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How These 36 Athletes Spent Their First Big Paycheck

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Omar Rawlings / Getty Images

The payout from being signed to a professional sports team can be huge — many athletes receive signing bonuses that are more than what most Americans make in a year. Athletes in solo sports, such as golf and tennis, also score huge earnings on their first big tournament win.

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Some athletes splurge with their first big paycheck, buying fancy cars, homes and other luxuries, while others are more conservative, using it to buy fast food or a celebratory keg. Take a look to see just how these people spent their first big paychecks.

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Patrick Mahomes: A Baseball Team

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes signed a four-year, $16.4 million rookie contract in 2017 but put off his really big purchase until after he signed a record 10-year extension worth up to $503 million in July 2020. For anyone who asked, “What does someone even do with that kind of money?” — Mahomes answered that pretty quickly. The following week, it was announced that Mahomes had become a part-owner of the Kansas City Royals.

Mahomes’ father pitched 11 seasons in the major leagues, perhaps contributing to his decision to take on an ownership role.

“I’m honored to become a part-owner of the Kansas City Royals,” Mahomes said to Yahoo Sports. “I love this city and the people of this great town. This opportunity allows me to deepen my roots in this community, which is something I’m excited to do.” 

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LeBron James: Amusement Park Tickets

NBA great LeBron James scored his first big endorsement deal with Nike in 2003. Chris Dennis, James’ former PR manager, told ESPN that James put most of that money in the bank.

“After I hand-delivered it to him, LeBron took that multimillion-dollar Nike check, deposited it and came out with maybe $2,000 in cash,” Dennis said. “He never spent or indulged in a frivolous manner when the money came. He did take his closest friend to an amusement park but didn’t immediately purchase any new cars or homes.”

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Nate Burleson: Fake Bling

Former NFL wide receiver Nate Burleson didn’t want to blow his first big paycheck on over-the-top jewelry, so instead, he bought costume jewelry that looked like the real thing, he told NFL.com.

“I bought an Escalade, a fake watch and a fake chain — in my mind, I thought no one is going to question if they were real because I was an NFL player — and gave my parents money to help with bills,” he told the site.

Even though Burleson, who has been a co-host of “CBS Mornings” since September 2021, made relatively responsibly buying decisions, he still has some regrets.

“Looking back, I wish I would have bought a more fuel-efficient vehicle and a home,” he said.

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Kyle Busch: A Used Truck

NASCAR pro Kyle Busch now makes millions but he started off making much less. When he got his first $65,000-plus paycheck to race cars, he considered it a big payday.

“I went out and bought a 5-year-old used vehicle from Papa Joe Hendrick, who was one of my previous bosses,” he told CNBC Make It.

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Jeremy Hill: A Giant Back Tattoo

Jeremy Hill used his first big NFL paycheck to commemorate his time playing college football at LSU — with a giant back tattoo of Tiger Stadium, The Score reported.

“If you gone go hard why not go the hardest,” Hill tweeted about his new body art.

A second-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2014, he was out of football in 2018.

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Harrison Barnes: A Mattress

Harrison Barnes of the Sacramento Kings used his $2.8 million rookie salary to buy “a really nice bed,” he told CNBC Make It.

“For me, growing up, really having a nice bed was something that I always wanted,” the 2012 NBA draft pick told the site. “I definitely tried out every bed in the mattress store. Usually, whatever store I walked in, I’m buying the cheapest thing possible, if that. So to be able to go into a mattress store and say, ‘I’m going to choose the bed I want to sleep on,’ and choose one of the nicer ones, that was pretty cool.”

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Joe Flacco: McDonald’s

For a time when he played with the Baltimore Ravens, quarterback Joe Flacco was the highest-paid player in the history of the NFL with an average salary of $22.1 million per season, ESPN reported. But after he signed his record-breaking contract, he was spotted pulling up to a McDonald’s drive-thru.

