IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - When Nate Kaeding retired from professional football two years ago, he returned to Iowa City needing to catch his breath from the rigors of the NFL but uncertain of what would come next.
Teaching, coaching, training young athletes, doing more public speaking - these were all options for Kaeding, who a decade earlier earned his secondary education teaching certificate at the University of Iowa.
One path that wasn’t an option? Spending too long on the sidelines, so to speak.
Ultimately, he opted to go back to school for his MBA at UI’s Tippie College of Business, trading the jet-set life of a professional athlete for a quiet life back home, dropping kids off at school, writing papers for class and partnering on several local business ventures in between.
Now, with graduation approaching in May, Kaeding has landed his first post-NFL gig. Kaeding started work Wednesday as the Iowa City Downtown District’s retail development coordinator, a newly created, full-time position aimed at recruiting new businesses to downtown, as well as supporting its existing shops, restaurants and property owners.
“In this second chapter professionally for me, somewhere in it I wanted a public service thread through the work in some shape or form,” said Kaeding, 33, on a recent afternoon at downtown’s Java House. “To me, certainly an element of this role is to get back involved in the community in a formal, professional capacity to serve an area of the community, the downtown, that I feel really passionate about. I’m committed to downtown.”
Kaeding, who sat down with the Press-Citizen last week to discuss his new career, had just returned the day before from a 10-day business school trip to China with classmates. And just that morning, he had stopped by his new Downtown District office, where he was issued two things he never needed as the San Diego Chargers’ place-kicker: business cards and a work email address.
“My main goal is to continue moving this downtown forward to be the arts, entertainment and culinary hub of not only the state, but between Chicago and Denver,” Kaeding said. “This is the gem of downtowns. It’s small in size, but the quality of offerings is amazing. You can see how we have the momentum going, and you can see where it can go. I’m excited to play a part in it.”
The Downtown District received nearly 50 applications for the position after it was created earlier this year, and most of the applicants were local, said Nancy Bird, the nonprofit organization’s executive director. Bird, who interviewed six finalists, said Kaeding’s understanding of retail through his stake in several downtown businesses made him the clear choice.
“That experience in our local setting, understanding the financing and what makes for a quality venue, all those things really played into his favor,” Bird said. “It would be challenging to say the other applications really were close to that. He’s a local guy, he’s well-respected and clearly he’s had an amazing career in other areas. I think it was a slam dunk in a lot of ways.”
Ritu Jain, owner of Textiles, a women’s clothing store in the pedestrian mall, is enthusiastic about Kaeding’s hire. Jain said Kaeding’s name recognition beyond Iowa City could be an asset in courting larger retailers nationally.
“He has more reach than your average person would because of his celebrity,” said Jain, a member of the Downtown District board. “He’s going to be able to get meetings that maybe other people wouldn’t be able to. Plus he has a lot of interest in downtown, which is important. He understands the business climate and the mix we’d like to have.”
Kaeding played nine seasons professionally, mostly with the Chargers, before nagging injuries ended his career abruptly. He left the game as the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history and one of the all-time greats at UI, where he broke the school’s career scoring record.
He and wife Samantha, a Marshalltown native whom Kaeding met while at UI, could have settled anywhere after leaving football. Kaeding, who grew up in Coralville and attended West High, had traveled to 32 NFL cities and spent time in plenty more college towns. But when it came down to what the couple wanted in a city to raise their three young kids - good schools, access to quality health care and amenities, to name a few - it turned out there really was no place like home, he said.
In 2010, Kaeding, a self-described history buff, purchased a historic house north of downtown, where the family lived in the offseason. Now, it’s their year-round home, the Iowa City Press-Citizen (https://icp-c.com/1DNwN1O ) reports.
Contemplating his second career, Kaeding tried to connect with as many people as he could “out of his orbit,” as he puts it - professionals in different lines of work - to learn what they do on a day-to-day basis.
“Rarely at 31 or 32, do you get to be able to hit the reset button and think about what you want to do. At times, it was really daunting, and I caught a bunch of grief from my wife - ‘What are you going to do today?’ “- laughed Kaeding, who was also quick to note that Samantha has been his biggest supporter in his decision to pursue his MBA. “There wasn’t any kind of rhyme or reason. You just follow this or learn about that, with the overall goal of making an informed decision about what that next step will be.”
