For many football stars, money goes just as quickly as it comes. According to Sports Illustrated, nearly 4 out of 5 former NFL players either go bankrupt or suffer severe financial distress within two years of retirement. Some fall prey to shady financial dealers or investment scams, others are generous to a fault, and many lose it the old-fashioned way — by spending it as soon as they get their hands on it.
Last updated: March 20, 2020
1. Andre Rison
Wide receiver Andre Rison was drafted in the first round in 1989 and played for seven teams, mostly with Atlanta, over the course of 12 years. He won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, he was named All-Pro once, and he went to five Pro Bowls. Over the course of his career, he earned more than $19.17 million on the field alone.
Lost Roughly $19 Million
In 2007, Andre Rison declared bankruptcy. Child support was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but in the end, he fell victim to the money-gobbling twin monsters that have spelled doom for so many other athletes: indulgence and flash.
In a 2012 documentary, Rison told ESPN that he blew at least $1 million on jewelry alone. He spent countless more on cars while trying to keep up with the Joneses as his teammates engaged in a never-ending contest of luxury vehicle one-upmanship. The culture of competition spending extended to high-end nightclubs, which he went to with tens of thousands of dollars in cash stuffing his pockets on a regular basis. Finally, there were the paternity suits.
2. Clinton Portis
A bruising and productive running back for the Broncos and Redskins, Clinton Portis amassed nearly 6,000 yards in his first four seasons — almost 12,000 before his nine-year time in the NFL ended in 2010. He went to two Pro Bowls and scored 80 touchdowns in his standout career. Over the years, he earned more than $43.1 million from his NFL salary alone.
Lost at Least $5 Million
According to Sports Illustrated, Portis committed the classic NFL sins of making bad investments and trusting the wrong people, but they were people he had every reason to trust. Jeff Rubin and Jinesh Brahmbhatt were investment advisors who were registered with the NFL Players Association, but they were shady dealers who later met their own demises after running schemes that bilked trusting and unsavvy investors. One of them was Portis, who lost $3.1 million when they convinced him to invest in an Alabama casino that went bust. A few million more disappeared to the IRS, domestic support for multiple women and debts to casinos and even to his own mother.
3. Vince Young
Quarterback Vince Young played for only six seasons but he was selected for the Pro Bowl twice. Drafted in the first round in 2006, he spent all but the final year of his career in Tennessee before moving to Philadelphia. Buffalo signed him in 2012, but he never played. In 2013 he was picked up by Green Bay, but the team immediately dropped him when management realized his life was spinning out of control despite having signed a $25 million contract just six years prior. In total, the NFL paid Young more than $35 million.
Lost at Least $10 million
In 2014, just one year after the Packers decided that Young’s troubles were greater than his remaining potential, he filed for bankruptcy. His assets combined for as little as $500,001 and his debts totaled as much as $10 million.
In chronicling his ruin, Sports Illustrated told a story with a familiar theme: general financial mismanagement, reckless and wasteful spending, predation by unscrupulous financial sharks, and the misconception that a large yet finite sum of money would last forever. He bought cars and other big-ticket items for family members and other hangers-on, picked up five-figure dinner tabs and trusted an unqualified uncle with much of his finances. One time, he bought every seat on a flight so he could have the plane to himself.
4. Raghib (Rocket) Ismail
In 1991, wide receiver Raghib (Rocket) Ismail was a junior at Notre Dame and the presumed No. 1 draft pick when he shocked the world and signed with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts instead. The reason was simple. The Canadian league offered him a guaranteed $18.2 million for four years, a contract that at the time was the biggest in the history of football, according to Sports Illustrated. He went on to play two years in Canada and 10 in the NFL, earning roughly $20 million in total.
Lost at Least $4 Million
Unlike so many other post-NFL cautionary tales, Rocket never declared bankruptcy, but he did lose millions to familiar traps like blind investments.
As early as 1991 — the year he was drafted as a college junior — Ismail “invested” $300,000 in a Hard Rock Cafe knockoff restaurant called the Rock N’ Roll Cafe. He never saw any of the money again and never found out what became of the restaurant. It was just the beginning. He dumped another large but undisclosed sum into the production of a religious-themed movie, another into a failed music label, another into an emerging cosmetological treatment, another into a phone card dispenser venture and finally a string of custom-calligraphy shops.
