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Ex-NFL player Joe Valerio's Everyday Life Lesson: You Never Know Who’s Watching

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Everyday Life Lessons from an Everyday Athlete by Joe Valerio

Lesson 1: You Never Know Who’s Watching

The funny thing about life lessons is that they often come when you’re least expecting them.  As I walked into my fifth team interview at the 1991 NFL Combine in Indianapolis, I was expecting to answer questions about my college playing experience.  After a day of being poked, prodded, and made to perform in front of a sea of coaches wielding clipboards, I was expecting to answer questions about my 40-yard dash time or my weightlifting regimen.  Joe Valerio

What I was not expecting was to be taught a lesson that has stayed with me long after I stepped off of the playing field.

Unbeknownst to me, this epiphany actually germinated during the summer of 1990, just before my senior year in college. At the insistence of my girlfriend (now my wife), I gave up my leisurely summer career as a camp counselor for Ridley Township Park and Rec. and instead took on a “real job”—an internship at Kidder Peabody, a boutique investment firm in Center City.  

In all honesty, I was not initially enthusiastic about this summer plan because it involved longer hours, a commute to the city, and more challenging work. Exciting things were brewing around me as I headed into my senior season at Penn. Preseason accolades were coming my way and there was a buzz in the air that I could be a potential NFL prospect. What I wanted to do that summer was to bask in that moment and to focus on my football training.  I’m not sure I understood it then, but when I stepped into Kidder Peabody, I was at a crossroads.  If there were ever a time when I could have been a jerk or a slacker, this was the moment.  It would have been easy, and even understandable perhaps, to shirk my job responsibilities and to essentially “phone it in” at Kidder.

Instead, every morning I laced up my one pair of dress shoes, squeezed into one of two ill-fitting suits, and hopped on the Septa line to arrive at the office at 7:30 a.m.  I toted a giant Igloo cooler stuffed with 3000 calories and strapped a gym bag laden with my workout gear over my shoulder as I made my way through the rush hour crowd.  I was never late, and I showed up with a positive attitude, ready to learn.

Throughout that summer, I interacted with a variety of Kidder employees, from administrative assistants to senior partners in the firm. Those who raised a skeptical eyebrow as this 300 lb. jock bumbled into the office each morning with a cooler and gym bag in tow were soon won over when they realized that I treated everyone with respect and did what was asked of me good-naturedly, including menial tasks like fetching coffee and sorting files. Whether consciously or unconsciously, I made the decision to give it my best and to glean from the internship what useful knowledge and experience I could. Little did I know just how useful my Kidder experience would be.

Seven months later, with a solid senior season under my belt, I made my way to the NFL Combine with 300 of the best college football players in the country.  Quarterback Brett Favre, defensive tackle Russell Maryland, and offensive lineman Antone Davis were just a few of the big name players who joined me in the cattle call.  For an Ivy League athlete, it was both a humbling and an exhilarating experience.

Part of the Combine process was a series of interviews scheduled with interested teams.  After fielding questions from the Raiders, Chargers, Giants, and yes, the Eagles, I entered the Chiefs’ suite to sit down with team President and GM Carl Peterson, head coach Marty Schottenheimer, and offensive line coach Howard Mudd.  For fifteen minutes, I answered what were becoming routine questions about my overall health and my college playing experience.  What set this interview apart, however, and ultimately shaped my destiny, was Peterson’s unusual line of questioning—a surprising query about my internship at Kidder Peabody.  

I was caught off guard because that experience had not shown up on any of my Combine paperwork and none of the other teams had mentioned anything that wasn’t directly football-related.  My confusion must have registered on my face, because Carl commented on it.  I wondered aloud how he knew about the internship and asked, with all due respect, what it had to do with an NFL career.

“It has everything to do with an NFL career,” he replied.  Then he asked me if I remembered a Kidder employee named Tim Sennatt, the head of the Philadelphia office. Tim, it turned out, was Carl’s college roommate and good friend.  Carl went on to explain that Tim had given him a full report on how I handled myself during that internship—from my willingness to do whatever was asked of me, to my interactions with the staff, and even to my diligent commitment to heading to Penn every day after work for an intense three hour lifting workout.

It was, in fact, Sennatt’s observations and recommendation that prompted the Chiefs to schedule my interview at the Combine.  Carl commented that there were a lot of offensive linemen at the Combine that year and that all were good football players.  I was flabbergasted to hear that it was, in Carl’s words, “the character that I demonstrated during my time at Kidder Peabody” that set me apart from those other players.

Carl asked a final question as I stood to leave:  “What did you learn today, Joe?”  

I hesitated, then answered honestly.  “Well, Mr. Peterson,” I said, “You never know who’s watching.”  

I knew the interview had gone well when Carl shook my hand and said, “That’s exactly what we’re looking for, Joe. Someone who will do his best even when he thinks that no one is watching.”

Two months later, I became the Chiefs’ second round draft pick.  A major stretch for an Ivy League athlete, and an incredible outcome for a summer internship in financial planning.

Joe Valerio is available for public speaking and appearances at events such as keynotes, corporate events, charity events, and more.  to www.gridironconcepts.com and my contact Joe at 610-476-1880 or: info@gridironconcepts.com 

Follow Joe on Twitter at  @joevalerio73

Read Joe's previous article: The Concept of a Team

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