment that shows people you're committed to learning, you're committed to applying yourself, you're committed to improving yourself. Those are things that, in my opinion, leaders of companies are interested in."
Growing up, Kuehl wasn't a Tiger- or LeBron-like prodigy, but he did possess two attributes that can't be coached: size and desire. As a high school freshman, the 205-pound Kuehl began playing running back, and by the time he graduated, he was a 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pound defensive lineman.
It wasn't until after his junior year at the University of Virginia that Kuehl began thinking about the NFL. Although he went undrafted, he clawed his way onto the San Francisco 49ers practice squad following an impressive training camp. Kuehl was no dummy; he knew his spot on a NFL roster always would be precarious at best. Somehow he had to set himself apart. Long snapping, which he picked up in college, was his differentiator.
"You realize quickly that in football there's a reason the average career is three years long," he says. "They're constantly bringing in players that are younger and healthier. As my skills on defense started to deteriorate—I wasn't that good to begin with from a professional perspective—snapping kept me in the league. I probably would have had a five-year career instead of 12."
After five surgeries and a string of six-figure minimum contracts (and at least one significantly meatier one), Kuehl retired in 2008. Armed with his MBA, he was prepared.
"A lot of guys will open a bar with their name on it, or they'll do camps," Kuehl says of 20- and 30-something NFL retirees. "That's all fleeting. At the end of the day, unless you're a Hall of Fame-level player, when you retire no one cares. That's not a negative statement—that's reality. Education is the thing that's going to pay off in the long run. Yeah, you may not have a bar that you can take your friends to. That's fine—most bars fail."
During the spring and summer, Kuehl would supplement his studies and workouts by shadowing business leaders.
"I made it my mission to make sure I was constantly building relationships in the off-season," he says. "Everyone thinks athletes get their asses kissed all the time, so I'd flip that. I'd say, 'I'd love to come down to your office and take you to lunch.' I picked five or six people and developed deep relationships with them."
One was Kevin Plank, Under Armour's founder and CEO, whom he met at a sports business symposium in 2003.
"The ability to project beyond one's playing career can be a rare trait among athletes. Beginning with our earliest conversations, Ryan displayed a genuine curiosity in understanding the business side of sports marketing and athlete management," Plank says. "He continued to follow our company's progress and to educate himself about our newest products and innovations. There was an authentic thirst for knowledge and information that really struck me. The underlying implication was that Ryan was deeply committed to building a successful life for himself after football, and he was starting to outline that road map for his next career."
Gary Ford, one of his professors at Kogod, also isn't surprised by Kuehl's success in the corporate world.
"Any athlete has to be committed to their sport and spend a lot of time practicing and suffering," he says. "I think that discipline, and the experience of working with others for a common good, helps in business. Once he started [at Kogod], he wasn't going to give up, because he doesn't quit."
Kuehl's office, located near Plank's in the restored former Proctor and Gamble complex on the south Baltimore waterfront, is sparsely decorated. Pictures of Baltimore Ravens' greats Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs hang above a dry-erase board. A pink cleat autographed by members of the Kansas City Royals, for whom Under Armour designed the special Mother's Day shoe, and a photo from the Michael Phelps Foundation Golf Classic sit on a cabinet, along with other mementos. In a corner stands a life-sized cardboard cutout of him in his Giants uniform that his Under Armour team had made as a gag gift for his 40th birthday.
It's one of the only reminders of his old life that he keeps around. Even his Super Bowl ring sits in the T-shirt drawer of his dresser at home, its 1.5 carats of sparkly, white diamonds rarely seeing the light of day. To Kuehl it represents the past, not the future, and that's a direction in which he doesn't waste time looking.
"I'm proud of my career, but I don't think about playing anymore," he says. "We're chasing some very aggressive goals at Under Armour. There's no time to think about anything but the present."