5. Dermontti Dawson
Career Pittsburg Steeler Dermontti Dawson played in the NFL from 1988 to 2000. A six-time All-Pro, he went to the Pro Bowl seven times during the course of his 13-year career, during which he started in 181 of his 184 games. In 2012, he was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It’s unclear exactly how much he earned during the course of his career, but what he lost is well documented.
Lost Nearly $70 Million
An expert quoted in the same Sports Illustrated article that profiled Rocket Ismail’s downfall stated that over-allocation in real estate is one of the most common causes of post-NFL bankruptcy. Dermontti Dawson is certainly one of those cases. He invested millions with multiple partners — but he had no controlling interest in any of those investments. The 2008 housing crash hit him hard, and he was soon the target of several legal judgments, including one for $3.4 million and another for $1.7 million. When he declared bankruptcy in 2010, it was revealed that he owed debts of nearly $70 million but had assets valued at only $1.42 million.
6. Chris McAlister
Defensive back Chris McAlister earned a reputation as an NFL bad boy during his 11-year career, which included 10 years with the Ravens and one with the Saints. He won two Super Bowls, played in three Pro Bowls and was named All-Pro once. It’s unclear exactly how much he earned in total, but in 2004, about halfway through his career, he signed a $55 million contract.
Lost Undisclosed Millions
In 2011, TMZ reported on one of the greatest embarrassments that any multimillionaire athlete who once nurtured a bad-boy image can suffer. Court records obtained by the media outlet showed that Chris McAlister was unemployed since 2009, broke and living with his parents, who he relied on for basic living expenses. It’s not clear where all the money went or exactly how much he lost, but the court records came from child-support hearings where McAlister was attempting to get relief from his $11,000-a-month paternity obligations.
7. Deuce McAllister
Two-time Pro Bowl running back Deuce McAllister spent his entire nine-year career with the New Orleans Saints. When he finished his run in 2008, he had racked up 7,816 yards and scored 54 touchdowns. In 2005, his efforts earned him the title of the league’s No. 2 highest-paid running back when he signed a contract worth as much as $53.2 million.
Lost at Least $7 Million
In 2011, a local sheriff’s office in Louisiana auctioned off McAllister’s home for $880,000 — he owed more than $1.8 million on the property, and the auction was the result of legal action from his lender.
The troubles started in 2009 when the same lender sued McAllister for nearly $2 million when he defaulted on loans and interest payments after a Nissan dealership failed and forced him into bankruptcy. Just one month after the Saints released him, Nissan’s financing arm announced that McAllister owed them roughly $7 million — had he not been released, he would have earned $7 million from the Saints that very year.
8. Johnny Unitas
Drafted in the ninth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955, Johnny Unitas was cut before he ever played. He then played semi-pro football for $6 a game before the Baltimore Colts recognized his talent and signed him back into the big leagues. Unitas went on to become the greatest quarterback of his generation and one of the most celebrated athletes of all time. He played for 18 seasons, threw 290 touchdowns, piled up 40,239 passing yards, was named MVP three times in 10 Pro Bowl appearances and won Super Bowl V.
Lost More Than $5.3 Million
Like so many other football greats, Johnny Unitas failed nearly as spectacularly in business as he succeeded in football. A restaurant went under, as did a freight company, a bowling alley chain and a Florida real estate venture. Worst of all, however, was a deal that Unitas made in 1984 to purchase an electronics company for $3.5 million. He borrowed $5.3 million to buy National Circuits and fulfill his promise to move the company to Baltimore. He agreed, however, that he and his wife, Sandra, would personally guarantee those loans, leaving the Unitases stuck footing the bill if the company went bust, which it soon did. Six-and-a-half years later in 1991, Unitas declared bankruptcy.
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9. Luther Elliss
Although he spent his final NFL year in Denver before retiring in 2004, Luther Elliss was a career Detroit Lion who played for 10 seasons starting in 1995. A defensive lineman who could play different positions, Elliss finished his career with 29 sacks and 331 combined tackles. He went to the Pro Bowl twice and earned $11.6 million in the second half of his career from 2000-04 alone.
