A Different Path

Daniel Gresham

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This series is brought to you by United Dairy Industry of Michigan.

As young people, sports offer us a variety of benefits.

They give us fitness, a strong work ethic, friendship, leadership skills, discipline — the list goes on and on.

But what they don’t necessarily do is give us a sense of purpose when we’re no longer able to compete.

That’s a lesson I learned early in my collegiate career at SMU playing football.

Coming out of high school, like most kids, I had big dreams.

I was going to be the next great player to make my mark at SMU, then go on to have a career in the NFL.

Well, as it turned out, life had other plans for me.

In just my second year at SMU, I suffered a neck injury that forced me to make a grueling decision. I could continue playing football and run the risk of losing the function in my arm if I got hit the wrong way, or I could eliminate that risk by retiring from the sport completely.

Obviously, I chose the latter, but it was a decision that weighed on me.

As athletes, especially Black athletes, it’s often ingrained in us that our only pathway to success is being the next LeBron James or Lamar Jackson.

When I learned I couldn’t take that same path as those guys with my injury, it became the best thing to ever happen to me because I discovered passions outside of sports and football.

There were other ways for me to be successful, and I set out on a life-changing journey to explore them.

Finding My Passion

Without football, I thought I’d embrace the digital world by teaching myself how to code and make video games. Truthfully, it was one of the most rewarding experiences, but it’s not something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life.

I was always much more interested in the business side of things.

As fate would have it, I had a friend who was two years older than me at SMU — Robert Seals. We were talking one day, and he came up with a concept he said he’d been thinking about for some time.

Essentially, the idea was to create a search engine for local events in the community, which we later named Vuzag.

It’s crazy how Vuzag came about because Robert graduated and contacted me about a year and a half later after our initial discussion, and we hit the ground running from there.

I was a senior at SMU at the time, and no joke, he came back and moved into my one-room apartment to start brainstorming how we could turn this concept into reality.

It was like a scene from The Social Network or something.

Sure enough, we ended up raising a decent amount of money and launched the Vuzag app to help humanize businesses and give people insight into what’s going on in their local community.

Tapping into my entrepreneurial side has fueled me creatively and intellectually more than I ever thought possible.

As athletes, especially Black athletes, it’s often ingrained in us that our only pathway to success is being the next LeBron James or Lamar Jackson. When I learned I couldn’t take that same path as those guys with my injury, it became the best thing to ever happen to me because I discovered passions outside of sports and football. There were other ways for me to be successful, and I set out on a life-changing journey to explore them.

Doing my part

In the last few years, I’ve been fortunate to be involved with several other business ventures that I’m incredibly passionate about.

In addition to co-founding Vision R&D, I thought about what niches I could bring to the sports management world based on my degree in that field.

This was actually kickstarted by one of my good friends, Courtland Sutton, who’s also an SMU alum and a Pro Bowl WR for the Denver Broncos.

Courtland pulled me aside one day and told me how much he loved what I was doing on the business side of things. He said I was one of the smartest guys he knows, and he’d love to have me in his corner to navigate the space of being a professional athlete and everything that comes with that.

That lit a fire inside of me.

Not only did I want to help my friend, I began to research how I could help other athletes like Courtland.

I saw a stat that 78% of NFL players go broke or bankrupt after three or four years in the league, which infatuated me.

Why was this? What could I do to help these athletes out?

It became clear to me that the lack of financial literacy, business literacy, and long-term strategy and planning are the three main reasons why athletes suffer financial hardship in spite of their wealthy salaries.

I decided to do something about it by starting Fortify Management.

With Fortify, we help athletes with budgeting, business strategy, marketing, and branding. Our goal is to look at the true value that these athletes bring to their hometowns, college towns, NFL cities, and help them use that value as leverage in different business opportunities to build long-term equity.

We’ve got about eight clients currently, which include Courtland, Jaylen Waddle, Patrick Surtain II, Royce Freeman, among others, and it’s been an exciting time to start this company with some major athletes and clients.

If I can do my part to help drop that 78% and ease the burden of financial stress for NFL players and other athletes and entertainers, I couldn’t ask for a greater blessing than that.

Breaking through barriers

When I retired from football, it essentially became a journey of self-discovery to figure out what I was passionate about and what talents I had to offer this world outside of the football field.

It’s been an enriching journey to say the least, but I haven’t done it alone.

Outside of my friends, who have become trusted colleagues and business partners, one of the most influential people in my life while at SMU was Lisa Rawlins.

She’s been heavily involved in the SMU football program for several years now, and she was instrumental in helping guys like me find their purpose outside of football.

In the world of athletics, it seems like everyone wants something from you, but all Lisa ever wanted was for us to do our best and create a successful life for ourselves when we graduated.

It’s because of people like Lisa that I received opportunities like being invited to the 2024 SMU Black Excellence Brunch.

When I heard that I’d be on a panel for this brunch, I was overwhelmed — almost without words. SMU is such a prestigious university that’s had an abundance of incredible alumni, so for them to think of me and honor me leaves me humbled beyond belief.

To me, the definition of Black Excellence means breaking through the barriers people bestow upon us based on our appearance.

I mentioned it earlier.

If we play sports, society has trained us to think the only way we’ll ever be successful is to play at the professional level and make all sorts of money, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Whether it’s tech, entrepreneurship, marketing, coding, etc., I’ve discovered other pathways to success, as have the three alumni I’ll be sharing the stage with.

And there’s no reason these young SMU student-athletes can’t, either.

While it might not seem that way initially, believe me when I tell you that the path less taken will lead you to a journey of success and happiness that exceeds your wildest dreams.

Harvey Armstrong, Daniel Gresham, Avery Pennywell and Rob Seals are the panelists at the 2024 Black Excellence Brunch on February 24 at 11am (SOLD OUT). The panelists will be honored at the Women’s Basketball game that tips at 2 p.m. at Moody Coliseum (TICKETS)