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'HR for Athletes'

Renee Shull helps injured pros transition to lives outside the arena

Many people believe that professional athletes make a lot of money — and the stars with longevity do — but many athletes end up leaving the playing field at a young age, whether because of injury or being let go by their team.

Away go their hopes for stardom and high income, and in crashes the harsh reality that they have neither retirement plans nor serviceable skills to be able to function outside the stadium.

To help these athletes transition out of sports into new careers, Renee Shull founded her Kalamazoo-based company Integrated Play.

“The pros work, on average, one to three years, depending on their sport,” says Shull. “The agent takes a chunk. Taxes take a chunk. How can we expect them to live on what’s left, especially if injured, for the rest of their lives?”

Her goal is to help these men and women answer the question of “How will I play the game of life not doing the only thing I know?” Shull, it turns out, knows a quite a bit about helping people transition to new careers after the bottom falls out. Before she started Integrated Play, she worked in corporate human resources, an arena where she continuously dealt with people facing these situations.

In 2007, Shull was human resources manager for Designware (formerly Contempo Colors) in Kalamazoo, where she had worked since 2001. She says the company was doing well, making a profit for American Greetings Corp., the umbrella company that owned it and another plant in North Carolina. But American Greetings decided to sell the North Carolina plant, and for two months she worked there, helping employees transition into new jobs. Then, in 2009, the same situation developed at Designware.

Shull was among the executive staff sworn to secrecy until the announcement was made to the plant’s 300 employees. “I worked with the plant manager months in advance to work out plans in case of violence and to create a soft landing for the men and women, who were told two days before Christmas,” she says.

For the next eight months, Shull and her team helped people transition from employment to re-employment. They hosted on-site job fairs, provided back-to-school grant programs, assisted those who wanted to become entrepreneurs, and advised those who wanted to tap into their retirement accounts.

They met with most employees privately in the HR offices. They heard frustrations. They saw tears. “It was very draining,” Shull admits, “like living through a funeral every day for months. I hoped I would never experience anything like it again.”

But she did. While eating lunch in a local restaurant, a human resources director from another company approached her and said, “Renee, our plant is closing too, and I’m not going to stick around. They could use you.”

Shull was hired after being told she was “a good fit” because she was sympathetic and had experience.

Then, in 2011, she helped a plant in Paw Paw lay off 80 employees. Later that year, when the state of Michigan asked if she would close a facility in Tekonsha, she said yes — but also vowed that five closings were enough.

“I felt horrible. In between closings, I would sit in a rocking chair and suck my thumb, trying to recover. You can only take so much of being a corporate undertaker.”

Once she decided she would no longer handle corporate layoffs, she was out of a job too. But she was more prepared than most. In 2007, after the North Carolina assignment, she had the foresight to launch her own human resources consulting firm and become certified as a LEGO Serious Play facilitator, using LEGO bricks as a learning aid. “You can learn more about a co-worker in one hour of creative play than in years of working side by side,” she says.

Then entered synchronicity. On a flight to a speaking engagement, she sat next to a man who obviously wanted to talk. “By the time we landed, I had learned more about him than anyone should learn about anyone on a short flight, including that his son had committed suicide six weeks before,” Shull recalls.

Upon landing, the man extended his hand and said, “I’m Tommy John.”

“I’m Renee Shull,” she replied.

“No, I’m Tommy John,” the man repeated as if she should know his name.

Shull would later learn that Tommy John had been a professional baseball pitcher, a four-time All-Star who played from 1963 to 1989. With a record of 288 wins and 231 losses, he had a reasonably successful career. But his name is more often spoken in baseball circles because he was the first pitcher to undergo a particular surgical procedure to repair injured elbow ligaments caused by the stress of repetitive throwing. Since Tommy John’s operation in 1974, hundreds of professional baseball pitchers in both the major and minor leagues have opted for the “Tommy John surgery” to prolong their careers. And the rate is rising annually.

Shull came to realize that she had shared a conversation with a living legend. This motivated her to be more enthusiastic about human resources again — but with a different slant. “Where is the HR department for athletes?” she wondered. “Who is helping them transition to other careers?”

Understanding that athletes lose their jobs at an age when they still have many productive years left and a desire to contribute to society, Shull set out on a new course. She moved from despair over family-damaging plant closures in the corporate world to hope in the world of sports, utilizing her experience and her training in LEGO Serious Play. That was the beginning of Integrated Play.

She currently has 17 clients. One is George Visger, 55, who played two years for the New York Jets and the San Francisco 49ers, from 1980 to 1981. At age 22, he played through his first major concussion by clearing his head with smelling salts. At the end of the season, Visger had two operations on his brain, 10 hours apart, at one point receiving last rites. Since then, he’s had a total of nine brain surgeries, plus three surgeries on one knee. As a result, he founded The Visger Group to raise awareness of traumatic brain injuries in sports, the military and pediatrics.

“I’m his short-term memory and his social voice about brain injuries,” Shull says. “I manage his schedule, remind him of calls and appointments and tweet and post his social media messages.”

Another client of Shull’s began his NFL career for the Denver Broncos in 1986 at age 23. His career included three Super Bowl appearances. In 1989, he was suspended for violating NFL drug policy. “He didn’t know how to transition from football into the job market,” Shull says. She helped him build credibility and find a job as a customer service representative for an Internet service company. He also speaks to churches, youth groups and radio audiences about substance abuse and self-esteem. He lives with and cares for his aging mother.

To help these athletes share their experiences and advice, Shull became an expert at website design and social media, a skill she also now uses for non-athletes.

She also founded Mothers Against Concussions (MAC), a nonprofit through which she is a prominent voice in the outcry to protect young athletes against sports-related cranial injuries, especially in youth football.

MAC also educates about concussions as a result of child abuse. “These injuries often go undetected and untreated,” Shull says. “They cause anger and substance abuse, and they impact our nation’s mental health and correctional systems.”

Shull tells of a man who called her ready to commit suicide due to concussion-related blackouts, blurred vision, ringing ears and anger. “The problem,” she says,” is that people with concussions don’t have casts on their brains, and others around them can’t see they are hurting.”

Her awareness of this “invisible hurt” stems from having grown up in an abusive, financially deprived family. “My childhood has a lot to do with why I help my clients and how I coped with the plant closings,” she says. “I want to make sure no one falls through the cracks.”

Renee Shull’s website is www.integratedplay.org. Mothers Against Concussions (MAC) website is www.mothersagainstconcussions.org.

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"Invisible Hurt"

“My childhood has a lot to do with why I help my clients and how I coped with the plant closings. I want to make sure no one falls through the cracks.”
--Renee Shull