April 20, 2016 / 12:11 PM / in a year

NFL's Justin Tuck tackles financial literacy

Mar 24, 2016; New York, NY, USA; Former New York Giants football player Justin Tuck (L) and Actor David Hasselhoff (R) sit court side during first half of the game between the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Think of football, and a lot of things come to mind: Big playoff rivalries, tailgate parties overflowing with beer and chicken wings, Super Bowl halftime shows.

But financial literacy? Not so much.

Justin Tuck wants to change that. The newly-retired New York Giants legend, a defensive end for a decade in the NFL, is making it his mission to help low-income and minority kids get money-smart.

Tuck and his wife Lauran, founders of the nonprofit R.U.S.H. for Literacy rushforliteracy.org/ are being honored this week by Teachers College, Columbia University in New York for their leadership in financial literacy.

The following are their thoughts about the intersection of football and finance:

Q: What did being a professional athlete teach you about handling money?

Justin Tuck: Look at the average NFL roster, and most players come from low-income families. They go from being 18-year-old kids with nothing to being 21-year-olds with millions of dollars.

That situation is like nothing you can imagine. It’s the reason why most people who hit the Lotto end up broke. They get all this money all of a sudden, and they just don’t know how to handle it.

Q: You could have focused on a lot of different causes - why financial literacy?

Lauran Tuck: We started by providing books to schools in New York, New Jersey, Alabama and California, now over 86,000 books to over 14,000 students. But then we started to look at education long-term: Kids who have college savings are many times more likely to actually go to college and graduate, than those who don‘t.

So along with partners like Citi, we started seeding college-savings accounts for kindergartners, raising matching money, and providing financial education for parents on subjects like household budgeting and understanding credit scores.

Q: Was there a particular moment that made you want to get involved in kids’ education?

JT: I remember in the ninth grade growing up in Alabama, I was assigned a history book, and all the previous kids had written their names in it. One of those names was my aunt, who is 17 years older than me.

Just imagine how much the world changes in 17 years - that’s the book I had to learn from. Thinking back to that moment made me really want to get involved and move the needle for kids’ education.

Q: When you hit it big, did you make financial mistakes?

JT: Sure I did. Even if you have a multi-million-dollar contract, you have to have a budget and put away savings, because one injury and your career can be over.

Most players are out of the NFL by age 25. If they come from a poverty-stricken area, maybe they buy a home for mom, and a car for dad, and then friends start coming out of the woodwork and asking for money. Take out taxes, and fees for agents and lawyers, and throw in a divorce, and it can all go away very quickly.

Q: When you were active in the NFL, what was your strategy as a couple for handling money wisely?

LT: We made a good team together. I‘m more conservative about investing, and Justin is more of a risk-taker.

With a lot of the players in the league, who may have come from a lower socioeconomic status, there’s an attitude of ‘You can’t take it with you.’

That’s why you see some players living paycheck to paycheck. They’re not thinking about building wealth for their children, and their children’s children.

Q: You have two kids of your own. What advice do you have for other parents, on making kids money-smart?

JT: Kids are very curious by nature. So when Lauran and I are at the kitchen table talking about budgeting and spending, and our six-year-old son says ‘What are you talking about?’ we break it down for him.

That’s a good way to start exposing them to it. Give them a piggy bank, and if they want to buy a book or a toy, make them save up for it and stick to a budget.

Q: Is it difficult to see ex-players in dire straits because of bad financial decisions?

JT: Definitely. The game is so tough, all that wear and tear on your body. As the saying goes, ‘NFL’ stands for ‘Not For Long.’ At the end of the day, you want to have something to show for it.

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Editing by Beth Pinsker, Lauren Young and Diane Craft

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