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A Tale of Two NFL Interns

This fall, NFL players, Anthony Castonzo and Isaiah Johnson will meet on the gridiron when the Los Angeles Rams host the Indianapolis Colts. Until then, they are busy working as unpaid interns for two of the country's top companies. Here are their stories

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A Tale of Two NFL Interns
    Burke Doeren/Whalerock Industries
    Indianapolis Colts offensive lineman, Anthony Castonzo, poses outside of Whalerock Industries in West Hollywood, CA. Castonzo is an intern at the company as part of the NFLPA's program.

    On a Sunday afternoon in 2017, Indianapolis Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo and Los Angeles Rams safety Isaiah Johnson, will be enemies on opposite sides of the line scrimmage.

    Soon, the two larger than life men will collide like Gladiators inside the confines of the L.A. Coliseum, but for a month in the offseason, their lives collided in the boardroom, where they found they were just like you or me.

    They both worked 9-to-5 jobs, answered to bosses, and packed a lunch to the office. The only difference was they weren't paid, they were just interns.

    Every year for the past four years, the NFL Players Association externship program selects 41 players out of over 86 applicants to spend a major chunk of their offseason working as interns for 15 different companies across the country in order to gain the valuable skills and experience needed to thrive in the work force.

    For many of these athletes, life between the pylons comes easy, but life outside the gridiron can be difficult to tackle. Castonzo and Johnson understand that their playing careers won't last forever. Inevitably, their NFL days will come to an end, and they will disappear into retirement, scratching their proverbial heads, wondering what to do next.

    That's why two of the more durable and respected players in the game, put aside their paychecks and relaxation time to prepare for the unknown. Along the way, they learned valuable skills and how to overcome unexpected challenges.

    Here are their stories:

    His six-foot, seven-inch frame looms over a tiny stove in his West Hollywood apartment. It's a half past 7:00AM and after finishing a bowl of oatmeal, Anthony Castonzo is now making eggs with avocado. He peers at his watch; he better hurry or he'll be late for work. He has trolls to kill.

    The youngest of four children, Castonzo grew up in the Northwest suburb of Chicago. He started playing tackle football at the age of six and was a quarterback throughout high school. However, at 6'7 and just 215 pounds, he was considered a toothpick, and subsequently, the recruitment letters never came.

    Castonzo's salvation was his parents' Italian restaurant. Anthony gained 30 pounds after graduation and eventually received a scholarship offer from Boston College as an offensive lineman.

    "Having a restaurant in the family definitely helped out," said Constanzo. "But I ate straight into our profits."

    The restaurant lasted only 13 years, but the Castonzo family's investment in their son paid dividends when he was taken in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts.

    During his adolescence, Anthony found sanctuary in video games. "I've always loved video games," he said. "I never really thought about what goes on behind it, but as I played more and more, I started to appreciate how much goes into it and what goes on behind the scenes and that cultivated my interest." 

    At a young age, Anthony had a penchant for math and art, the aptitude needed for a computer programmer. Even as an adult, he draws sketches in his free time, so a career in programming is the natural place for those worlds to collide.  

    "I've started to think about life after football," admitted Castonzo. "Hopefully I have a bunch more years left, but I recognize at some point it's going to end. When I saw Whalerock on the list of internships with an opportunity in computer programming and coding I said, 'this sounds awesome.' I'm going to commit to do it. I think it will be a good time and I'll learn a lot."

    *****

    Elsewhere, in the nation's capital, Isaiah Johnson is in the middle of a marketing meeting. Still recovering from the night before, Johnson can't wait to get out of the office and tour the site of the company's upcoming event for MLS franchise DC United. He too peers at his watch, just two more hours to go.

    Johnson was born in Columbus, Ohio, but he moved to Atlanta when he was two years old. He first picked up a football at the age of seven, but admittedly, at that time, playing in the NFL was only an afterthought.

    When Isaiah was 12 years old, his father, Nathan, was tragically killed in a car accident and suddenly his NFL aspirations transformed into a child simply looking to make his father proud. As a reminder, Johnson still wears his father's wedding ring to this day and uses his father's death as motivation to drive him to be better, the fuel behind his NFL dreams.

    "I wear his wedding ring on my right hand as a constant reminder of how hardworking of a man he was," said Johnson. "It drives me."

    Johnson was a standout at Sandy Creek High School in Georgia, and grew up idolizing wide receiver, Calvin Johnson, who graduated three years before he arrived. Johnson followed the receiver to Georgia Tech and after going undrafted in 2015, was signed by the Detroit Lions where he practiced against his idol on a daily basis.

    "I looked up to him and inspired to be where he was," said Johnson. "A lot of people think we're related. I definitely was a fan of his and he inspired me to prepare and do stuff for life after football."