“Everything I need I already had, and everything I want, if I really want it, I can go get it. But there’s nothing I really want,” he told CBS Sports. “I don’t need a $110,000 car or anything like that. I mean, I like that four-door Porsche. I like to say I’m going to go buy that. But do I really need it? A year ago I said, ‘If I ever sign a big deal I’m going to get that Porsche.’ … but I didn’t.”

Flacco now plays for the New York Jets.

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Venus Williams: Nothing

An all-time tennis great, Venus Williams won the first of her seven Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon in 2000, earning her first huge paycheck — 430,000 British pounds. That was worth about $662,000 then. And it went right into the bank, she told CNBC Make It.

“I just didn’t want to become a statistic, or one of those athletes that had it all and then in the end had nothing,” Williams said. “That was always in the back of my mind, so it made me want to be more realistic with how I spent money.”

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Shaquille O’Neal: 3 Mercedes Benzes

When Shaquille O’Neal was 20, he signed a $1 million endorsement deal with a trading card company — and the NBA star wasted no time spending that cash. O’Neal told Business Insider that as soon as he got the deal, he opened up a checking account and went straight to a Mercedes Benz dealer. He ended up buying three cars — two $150,000 cars for himself and his father, and a $100,000 car for his mother.

“I was just writing checks,” he said. “I was buying TVs. I was just buying stuff I didn’t even need. So after that, I said, ‘You know what? I need to get me a business manager.'”

Since 2011, he’s been a studio analyst for Turner Sports.

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Colin Kaepernick: Gave It to Charity

Colin Kaepernick gave one of his first paychecks from the San Francisco 49ers to his adoptive parents and asked them to donate it to a charitable cause for children with heart issues, Mercury News reported.

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Chris Paul: A Shopping Spree for His Friends

In 2005, Chris Paul — who was then a sophomore at Wake Forest– declared for the NBA draft and got a $25,000 advance from his agency.

“I took my girlfriend, my best friend [and] his girlfriend, [and] we went to a mall and we went into a couple stores and I was like, ‘Just get something,'” Paul told CNBC Make It. “[There’s] no feeling like it.”

Now 37, Paul is entering the second year of a four-year, $120 million deal with the Phoenix Suns.

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David Carr: A Couch and a TV

Former NFL quarterback David Carr scored a $14 million signing bonus back in 2001, but he was very practical with his spending.

“[My wife and I] had already bought a beautiful home in Houston, but we had nothing in it,” he told NFL.com. “I remember eating pizza while sitting on the floor with my wife, so the first thing we did was buy a couch and a TV. Then we paid the house off.”

“It’s very tempting to go out and blow it,” Carr continued. “Fortunately, I had a great support system, and my dad would’ve kicked my butt if I spent it recklessly.”

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Gilbert Arenas: Cadillac Escalade With Suede Detailing and Multiple TVs

Gilbert Arenas, who played in the NBA from 2001-12, bought a Cadillac Escalade with a ton of upgrades with his first big paycheck, he told The Players’ Tribune. Arenas got suede detailing throughout, as well as six TVs.

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Ryan Broyles: Paid Off Credit Card Debt

When Ryan Broyles was drafted by the Lions in 2012, he used his signing bonus wisely. After years of racking up debt, “the first thing I did was pay down my debts and put my bills on autopay — the first steps to getting my credit right,” he wrote in a blog post for The Players Tribune. His NFL career lasted three seasons.

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Eric Davis: Gold Mickey Mouse Watch

NFL player, Eric Davis, must be a big Disney fan. He told NFL.com that he spent his first big paycheck on “a few sweatsuits and a gold Mickey Mouse watch.”

He also used some of it to help out his parents. “My parents wanted a new roof for their home, so I took care of that for them,” he said.

Davis went on to win a Super Bowl championship with the San Francisco 49ers.

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Deone Bucannon: Mercedes for His Mom

A first-round NFL draft pick in 2014, Deone Bucannon bought his mother a Mercedes SUV during his rookie year and shared a photo of the purchase on Instagram. Deone Bucannon bought his mother a Mercedes SUV during his rookie year, and shared a photo of the purchase on Instagram.