In the fall of 2013, Kaeding enrolled in Tippie’s executive MBA program, which caters to experienced business leaders through accelerated coursework and consolidating classes to one day a week.
“I tell my classmates that I’m cheating a little bit because I can study during the day when they’re all working,” Kaeding said. “I’m amazed by the folks there, especially some of the moms who work full-time and also do 15 to 20 hours a week of school. It’s pretty impressive.”
Kaeding is no newcomer to the business world. He’s a partner in a several ventures, including three downtown Iowa City businesses: Short’s Burger and Shine, a restaurant that opened in 2008 and later expanded to the east side; Tailgate, a collegiate clothing store that opened last summer; and Pullman Bar and Diner, a new restaurant that opened in January.
He said graduate school has helped him transition even more from professional athlete to businessman.
“It was important for me to reset from a work ethic standpoint,” Kaeding said. “Now you’re working your mind instead of your body - you have to write this paper, get this one task done or do this case study for marketing class. That’s been a good exercise in and of itself. But also shifting the thinking a little more to the analytical side of it, whether it be data or statistics and those sorts of things.”
Dave Gould, UI’s Obermann Center Public Scholar and a member of its adjunct faculty, is among the people Kaeding says has served as a mentor to him after football. Gould invited Kaeding to speak in front of one of his Life Design class, and the two have been friends since.
Gould calls Kaeding not only a smart businessman, but a person who deeply cares about the welfare of his community beyond his own businesses.
“He not only has a real vision as an entrepreneur - I’d use the term ‘social entrepreneur,’ ” Gould said. “He’s very generous and community-minded.”
Once a sought-after recruit who was convinced by Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz to stay put in his hometown to play for the Hawkeyes, Kaeding will now be the one recruiting for Iowa City.
Kaeding is joining a relatively young organization in the Downtown District, which was borne out of a self-imposed tax enacted by downtown property owners in 2011 known as a self-supported municipal improvement district, or SSMID. He becomes the nonprofit organization’s third staff member, joining Executive Director Nancy Bird and Operations Director Betsy Potter.
Kaeding said one of his first tasks will be to meet with property and business owners - downtown includes some 150 commercial properties - and learn what their needs are. He will then lead the effort to prospect regionally and nationally for new tenants to complement existing businesses, and serve as a point person in connecting interested companies or entrepreneurs with open spaces.
A 2014 downtown retail strategy, which was developed by the district and a consultant, identified just a 4 percent vacancy rate for existing storefronts. But Kaeding said the hope is that when existing spaces turn over, or as new development occurs downtown, he can provide property owners with a list of interested prospects so that they don’t have to jump at the first opportunity that presents itself, regardless of the fit.
“We have an amazing mix here already, and as spaces become available and vacant, it’s just a matter of getting some interesting parties in the hopper, so when a property owner does have a vacancy that pops up, I can play a part in connecting them with a quality tenant,” Kaeding said.
In his role, Kaeding has contractually agreed to not invest in any new businesses in the region to avoid any conflicts of interest. He will, however, remain involved with his three existing downtown businesses.
“I view that as a benefit in this role because if someone is going out to advocate to potential new tenants, or to be able to speak with another property owner downtown, I know very intricately the challenges of operating a business, and I’m committed to this,” Kaeding said. “If anyone is interested in seeing downtown get better and improve, it’s me, because I’m one of those business owners. It provides me a sound and reasonable platform and go out and advocate for downtown on a national scale.”
Kaeding says that life after the NFL can be a complicated time for many former players. But immersing himself in Iowa City has helped him figure out who he is, and who he’ll become, away from the game.
“You’re pretty much dedicating all of your time and effort to one skill in football,” Kaeding said. “Now, that’s over and you have reinvent yourself to a certain extent. That can be challenging on a variety of different fronts. I’ve really benefited from coming back and plugging myself into a community that allowed me the opportunity to connect with a bunch of different people and learn about a bunch of different things.
“I’m lucky to be here, whereas if you’re in a bigger city, you can get washed out to sea a little bit.”
Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, https://www.press-citizen.com/
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