Tommy Vardell is Managing Director for Northgate Capital and a former NFL player. During our interview, he explained how his football career prepared him for starting a private equity firm; how he dealt with competition, personality issues, and finding satisfaction; how he approached games and training, and how turning to God rather than to his own understanding has helped his career.
What are your responsibilities as Managing Director for Northgate Capital?
I’m one of the directors of the company, so I manage every aspect from investment decision-making to fundraising to legal issues. Our company invests in fund managers who, in turn, invest in promising private companies.
What’s the best part of your job?
I think it’s the interactions with people. We’re in a position where we have the opportunity to sit down with some really smart and interesting investors, as we look to back a number of different exciting ideas. People come up with ideas that push the envelope and step beyond what we used to think was the limit, or the most efficient frontier. Often it’s the new technologies, such as nanotechnology and MEMS, that are changing the world. Sometimes a great investment is simply purchasing an existing company and implementing a new strategy, management team, or capital structure.
How did you decide that you wanted to go into venture capital after football?
I was aware of it at Stanford, where I heard of and saw venture capitalists’ involvement with the engineering school. I also got to know a number of VCs and started investing directly in to venture capital deals when I was playing for the San Francisco 49ers.
What are some of the challenges you’ve had?
One of the biggest challenges was not having the real work experience that a lot of my colleagues had had, such as going to business school or working in industry. In the beginning, I felt like I was starting a company that would demand those things, but I learned pretty quickly that I would be steered to do the right thing in every circumstance.
Do you mean steered by God?
Yes, that’s right. I trusted that if the direction I was going was inspired by God (forming the company with my partners), I would be given the tools necessary to complete this vision. I was forced to do mental accounting of what God had prepared me to do and what my experience had been, which pointed me to the Bible verse, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Prov. 3:5, 6). My own understanding would’ve told me that I wasn’t really qualified; I was setting out to do a gargantuan task; I had just hung up my cleats from football. Who was I to start a private firm?! But it felt like the most logical, right, and obedient step in my life. I have learned over the years to trust that and not to follow all of the reasoning that would lead me away from following the path that God has laid before me. I realized that even in my experience as a football player, God was giving me the appropriate training for my current work. So many of the issues we deal with in business parallel directly to lessons I learned on the football field. The business world is every bit as competitive and just as full of colorful personalities (and their accompanying challenges) as football.
How has dealing with competition and personalities in football helped you in business?
I had great training in football. Everything was interrelated. Ultimately, your back-up’s main goal is to take your job. Your salary is tied to your performance. Your performance seems to depend upon your opportunities, which depends on a lot of factors, such as getting good play calls, which seems to depend upon relationships and perceptions of coaches and your own perception of your abilities. There’s a real intricate web of personalities and perceptions that develops on the grid-iron. One of the things I think I did well was not getting caught in that web. And you don’t want to get caught in the web because the web is not reliable, as it tends to leave God out of the picture. I would much rather rest in God’s arms and let Him manage the intricacies, as appropriate to me, than to go on a marketing mission of myself or try to manipulate the field. If we interfere with the plan, we’re going to mess it up. My position on the football field and in business life are more ordained and protected by God than they were or are carved out by my aggressive athleticism or entrepreneurialism. I often think about the verse, “I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it” (Rev. 3:8). To the extent that I rest in this truth, the confirmation that my place is my place becomes more apparent. The world would tell you that there are overlap and exclusion, but God tells you that, as His child, your role and position are set by Him, not defined by others. When a personality or ego is offensive to us, it’s usually because we feel it would hurt us or take something away from us -- whether it be job security or relationships in business. But there’s nothing -- no personality or ego -- that can ever truly take anything away from us. To the extent that we recognize this, personalities and egos don’t affect us. So, if the foundation for my business is secure in God, who provides for, sustains, and governs every dimension in my life, then an aggressive personality or a manipulative business associate is not very powerful.
How else has the Bible helped your career?
I have always been aware of instances of protection and grace throughout my career, and I always leaned on Bible verses that spoke to me right where I was at the moment. A simple verse, “For the Lord shall be thy confidence, and shall keep thy foot from being taken” (Prov. 3:26) meant a lot to me when I was 15 years old playing football. As a running back, I liked relying on that verse as it was exactly what I was trying to do. It was a real help and comfort as I prepared to run the ball and not have my “foot … taken” by the defense. As a kid, the literal translation gave me what I needed mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. Now I see the same verse as a promise to protect me in the business world, where I want to be keenly aware of any missteps --being snared by something unexpected that could potentially have a significant impact to my business or me. This is an illustration of the beauty of the Bible truly reaching us where we are at any stage of life. We are led to different verses and stories in the Bible according to our need.
When did you start playing football?
When I was 8.
What did you like about it?
I liked to bang around and rough house. But I was never malicious in my rough housing. In fact, I can point to very few instances in my 22 years of playing football that I seriously injured someone by delivering a blow. That’s very rare, given the magnitude of collisions that I experienced during my time as a fullback, particularly in the NFL. And part of that is in my approach that I took on the field.
What was your approach to a game?
