The roles of a lifetime
From the football field to finance, back-to-school to Broadway, Eddie George ’01 is forever recasting himself as a leading man.
It’s an hour until game time, and Eddie George is preparing for what he hopes will be another exhilarating performance.
Slipping into this mindset for more than a dozen years as a star running back — first at Ohio State and then for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans — would have meant wind sprints and sharp cuts on the turf of a nearly empty stadium. Then a last glance at his playbook in the locker room as music pounds away in his headphones.
But backstage during a Broadway-on-tour stop in northeast Ohio, the 1995 Heisman Trophy winner’s preparation for the spotlight in the musical “Chicago” requires different tactics. Gliding up and down his vocal range during a warm-up. Flipping through his dog-eared script. And, at center stage during a late sound check with fellow actors, belting out “Razzle Dazzle” and “All I Care About,” two of his signature songs in this show.
It’s all part of today’s pregame flow, his method for clearing the mental underbrush that must go if he is to channel the character of Billy Flynn, the slick-talking lawyer he’ll portray tonight. “I’m thinking, ‘Why am I [as Billy] coming out on stage? What happened where I am coming from?’” George says, absentmindedly rolling a lemon between his palms in Dressing Room 6. “I want my energy to already be in the play even though I’m not on stage.”
For nearly a decade, the four-time all-pro running back’s quest was for a Super Bowl ring, a dream that ended one tantalizing yard short when time expired in the Titans’ battle against the St. Louis Rams to close the 1999 season. Now, George finds himself on a journey for truth when he steps on stage before thousands of theatergoers.
“At the end of the day, plays are just conversations, and what you prepare yourself to do is to be honest in those moments,” he says. “The more I can relax and trust my work, trust the other actors, [the more] I can allow myself to be that character and speak his voice and really get myself out of the way. You tell a story in an honest way, and if the audience responds, then you know you’ve done your job.”
In fact, this Philadelphia native thrives on many jobs: acting in Broadway and other productions, co-teaching a business course at Ohio State and juggling an array of entrepreneurial projects, sportscasting duties and reality show gigs. He’s the father of two sons, Jaire, 20, and Eriq, 12, and the husband of Tamara “Taj” Johnson-George, a fellow entertainer.
His interest in acting grew slowly, springing from roles in commercials as well as movie and TV cameos while he was still playing ball. “That’s kind of where I began to get the bug and to say, ‘OK, I enjoy being in front of an audience, a camera, whatever it may be, whether it’s commentating, calling the games, telling my own stories, public speaking.’ I wanted to become more comfortable and better at that. That’s what led me to this path. I was able to find that second act, to find my voice and to find my next passion.”
While George’s pursuits showcase wide-ranging interests, living La Vida Eddie is a simple enough formula: Marry those passions with sweat equity, a carefully pursued education and strategic thinking. Keep on teaching, keep on learning.
It is the final class of spring semester in Leveraging Athletics for Future Success, a popular Fisher College of Business course that George has co-taught for the past three years with Associate Dean David Greenberger. The class gives George the opportunity to guide students through the rare air of professional athletics and generously share his personal experiences and network of sports world contacts. Speakers he brought to the lectern just this past spring included NFL agent Leigh Steinberg, NFL executive Troy Vincent, Charlotte Hornets President Fred Whitfield and Maverick Carter, longtime business manager for LeBron James.
“I’ve helped him frame the class, but Eddie sets the context for it,” Greenberger says. “He has really recognized the value of education, and that fits perfectly in terms of leading a class. He really engages the students.”
Senior accounting major Amari Dryden of Louisville, Kentucky, says the course was one of her favorites, largely because of George’s ability to connect with students and the interesting array of speakers. “Eddie’s class was more of a seminar,” she says, “where you are absorbing the information and keeping it in the back of your head for later.”
Classmate Ibrahim Mohmed, a junior from Cleveland, says he admires George’s “high emotional intelligence” and the insider’s perspective he reveals for his students. “I’m big on making connections, and it was impressive just seeing in the syllabus all of the important sports world people coming in,” Mohmed says. (This student showed he knows a thing or two about hustle when he went so far as to track down Troy Vincent in Columbus the night the exec spoke in class and wound up with a part-time job doing research for the NFL.)
“I knew I would never meet these people again,” Mohmed says, “so I had to take advantage when I could.”
The teaching, George says, works to his advantage as well. “I have learned from my students how to be a better listener. And to not overtly try to teach, but rather to open up dialogue and expose them to new things.”
On this night, George — coming in late on a flight from his adopted hometown of Nashville — arrives partway into a series of final group presentations. He’s immediately up to speed and begins peppering the students with questions.
Later, as the class wraps up, George implores the students to apply in their own lives the lessons they studied through the “prism and platform of athletics.”
His words come from the heart, and they bear the bruises he earned struggling with depression after his NFL career ended in 2004. “Football was my first love,” he says. “It was tough to walk away from something that has provided me with so much joy.”