“By far the most important [woman] in my life,” he captioned the photo. “You deserve so much more [than] this. Words can’t explain how much you mean to me. Truly blessed for the opportunities The Lord has given me. Going to make the absolute most of them.”

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A.J. McCarron: 5-Plus-Carat Engagement Ring

Quarterback A.J. McCarron used some of his NFL rookie earnings to purchase an engagement ring for his girlfriend Katherine Webb. The ring features a 5-carat cushion-cut center stone surrounded by pink diamonds, E! News reported.

The McCarrons married in 2014.

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Heath Evans: Weekly Steakhouse Dinners

As a rookie with the Seattle Seahawks, Heath Evans bought his sister a Mercedes-Benz SUV with his first big paycheck and treated himself to weekly meals at a local steakhouse, he told NFL.com.

“Being in Seattle, I remember going to Daniel’s Broiler about once a week,” said Evans, who played 10 NFL seasons. “That was how I splurged.”

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Andre Iguodala: $2,000 Worth of Nikes

Andre Iguodala, the 2015 Finals MVP for the Golden State Warriors, told Wealthsimple that when he got the $25,000 advance from his first big NBA contract, he went straight to Niketown.

“I bought a whole bunch of pairs of Jordans,” the 18-year NBA veteran said. “I spent like two or three grand and it felt like I spent a million dollars. I didn’t know how to spend money. And it was so early that there wasn’t enough money to go buy a car, you know? I was happy where I was at.”

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Matt Judon: Taco Bell

Defensive end Matt Judon told the Detroit Free Press that he planned to spend his first big NFL paycheck on Taco Bell.

“I like Taco Bell,” Judon said. “I mean, obviously I’ll have way more money than I’ll know what to do with, but while I’m pondering what I’m going to do with my money I’ll be eating a chalupa or something.”

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Chris Long: Cadillac Sedan

Retired NFL defensive end Chris Long chose comfort over style when it came to his first splurge, purchasing a luxury sedan.

“My first big paycheck — this is kind of funny — I bought a Cadillac DTS,” Long told CNBC Make It. “I thought it looked really comfortable. I thought, ‘I’m making a good choice here because I’m not buying the, like, [Hummer] H2 or the [Rolls-Royce] Phantom that a lot of my teammates were buying. It was a really comfortable car, but it looked like an old man car and then I got some better taste and eventually sold it.”

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Shaun O’Hara: Beer

Shaun O’Hara treated his friends to a celebration when he got his first big NFL paycheck after entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2000.

“I’m pretty sure I bought the keg that night for my group of friends,” he told NFL.com.

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Willie McGinest: Toyota Camry for His Mom

Retired New England Patriots great, Willie McGinest, spent much of his first big paycheck on his family.

“The Toyota Camry was the hot car off the lot at the time, so I bought that for my mom,” he told NFL.com. “Then, my parents didn’t want to move out of the neighborhood where we grew up, so I demolished the house and built a brand new one right there. After I took care of them, I bought myself a new truck.”

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Donn Roach: Bulldog Clothing and Accessories

Pitcher Donn Roach spent a good chunk of his first season earnings on clothing and accessories for his French bulldog, Bleacher Report reported. He was out of baseball after three seasons, having appeared in 21 games for three teams.

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Enes Kanter Freedom: Pizza

NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom got his start as a professional basketball player in Europe and got his first big paycheck when he was 16.

“I got my first paycheck from my club team and I was super excited,” he told CNBC Make It. “I took my friends to eat pizza.”

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C.J. Mosley: Diamond-Encrusted Watch

New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley shared a photo of a diamond-encrusted watch on Instagram that he bought his first year in the NFL, spent with the Baltimore Ravens.

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Amar’e Stoudemire: An Apartment

Amar’e Stoudemire signed a $3.5 million rookie contract with the Phoenix Suns when he was 18 years old.

