My Journey From NFL Offensive Lineman to EA Video Game Designer
The Jets, Cardinals and Bucs, among others are all looking for offensive linemen to fill a void left by injury or subpar performance. Within a week, 1184 NFL players will be unemployed when rosters are cut down to fifty-three. Position battles are being won (and lost) all day every day. Having gone through this myself one year ago as a member of the Redskins, I can’t help but think about the transition many of these players will soon be going through, as I had to do it myself: from the NFL to the Office.
That transition has been a big challenge. Imagine within every football player is two people: one is a child chasing a dream and eliminating distractions from the ‘normal’ world to ensure nothing gets in the way of that dream; the other is an adult, thirsting for stability and calculating risks when making decisions for the future. For every man playing the game of football, the time will come sooner or later when he must grow up. My time came at the ripe, old age of 28. Some left jobless this week will be even younger.
After getting cut last September by the Redskins, the 6th time of my career I got the axe, I could sense my opportunities were beginning to run thin. While any teammate or coach I’ve ever had will tell you, I gave my heart, soul, sweat and tears to the game, injuries and competition don’t always consider work ethic as a worthy adversary. I finished last year as a member of the UFL’s Virginia Destroyers. And while I still cherished the opportunity to play football as a job and enjoyed my time in that league, playing minor league football in Virginia Beach was not my dream. When the UFL season ended prematurely and I was rehabbing yet another injury, I knew I had to start growing up and prepare myself for life after football before it was too late.
I went home to Colorado and the child in me went back to chasing the ultimate goal, so I worked to stay in shape, still hopeful for an NFL tryout or an invite to mini-camp. I flirted with the CFL and Arena league. But boredom and a lack of self-worth crept up more and more each day I just sat and waited for a phone call. So I secretly applied for an internship at EA Sports, to work as a designer on the NCAA and Madden football franchises. At the time, I saw it as a rare opportunity to stay busy during the off-season before going to play in whichever league wanted me — that is if EA thought I was qualified enough to join its team. But funny things happen when you’re out on a whim, and EA awarded me the internship within its NCAA Fellowship program. Instantly, the child tugged at me – “No, you’re a football player, that’s what you do!” But the transition had begun, even if I was still in denial.
Oldenburg with the Redskins, his last NFL team.
As I tried to settle into working in an office atmosphere for the first time in my life, I still had every intention of playing football somewhere in the fall once the five month internship concluded. I even decided to accept a two-year contract offer from the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, who would begin training camp in June. I was still training daily in the early hours before work and had even hired a trainer in my new home city of Orlando, Florida – the 11th city I called home in five years. The grown-up I was becoming just wanted to know where I was going to sleep in 6 months, but the child was just eager to get back on the gridiron.
Life always has a way to toss a wrench in even our best-laid plans though. In May, three months into the internship at EA, they offered me a full-time position as Associate Designer on the football gameplay team. This began an inner struggle that consumed every one of my thoughts for a good month.
I was at a crossroads – my grown-up side knew this was coming; the kid just wanted to avoid it. “Can I really give up the game I’ve invested so much of my life for and enter corporate America for good? Or do I pass up this other once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at EA Sports to continue following my dream?” These thoughts would go through my head daily, polarizing my very being. “If you love football, you go play, regardless of league, pay, depth chart position, or anything else,” said the kid in me. Then the grown-up would argue, “What if I get hurt again, or cut, then I have to start all over in finding another career at the age of 30.”
I thought about this decision at work. I couldn’t sleep at night. I struggled to envision my life without the grind of football and I considered myself a failure for even being in this position at such an early age. So I was still eating right, working out 6-7 times per week and pushing my body like never before. But occasionally I found myself consciously admitting that this behavior was more out of habit then for an upcoming conditioning test, which in hindsight was a sign I had already made my decision.
I finally let myself acknowledge that I had just earned another rare opportunity, an opportunity of a lifetime to build the video games I played as a kid, and it provided a whole separate level of security that football never had for me, being a ‘bubble player’, a back-up, on and off practice squads, rosters and reserve lists for 6 different teams, and even separate leagues.
Thus, after weeks of this internal deliberation, I decided I had given all I could to the game of football and I grew up. I’m now using my knowledge and experience towards another goal: bringing authenticity to the most popular football video games in the country. The child in me was disappointed and still tugs at me to give it one more shot, but the game eventually ends for everybody. I’ve counted my blessings and I’m comfortable working at EA Sports as a FORMER NFL lineman. Without football, I know the EA job wouldn’t have been an option, so the game has continued to provide for my way of life. And come the end of the current preseason, I now know exactly where I’ll be sleeping each night and the city in which I can completely unpack.
But, wait, didn’t somebody say that the Jets are still looking for a right tackle???
Oldenburg showing EA’s NCAA game to rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon at a pre-draft party.