NFL’s Brian Hartline masters the game of money

Donna Gehrke-White
Sun Sentinel

Miami – — Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline has always been a numbers guy. And not just on the football field.

Hartline studies profit margins, spreadsheets and investment risks with as much attention as he gives passing routes.

The sixth-year pro from Ohio is a careful investor and a rising entrepreneur. He and a grade school buddy bought two convenience stores in his native Ohio, and Hartline has been known to pitch in there in the offseason — waiting on customers, unpacking inventory.

“I only invest if I really understand,” Hartline said.

In an era when many pro athletes blow their multimillion-dollar salaries, Hartline is a model for the National Football League’s efforts to teach players to be financially responsible. The NFL and teams such as the Dolphins have developed programs to teach players about money management, from budgeting to running a business.

The league got aggressive about the topic after Sports Illustrated published an article in 2009 that said more than three-fourths of NFL players were bankrupt or in financial distress.

Patrick Kerney, a retired Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks defensive end, was named last year as the NFL’s vice president of player benefits. He thinks the Sports Illustrated numbers are exaggerated, but he sees the importance of training players to manage their money better.

The NFL will sponsor its first personal finance program for players and wives in March at either the University of Miami or UCLA, Kerney said. Participants will develop spreadsheets to calculate whether they can sustain their current lifestyles in the years ahead. For some players, “the well is running dry before the guys thought it would,” Kerney said.

Hartline is not one of them.

The Dolphins receiver says he has long tracked his expenses and lived below his means — long before he snagged his latest five-year, $30.77 million contract ($12.5 million guaranteed).

He said, for example, that he didn’t buy his million-dollar townhouse in Fort Lauderdale last year until he had sold his condo, enjoying, he said, a 30 percent profit.

Hartline does admit to splurging on a Ferrari. (“I like my toys,” he said.) But he’s also been learning about investments so his money will last for years after he has left the football field.

“I’m a numbers guy,” Hartline said. “I try to read, to ask questions, to learn as much as possible.”

As a child in Canton, Ohio, Hartline got a week’s worth of lunch money from his parents, and he learned to make it last. He got the entrepreneur bug from his dad, who owned a business.

Hartline has been a leader in taking the Dolphins’ money management classes, said Kaleb Thornhill, the Dolphins’ director of player engagement, who teaches the classes.

“He’s been a guy thirsty for knowledge,” Thornhill said. “He has done a tremendous job. He takes control of his finances.”

Hartline has even passed on budgeting tips to Dolphins rookies during their mandatory money management classes.

Thornhill recommends to first-year players that they save at least half of their salaries. A minimum NFL salary is $420,000, so that translates into saving more than $200,000. If they were to put that in a mutual fund earning an average of 6 percent interest in a year, they would have more than $1.1 million in 30 years when they were in their early 50s.

But what’s also important, both Thornhill and Hartline say, is that players know what they are investing in and don’t have anyone signing for them. Several former or current NFL players in South Florida have ended up in court or arbitration proceedings complaining of missing money or bad investments.

Hartline said he handles all of his own business decisions. He said he’s “very diverse” in his investments, including mutual stock funds, as the experts recommend.

Those investments include what Hartline hopes will be 10 or so convenience stores. He and buddy Ramy Malka own two Smart Stop Drive-Thru convenience stores just outside Columbus, home of Hardline’s alma mater, Ohio State University.

The stores are in large enclosed buildings where customers drive through and order snacks and drinks without leaving their cars.

“It’s really convenient,” Malka said. “It comes in real handy when it’s below zero.”

Early on, Hartline said, “we did it ourselves” — from waiting on customers to shelving merchandise to unloading trucks. “We didn’t have a payroll,” he said. But that turned out to be a blessing, Hartline said. “I learned the business by experience,” he said.

Now they have four employees.

Hartline has been coming up with new products to stock and ways to improve service.

“He’s really business savvy,” Malka said. “He’s not afraid to try new things.”

In Cooper City, Florida, Hartline is a hero and role model to Aidan Pratt, 14, for consistently saving. Last football season, Aidan won $1,000 from BankUnited for his winning essay on the importance of saving for a rainy day. He got to meet Hartline, who promotes saving as part of kids’ learning about managing money.

Aidan said he followed his hero’s example. “It’s the only money I have ever won — and I put it in a savings account,” he said.