Struggling to come to terms with his place in the world, George says he sought counseling and also burrowed deep into the works of James Weldon Johnson, an author and civil rights activist known for his contributions during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. “In order to get to those truthful places in a playwright’s work, I had to get to truthful places in myself,” he says. “Discouragement I felt in my real life, I could use that in the voice of a character or even write about it in my own stuff so it wouldn’t fester. It was therapeutic to go through that process.”
Eddie George, off the cuff
Hear what Eddie George had to say during an interview we recorded on the day of our cover photo shoot at the Ohio Theatre.
PLAY AUDIO | Eddie George on spirituality
PLAY AUDIO | Eddie George on learning from his mistakes
PLAY AUDIO | Eddie George on being a Buckeye
It may seem like a foregone conclusion now that George would be an NFL star, but rewind 25 years to his freshman year at Ohio State and his football future was cloudy.
He fumbled twice against Illinois that year, causing key turnovers in an 18–16 loss that got him all but benched for the last seven games of the season. It was a humbling but necessary setback that George believes gave him the fortitude for his later contributions to college football.
“That’s when I won the Heisman,” he says. “It made me a much better player, because I had to dig deep and not run away from my problems.”
A first-round pick in the 1996 NFL draft, George left Ohio State before completing his degree in landscape architecture. So, in 2001, when an injury sidelined the Titans tailback, he slipped back to Columbus for a summer as an undergrad and wrapped up the “unfinished business” of 15 credit hours. Already on the horizon was an idea to launch his own landscape architecture firm.
“I’ll tell you, you have a new appreciation for going to class when it’s for your own business you are trying to start,” he says. “I like taking a project and solving an issue through design that makes it functional, aesthetically pleasing and responsible to the environment.”
Two years after graduating, George joined up with one of his former professors and other established players in that field to form the landscape design firm EDGE. The business has grown to include offices in Columbus, Nashville and Toledo. In central Ohio, EDGE has its fingerprints on the landscaping around the Ohio Union and the Hollywood Casino in west Columbus as well as the master planning, site design and landscape architecture at Columbus Commons park, which occupies the former City Center site downtown. George also has taken this expertise to prime time — as a judge on the NBC home remodeling show “American Dream Builders.”
Other recent entrepreneurial endeavors include moving his restaurant Eddie George’s Grille 27 to the Grandview Yard area near the Columbus campus and becoming a financial advisor. He launched Edward George Wealth Management in 2015. That put to use the MBA he earned from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in 2009 and the financial advisor credentials he later acquired with passage of the Series 7 exam.
George says he pursued an advanced degree — and remains committed to continually learning and teaching — out of a desire for a greater depth of knowledge to grow his businesses. “It’s not really about getting your MBA,” he says. “It’s about truly committing yourself to a process and a discipline that is going to carry you through the rest of your life.”
‘The progress, the evolution’
Back in Dressing Room 6, George returns from his final sound check and talks about life on the road in a touring theater company. This past spring, he performed in a string of “Chicago” shows in Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio — following eight weeks on Broadway in 2016. Sandwiched between his turns as Billy Flynn was the leading role in “A Raisin in the Sun” in Nashville, where George also has played Othello and Julius Caesar in the city’s Shakespeare festival.
In true George style, he’s keeping his options and his mind open about the trajectory of his acting career. He mentions some aspirations: Broadway and other stage productions, films with actors he admires, a recurring television role, a one-man show that draws on his personal experiences. “The goal is to have a long-lasting, meaningful career as an entertainer,” he says. “Whatever spawns from that, we’ll do it.”
In the near term, George has signed on to do another run of “Chicago” next year. That includes eight shows at Columbus’ Palace Theatre in February, a month into his spring semester teaching commitment to Fisher.
Ask what he’d like other alumni to know about today’s Eddie George, and he hesitates. Finally, he says, “I guess I want them to see the progress, the evolution. I come from the football world, but I’m not a football player. I came through that. That was my platform, a means to an end. It’s about evolution and following my path and my passions. And being in a constant state of refinement.”
Eddie George’s script for finding work you’ll love
Across multiple careers, this football star turned entrepreneur turned actor has found success by tapping into his inner joy. We asked Eddie George what advice he’d give to friends and fellow Buckeyes looking for new directions in their work lives.
“You have to really follow your heart. I would tell people to go for their passions, and don’t be afraid to start at the bottom. You’ve got to. And don’t worry about the time and how fast you are going to be somewhere.”
“If you’re excited about making pottery and the arts, then do that, and figure out how to make a business out of it. I identified my three umbrellas, and I stay under those: education, entertainment and entrepreneurship.”
“You can go from one phase of life to the next. You’re not defined by your job. You’re not defined by the roles that you play in this life, as far as being a mother or father and just staying in that. You have dreams, you have gifts that are waiting to be explored. But you have to have the faith and courage to allow them to come forth. You have to be willing to go through the grind and the slime and the grit and the valleys to allow them to come forth.”
About the author
AARON MARSHALL and MARY ALICE CASEY
Aaron Marshall ’15 MA is a freelance writer living in Columbus. Mary Alice Casey is editor of Ohio State Alumni Magazine.