    Johnson majored in Business at Georgia Tech and got his Masters Degree in Building Construction. Despite the fact that he has no plans of pursuing a career in event production, when his agent told him about the NFLPA internship with Events DC, Johnson jumped at the chance.

    "I'm trying to prepare myself for life after football, so when my agent presented this program that the NFLPA was doing, I jumped all over it," said Johnson. "I don't necessarily see myself working in events, but it’s a great opportunity to network and see how a company is run."

    ***** 

    There's an old Joke: A grandfather who had just turned 75, turns to his grandchild and says, "You know, it's not easy getting old. I guess I'm in the fourth quarter now."

    The grandchild responds, "Don't worry, Grandpa. Maybe you'll go into overtime." 

    The average career of an NFL player is just over three years. Despite dedicating most of their lives to the sport, the average football player only lasts a few years at the highest level. As a world-class athlete that is abundantly skilled in the art of physically punishing his opponent, sitting in the confines of a cubicle and concentrating on a small computer screen can be equally, if not more, challenging. 

    As a six-foot safety, Isaiah Johnson is about to enter his third season in the NFL. The idea that the end of his playing career could be over soon is simply an afterthought, right now, he has to figure out which Events DC department to report to.

    In his first meeting with the company, Johnson told his new bosses that he wanted to spend time within the trenches of each and every division Events DC had. That way, he could better understand the inner workings of how a business is run and operated. 

    After an eight-hour workday, Johnson spends two hours in the gym training for the upcoming season with the Los Angeles Rams. Unlike the grandfather in the joke, Johnson doesn't care about going into overtime; he just wants to see the field more this season. His goal is to start Week 1 on the active roster and stay there for the duration of the season. Overtime for him will be when his playing career comes to an end, and when it does, he's ready for what comes next.

    "I definitely see myself in entertainment, either behind or in front of the camera," Johnson said. "Either acting or hosting. Another avenue is land development. I want to start my own real estate business."

    *****

    It's just after lunch in West Hollywood, CA and Anthony Castonzo is putting his weeks worth of coding training to work as he prepares to design his own video game. The man who is responsible for protecting Andrew Luck's blindside, must now protect the Kingdom from hideous troglodytes that want to rip his character from limb to limb.

    "I'm working on an RPG (role playing game) called 'Defend Your Kingdom,'" Castonzo said. "A giant troll attacks you and you have to select various moves to attack him back. If you defeat him, it starts all over again, if he defeats you, you die, and it starts all over again. It's amazing how simple of a game takes so much work, but I'm very proud of it."

    Anthony is so proud of his game that he immediately called Luck to tell him what he was working on. When he told his friend, teammate, and quarterback about the game he was making, Luck was ecstatic and told Anthony he wanted to play the game as soon as it was complete.

    "Currently, you can only run the game on Python (a programming language), but I'm turning it into an iOS app," Castanzo said. "There's always some new challenge. There's always ways to make it better. That constant challenge is definitely something that can keep me busy for a long time. It's a lot of fun seeing things come to life. When you get an error message over and over again and then finally the program runs correctly, it's a really good feeling."

    For the next few weeks, Castonzo will eat, sleep, and breathe computer programming. In between learning a bevy of program languages like Python, Sequel, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, React and SWIFT, Castonzo meets with a close friend of the Colts strength and conditioning coach, Darren Krein, to train after work.

    Anthony works out for an hour and a half each day as he sets his sights on helping improve the Colts 8-8 record last season. Indianapolis lost four games by five points or less in 2016, a trend that Castanzo wants to buck in 2017.

    "A lot of those games came down to the final few seconds on the field when the outcome changed," said Castanzo of the Colts 2016 campaign. "We easily could have been 10-6 and won the division."

    After working out and eating dinner, Castanzo codes for a couple more hours before going to bed. His boss at Whalerock, Sunil Bhanot, says besides being easily noticeable in the office, that Castanzo is deserving of an "A+" grade for his work the past couple weeks and would absolutely hire Anthony full time once his career in the NFL comes to an end. "It's up to him now on what he wants to focus his future on," he says.

    He may wear a facemask on the field, but he's a mask of concentration when you see him in front of a computer coding. Castanzo is unsure of when the NFL will put him out to pasture, but he sees himself pursuing a career in app or web development once he hangs up his pads and cleats.

    "I enjoy the front end developing stuff with apps and web design," said Castanzo of what field he might want to go into after football. "I think the creative side of things where you can visually see what you're coding is where I would want to be, but I'm still pretty green and there's a lot more to learn."

    It's been said that there's truth and romance to be found on the football field, but very few are able to find meaning outside of it. For Johnson and Castanzo, not only have they found meaning, but a purpose for when their football lives come to an end.

    Until then, they will wait for their lives to intertwine again when they battle on the football field this fall. 

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