Barclays executive John Miller had a one-of-a-kind experience on Thursday evening. He sat nervously in front of his television rooting for a prospective employee to earn a job offer with a different organization.
This seemingly odd scenario began more than a year ago when Miller, the global head of industry coverage banking at Barclays, received a call from a student at Wake Forest University, where he sits on the board of the business school. As a Wake Forest alum, Miller knew incoming senior John Wolford’s name and reputation but had never spoken with him before. Wolford was the starting quarterback at Wake Forest, a Division I school known more for its academics than its football program.
Wolford was seeking Miller’s advice because he hoped to begin a career on Wall Street after graduating. The problem was that Wolford couldn’t take the normal track of most students due to his commitments with the football program. He worked at an investment firm that manages Wake’s endowment during his junior summer, but his schedule didn’t allow him to take on a traditional internship at a big bank in New York – the feeder for analyst programs on Wall Street.
Miller saw it as an opportunity. “I had heard great things about John from many sources at the school – about his determination, his tenacity, his work ethic and his unwavering focus,” plus a high GPA, he said.
So, Miller flew him up under the guise of an informational interview – to give Wolford a better idea of what investment banking is all about. He also wanted to see if Wolford performed as well in the interview room as he did on the football field. After catching up with the half-dozen managers who met Wolford that day, Miller felt he saw enough and made him an offer on the spot. Suddenly, Wolford found himself walking into his senior year with a job in hand to work for Barclays’ debt capital markets group.
However, an “issue” popped up during Wolford’s last year at Wake that put his standing on somewhat shaky ground. He had a phenomenal senior campaign, passing for 3,192 yards and a school record 29 touchdowns, opening the eyes of pro scouts who likely didn’t have Wolford on their radar before the year. With the dream of potentially playing in the National Football League becoming a possibility, Wolford reached out to Miller for counsel throughout the year. And when the New York Jets offered Wolford a non-guaranteed spot on their preseason roster in August – right around the time he was scheduled to start with the bank – Miller and other Barclays executives huddled. They decided they wouldn’t pull his offer.
“We told him: ‘the door is open and we have the lights on for you’” Miller said. No matter how short or long Wolford’s NFL career would be, a seat at Barclays would be waiting.
But the reality of Wolford’s tenure in the NFL was put to the test almost immediately. Miller anxiously watched as the Jets played their last preseason game on Thursday, acknowledging that he was rooting hard for Wolford in his final audition before cuts were made, despite the connotations of him making the team. He was unspectacular and was ultimately cut, but showed enough promise that the Jets added him to their 10-man practice squad on Monday, meaning he is part of the team but won’t be active on gameday unless something changes. The practice squad is used to help groom young players in the hope of them eventually earning a full-time spot on the team.
When asked if Wolford indicated that he would immediately join Barclays if his stint with the Jets is cut short, Miller said that’s not the way Wolford is wired. “He’s an optimist. He’ll focus on plan B if and when appropriate,” he said. For now, Wolford’s NFL dreams are still alive, though he faces an uphill battle to make a long career out of it. He’ll make a minimum of $7,600 per week while on the practice squad. Not a bad wage, particularly when you have a standing offer for a banking job waiting in tow.
UPDATE: At 10:23 a.m. on Tuesday, roughly 90 minutes after publication and 24 hours after signing him, the Jets cut Wolford from the practice squad to sign a different quarterback. A tough business...
Athletes in finance
While the particulars of Wolford’s story are unique, plenty of financial firms have targeted high-level athletes in the past. NFL veteran Justin Tuck started a job within Goldman Sachs’ wealth management division in July. Hedge fund D.E. Shaw has employed several Olympians, while the Ivy League football “mafia” has been a known pipeline for Wall Street talent. The idea is that college athletes who can still post high GPAs during the rigors of a season are more likely to have the competitive fire, focus and work ethic to put in the hours and be successful in banking.
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