It was an approach of competing with love and appreciation for your competitor. I took the verse from the Bible, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), and used it in my prayers: “There is neither 49er nor Cowboy, Brown nor Steeler; ‘all are one in Christ Jesus.’” To approach a game as two enemies coming at each other was the wrong way to go about it. I tried to look across the ball at a guy who, by all accounts, was seeing me as his enemy, and see him as God’s child, love his talent, recognize that he probably went through the same preparation I did, and trust that love was a unifying power on the field which brought harmony to an otherwise very violent game. I certainly had my times of being challenged. I had a lot of injuries to deal with, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t at work the whole time. If anything, I hit more aggressively and with better form, which typically means less injuries. My hits were always better when I was deep in prayer. The action of hitting was something I was supposed to be doing on the field. To the extent that I aligned myself with God, to that extent did I play God’s game, so to speak. God’s game and direction on the field were very efficient and effective. So I always found a link with my mindset to my performance on the field. I never stopped praying during a game. Never. I’d hear a play; I’d run a play; I’d come back to the huddle. There was always something inspirational I’d hold to in the back of my thought. And this was not, “Father, please let me score the touchdown.” It was the unselfish prayer that was the most effective.
What do you mean by unselfish prayer, and how was it effective in a football game?
Well, in a game loaded with cheap shots, I wasn’t praying to be a star, because I would view that as “ask[ing] amiss” (James 4:3). Rather, I’d pray to see God’s government of the game and to see His control and harmony made manifest on the field. I would pray that all of His children and players would be positioned appropriately throughout the game. God’s management and control of His creation didn’t stop on the football field but included the trees, planets, and all of creation. That type of prayer tended to have a much better impact than a prayer that was rooted in my own self-absorption.
What kind of progress have you seen in yourself or your career?
Well, oddly enough, I think that what business has helped me do is overcome some of the personality traits that have encumbered me in the past. I’ve always been somebody who has strived for more. For a long time through my NFL career and the start of a successful business, I found myself unsatisfied with my accomplishments. I always felt like I needed to do more and be more. But from the outside in, it looked like I probably should be satisfied with the direction of my company and with my NFL career. Over the last couple years, I’ve started to see the difference between the satisfaction that comes from knowing that God gives us everything versus the insatiable human ambition that would steel away our satisfaction by telling us that satisfaction can come only after certain tasks are accomplished.
How were you able to spiritualize your concept of satisfaction?
A lot of times my growth is fueled by or is a product of necessity. I started out my football career as the ultimate people-pleaser. Now, there’s nothing wrong with doing things that are pleasing to people, but they have to be in the right context. When you’re in the NFL, you’re public property, you’re on the radio, and sometimes what people say is good, and sometimes it’s bad. You realize really quickly that you’re not going to please everybody. So, you have to decide who you’re going to please -- God and yourself. Your thinking can’t be anchored into the ever-changing perceptions and whims of people’s personalities. Once this was magnified on an enormous scale on the NFL, I realized how unstable and inconsistent my own happiness would be. So I was forced to leave that arena and to sever the ties of having my self-worth and happiness tied to some person’s opinion of me. I had to do that quickly to survive.
Based on what you’re saying, do you see your NFL career as satisfying?
I see it as very satisfying. I was a starting fullback for 8 years, something that very few people have the opportunity to do. I think that dissatisfaction creeps in on any job. So I think about the Bible verses, “They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures” (Ps. 36:8); and, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:4). There is so much grace given to us by God. It’s important to sweep away our “own understanding” of things, which would put life into boxes defined by society and confine our own happiness and satisfaction. Certainly I would have loved to be the NFL rushing leader, which was a goal I had. For awhile I believed I was coming up short somehow. But it became evident that 1) there was not a likelihood that I would beat Barry Sanders for the rushing title, and 2) that I needed to open my eyes to all that I was achieving. It was limiting to pin my happiness or success to such a goal. Also, I was being really ungrateful for what I was doing and for all the grace and everything that got me to where I was.
There’s been a lot in the news about performance enhancing drugs. Any thoughts?
I didn’t take any drugs or enhancements, even those that were legal supplements, mainly because I didn’t want any crutches or false dependencies or anything to interfere. I just wanted my talent to flow forth unencumbered by any manipulation. A lot of people were on creatine, which seemed to have pretty good effects. It made them stronger and leaner pretty quickly. So, players thought they needed it to compete because their competitors were taking it. I could have taken it if I wanted, but I didn’t want to put a wrench in the mix. Pretty soon people started cramping and having joint problems. Clearly there were drawbacks to this legal drug that seemed to give a competitive advantage. I wanted to be careful in every aspect of my training not to lean on my “own understanding.” How would I know the exact role I was going to have in the game? I had instances when my weight lifting and training took away my fluidity and flexibility on the field, even though I “reasoned” that it was the best training I could do.
So how did you know how to prepare for the game or how to prepare for business?
I learned never to stop listening throughout the day as to the right training to do. In business, I try to go about my day with a moment-to-moment viewpoint as to what is going to bless me and those around me with the highest sense of right. That gets cloudy if false ambition, pride, fear, or personal instincts and understanding get in the way. I’ve found that I waste a lot of valuable time if I let my own agenda, viewpoints, and interests drive what I do. If I ever feel like I am drifting off-track, I step back and do an assessment to see if what I’ve been doing is effective, significant, relevant to my business, and God-driven. If it’s not, I change what I’m doing and listen to God.
Any last thoughts?
I just love the Bible because the same verse not only means something different to you at different parts of your life but it can mean something completely different to someone else. There are so many variations and interpretations that give the Bible so much depth and color which meets the needs of anyone who is listening.