Comedic life after football suits Plum, WVU product Pat McAfee
Pat McAfee decided it was more important to make people laugh than to make them applaud.
Eight months after the Pro Bowl punter's sudden retirement from the NFL at age 29 to focus on comedy, he is feeling better than ever.
And that's no joke.
“I'm still a gigantic NFL fan,” McAfee said. “But the opportunity to wake up every single morning and go to work with your friends and hopefully make the world a better place is just a lot cooler than kicking balls on fourth down whenever your team fails to get a first down.”
The Plum and West Virginia product has settled in as chief executive officer of Barstool Heartland, an affiliate of Barstool Sports, a popular satirical sports website. Since this past spring, McAfee and his staff have aired the “Pat McAfee Show” podcast three times a week from the 10,000-square-foot Indianapolis office he designed. The initial few episodes were top-five rated shows on iTunes, according to McAfee.
Since the fast start, he has golfed with John Daly, interviewed NFL players and MMA fighters and given his opinion — often R-rated with nothing off-limits — to a growing audience.
“I'm so lucky that people downloaded and listened to our show,” he said. “We had an enormous following pretty quickly.”
McAfee, 30, retired in early February — announcing his decision during an episode of Comedy Central in Houston — and left on the table two years and $6 million from a five-year, $14 million contract he signed in 2014, plus many more millions in expected future NFL earnings as the league's No. 8 all-time punting leader.
“For sure, I could have kicked for another 10 years,” he said, “and if everything goes downhill here, who knows what'll happen.”
It hasn't been a completely smooth transition. When there was a two-month delay in building the office, they recorded the first episodes of the show in the basement of his Indianapolis house.
“The hardest part is we're running a full start-up business,” he said. “Dealing with all the logistical (stuff) was the hardest part. … It's the business stuff you don't think about. There's so much little, tiny, minuscule, logistical (expletive) that I could have never expected. It's been fun to learn, but that's probably the most tedious part of the whole thing.”
Still, McAfee said his decision to leave the NFL in his prime wasn't difficult. The former seventh-round draft pick in 2009 averaged an NFL-best 49.3 yards per punt last season. But he was forced to skip the Pro Bowl to undergo his third knee surgery in four years.
He had always held a passion for comedy. During his eight seasons with the Colts, he had performed stand-up routines “about 15 times” and worked on the “Bob and Tom Show,” a syndicated radio program based out of Indianapolis.
“I wanted to give it a shot and see how it went,” McAfee said. “We really enjoyed it. … It's just kind of a natural progression. Now that I'm retired and with Barstool, it became a full-time thing.”
McAfee's podcast promises “one-of-a-kind opinions that won't be heard anywhere else.” McAfee has “zero filter.” “We live by the rules of the internet, which is really we are allowed to talk and say and do whatever we want,” he said. “We're not evil. We don't try to say anything negative. We just have a good time, keep it real and try to make people laugh.”
He succeeds at that. McAfee's comedic prowess is one reason he has more than 1 million Twitter followers — or about 90,000 more than Antonio Brown.
Colts special teams coach Tom McMahon isn't surprised his former punter has made a seamless move into his second career.
“I think Pat understands people,” McMahon said. “He understands how humor can help relationships grow, fix things that are bad and fix the ‘hurts' with his words.”
McAfee also fixes things with his actions. Early in his NFL career, he shaved his head to raise money for Locks of Love, a non-profit that provides wigs for disadvantaged children. Last winter he paid the electric bills for 115 Indianapolis families, and his Pat McAfee Foundation has raised about $350,000 in scholarships for children of military personnel, he said.
The trajectory of McAfee's life ingrained in him the willingness to take chances.
His scholarship offer to West Virginia was the direct result of a pair of pocket jacks — of all things — in an underground game of Texas Hold 'Em poker. McAfee was supposed to attend Kent State, his lone Division I offer.
But the then-Plum senior took a gamble. He borrowed $100 from a friend, bought his way into a poker game at a Pittsburgh restaurant and won the $1,400 he needed to pay to attend a kicking clinic in Florida that was attracting many Division I coaches. There, he made nine field goals in row, including a 65-yarder.
The next day, West Virginia coach Tony Gibson arrived at Plum and offered McAfee a scholarship.
When McAfee recalls that poker game — his pair of jacks turned into a full house and a huge pot — he wonders about the quirks of fate.
“Without that whole series of events, I have no clue where my life is right now,” McAfee said. “Maybe I'm flipping burgers. Who knows?
“I truly believe everything works out exactly how it's supposed to. So even if something bad happens, it's a story. It's a learning thing. If something great happens, it's awesome. I know whatever happens, it's how it's supposed to be.”