Lost at Least $4 Million
Like Johnny Unitas, Luther Elliss also blindly invested in seemingly promising businesses — from internet companies to real estate ventures that turned out to be not so promising. Also like Unitas, he personally guaranteed the loans. He also spent wildly, mostly on the familiar trap of big, unaffordable mega-homes. In 2010, the father of 11 filed for bankruptcy after a lender won a nearly $525,000 judgment against him, leaving him with $4.4 million in liabilities and $1.38 million in assets.
10. Mark Brunell
Mark Brunell’s career spanned 17 years and five teams: the Packers, Jaguars, Redskins, Saints and Jets. The quarterback passed for more than 32,000 yards combined, threw 184 touchdowns, went to the Pro Bowl three times and won a Super Bowl. For his efforts, he earned an estimated $50 million.
Lost $50 Million
Brunell retired in 2011 — and the money ran out that very same year. With just $5.5 million in assets, he owed $24.8 million when he finally declared bankruptcy shortly before his career wrapped up. He bought massive, record-breaking mega-mansions for himself, including one home that cost $9.5 million, but he lost much more in failed real estate investments — about $11 million in total when the housing bubble crashed. He also lost $9 million in a failed Whataburger franchise. Never one to stay down, however, he landed a medical sales job that paid $60,000 a year before he was even done playing.
11. Terrell Owens
The cocky but consummately talented wide receiver known as T.O. played for 15 years for the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills, Bengals and Seahawks. He went to the Super Bowl with Philly, completed a pass in the playoffs for San Francisco, was named All-Pro five times, went to six Pro Bowls and was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. During the course of his career, he earned just shy of $80 million.
Lost $80 Million
Terrell Owens squandered nearly every dollar of the massive fortune he earned during his outstanding NFL career. The famous showman bought a slew of houses and condos, which he told GQ he believed he’d be able to rent out if they became too expensive. Their mortgages combined for $750,000 a month, and when the housing market crashed, no renters were to be found. He bought an entertainment complex in Alabama for $2 million and, of course, there were the splurges on cars, jewelry and high living. The biggest loss, however, came from another common riches-to-rags NFL theme: turning his finances over to strangers who gambled and lost his fortune on highly leveraged, high-risk investments.
12. Bernie Kosar
Quarterback Bernie Kosar was one of the last great things to happen to the Cleveland Browns. His career ran from 1985-96, and during that time he won a Super Bowl — although he won it with Dallas — and played in a Pro Bowl. He threw 124 touchdowns and passed for 23,301 yards over the course of 126 games.
Lost $15 Million
While it’s not exactly clear how much he earned on the field, Bernie Kosar’s losses are public record — that’s because he declared bankruptcy in 2009. At the time, he had between $1 million and $10 million in assets, which seems pretty sweet until you consider that he had as much as $50 million in liabilities. He owed $1.5 million in unsecured loans to the Browns, he lost $9 million in ill-advised real estate deals, forfeited $3 million in a divorce and owned a steakhouse that went out of business, just to name a few of the hits he took off the field.
13. Dan Marino
Dan Marino played for the Dolphins from 1983-99, and by the time he stepped down, his name was forever enshrined in NFL history. The Hall of Famer’s 17 seasons included nine Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro selections. The most prolific passer in history, he threw nearly 5,000 completions for 61,361 yards and 420 touchdowns. He was the first player in history to throw for 5,000 yards in a single season and once threw a then-record 48 touchdowns in one season. He earned $51.51 million — not counting his many endorsements — in salary over the course of his career.
Lost $13.6 Million
Marino made headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2012 when a company called Digital Domain Media Group went bankrupt. The company did special effects for big blockbuster movies but was most famous for creating a hologram of Tupac Shakur at a major music festival. The hologram was such a hit that it sent the company’s stock soaring to $9.20 a share, which would have been good news for Marino, who owned $14.5 million worth. When the firm went bust, however, those shares dropped to 55 cents, leaving the Dolphin great with just $867,088.
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About the Author
Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street’s investment community in New York City.