Had the NFL not finally come knocking, there is a pretty good chance that Sean Lissemore may have found himself patrolling the sun-scorched hills of Afghanistan rather than stopping opposing offenses.
You see, Lissemore, a nose tackle for the San Diego Chargers, is proof positive not only that the road less traveled often leads to success, but that age and experience can change what the future holds.
“Football is my passion,” said the William & Mary grad. “It’s my 24th year of playing. But it’s also been cool to see different things. When I finish with football, I’ll see what opportunities can combine football and finance.”
Finance? Yes, finance. While a military career seemed appealing all those years ago, Lissemore, a six-year pro, has put his desire to be in the military behind him. Now, he’s ready to dig into the world of business.
It wasn’t always that way. As a senior at Dumont (N.J.) High School, Lissemore was a starter at offensive guard, defensive end and linebacker. He was also a four-year letterman in track and field and a state champion wrestler.
“He clearly has an athletic gene, though we’re not entirely sure where it came from,” his father Bill said.
“We found (his middle school yearbook) and it says, you know, under the photos, ‘I want to be an astronaut, I want to be a milkman,’ but his said, ‘I want to play in the NFL.’”
Despite his athleticism, colleges seemed to have little interest in offering Lissemore a football scholarship. The plan was to attend Georgetown on an ROTC scholarship, but then Division I-AA William & Mary offered him a scholarship.
“Both of my grandfathers were veterans, so I grew up around it,” he said of the military. “I was always running around the neighborhood with my friends, pretending to be soldiers, or at home playing with the G.I. Joes that my grandfather gave me.
“I always had an interest in the military and special forces — that was another dream job of mine.”
But football is, as Lissemore said, his passion. After four years in the Virginia countryside, Lissemore had a case of déjà vu. By the time he was a senior, Lissemore was chosen William & Mary’s defensive captain, was selected to the All-Colonial Athletic Association first team as a defensive lineman and scored All-America honors from the College Sporting News and Sports Network.
“We really didn’t have any dreams of him being in the NFL, but by his junior year, well, he was something to watch,” said Bill. “And he really believed he could get into the NFL.”
And yet the pros seemed like a long shot.
Lissemore wasn’t invited to the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine. He didn’t play in the Senior Bowl. His only draft-related invite was to the Texas vs. the Nation All-Star Game in El Paso. And even that was a last-second invitation.
He was, once again, considering joining the military, or combining his football experience with his major, kinesiology, and becoming a strength coach.
“I don’t think you need all the big invites to make it to the next level,” Lissemore said. “All you need is at least one chance to showcase your skills in front of NFL teams. You also need someplace that you can train hard during the … months leading to your Pro Day. Get your foot in the door, and if you have a strong work ethic and a fierce drive, that will eventually separate you from the pack.”
Lissemore has both, and his Pro Day was good enough that the Dallas Cowboys drafted him midway through the seventh round in 2010.
Fast forward six years. Lissemore was traded to the Chargers in 2013, where he has developed into an integral part of San Diego’s defensive line.
Through all of the near misses, Lissemore has been grateful for every opportunity. But in 2015, he felt it was time to start seriously thinking about his future after football.
“Football isn’t forever, making connections and exploring what’s out there is important,” he said.
To that end, Lissemore took advantage of the NFL-NFLPA Business Management and Entrepreneurship Program, a five-day seminar that took place in Silicon Valley and is run by Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Arthur Hightower, the Chargers’ senior director of player engagement, said 30 to 40 players are selected each year.
“(The program) not only gives you a lot to think about and chance to think about it,” Hightower said “it also allows players to think about it the way that these industry leaders think about it.
“It is designed to help prepare the players — you are going to make the transition at some point. The goal is to get the guys some experience about that next step. If you’re thinking about going into business, here’s what that looks like.”
During the program, Lissemore said the players — some current, some retired — spent a day with venture capitalists, visited Google, Facebook and Luxe, spent a day of lectures on financial planning and worked with a group to present a business concept to the venture capitalists.
“I was amazed,” Lissemore said. “It was cool being in the same room with innovators … it was a whole other realm of professionalism … it was the same approach we take to playing football and they apply that to tech.”
Bill is thrilled that his son is planning for life after the NFL. But he sees a certain irony in Sean’s newfound interest in business. After all, Bill is a telecommunications executive with Time-Warner Cable.
“Even when he first got drafted, my wife and I said, ‘This is great, but you have to plan for the future,’” Bill said. “When he said he was going to Wharton, I was pretty impressed by that. And when he told me who he had met with, well, at one point, I said to him, ‘You realize that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 30 years, right?’”
Lissemore found the program fascinating enough that he is considering returning to William & Mary for a five-day business certification program. And, though he’s in no hurry for his NFL career to end, he’s seriously thinking about what life after the football will hold. He can’t point to a specific job or venture just yet, but he feels strongly that whatever is will somehow combine athletics, technology and finance.
“The classes I have been involved in have been valuable for a number of reasons,” Lissemore said. “They have been helping me gain perspective on what path I want to head down when football is over.
“After living out your dream job and having a career that challenges you every day, you want to be reassured there are other careers out there that you can find the same passion, emotion and enthusiasm that drives you in football.”
Above: Sean Lissemore sacks Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco during the second half at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 1, 2015 in Baltimore. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)