“When I got the first paycheck and I saw all those zeros — it was for like $300,000 — I thought, ‘Man, this is like the Richie Rich movie,'” he told Wealthsimple. “You wake up and now you’re rich. I was overwhelmed. I splurged on a new car. I bought a truck. I actually got a very nice little apartment. I got my mom a home. I bought some jewelry. I bought some clothing. I took my brother shopping. When you see tears in your mother’s eyes and the joy in your brother’s face? Those moments only come once in a lifetime.”

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Ryan Riddle: $179 Coffee Table

Former NFL player Ryan Riddle received a $35,000 signing bonus when he signed with the Oakland Raiders in 2005, which was the biggest paycheck he had ever received up to that point, he wrote in a post for The Bleacher Report. Riddle used that paycheck to pay his agent his fee as well as to pay back a $12,000 loan that had been used to cover his predraft living expenses. He said training camp kept him too busy to really splurge, but he did make one purchase for himself.

“I did find time during one of our only days off in training camp to visit a furniture store with my girlfriend at the time,” Riddle said. “We ended up buying a glass-top coffee table for my one-bedroom apartment for about $179.”

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Michael Robinson: Chevy Tahoe

Michael Robinson told NFL.com that when he scored his first big paycheck he was “scared to have a large sum of money. I thought somebody might rob me or take the money out of my account somehow. I had never seen money on this scale before.”

He didn’t go too crazy with spending it, but he did buy himself a new car.

“I bought some jewelry and a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe when the vehicle’s body style changed,” he said. “I was hyped for that.”

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Ryan Shazier: Porsche

When he was a rookie linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ryan Shazier used his newfound wealth to buy a new Porsche with a black exterior and red interior, Bleacher Report reported. Shazier played four seasons with the Steelers before a serious injury forced his retirement.

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Jimmie Ward: Mini BMW for His Daughter

Many athletes splurge on luxury cars for themselves, but Jimmie Ward used some of his rookie earnings from his first year with the NFL to buy his daughter a mini BMW, Bleacher Report reported.

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Marcus Smart: A House for His Mom

Marcus Smart told his mother that he would buy her a house if he made it to the NBA, and he made good on his promise when he was signed to the Boston Celtics, MassLive reported.

“It’s probably one of the biggest accomplishments as a young man, is to give your mom what she always wanted, and to take care of her, especially after she takes care of you all those years, and to make her happy,” he told the site of buying a house for his mom in the Dallas suburbs. “It’s a blessing. I thank God every day for the opportunity to be able to do something like that.”

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Klay Thompson: Pool Table

Klay Thompson’s first NBA paycheck was for $35,000 — pennies compared to the five-year, $190 million contract he signed with the Golden State Warriors in 2019. Still, it was a lot of money for Thompson at the time. On Uninterrupted’s “Kneading Dough,” Thompson said that he spent that first check on a pool table.

“I still have that to this day,” he said.

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Daniel Norris: 1978 Volkswagen Camper

Daniel Norris was 18 when he signed his first MLB contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. It came with a $2 million signing bonus and a deal with Nike, ESPN reported. Like many pro athletes, he used his first big paycheck to buy his dream car, but his choice was a little unconventional — a 1978 Volkswagen camper.

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LaDainian Tomlinson: Cadillac Escalade for His Mom

Pro Football Hall of Fame member LaDainian Tomlinson used his first big payday to buy his mother a house and a new car.

“She wanted a Cadillac Escalade, so that’s what she got,” he told NFL.com. “Other than that, I put my money in the bank and invested it.”

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Brandon Wood: GMC Yukon/Denali

When Brandon Wood got a $1.3 million bonus when he signed with the Angels in 2003, he was still a teenager.

“I had my parents that were a good influence on me,” Wood told The Orange County Register. “They helped me with what to do with that money because when you’re 18, you don’t know anything. They told me I could get a car and that I should put the rest away.”

Wood did go all out with his car purchase, though. He bought a GMC Yukon/Denali, with a fancy stereo and a TV for the backseat.

“This is what I thought I needed when I was 18,” Wood said. “I used the TV five times after I got it.”

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Jami Farkas contributed to the reporting for this article.