Before Phil McConkey began his finance career, he had to survive the rigors of the Naval Academy and playing for one of pro football's toughest coaches, Bill Parcells.
McConkey, now the president of military veteran-oriented investment firm Academy Securities, recalled scratching his cornea in the New York Giants training camp. After seeing a doctor during the midday break, McConkey returned for the afternoon session. Under Parcells, you didn't dare miss it.
McConkey, patch over one eye like Sinbad, caught passes and punts. "I had no depth perception."
The ball slipped out of McConkey's hands during the final punt.
"This S.O.B. yelled and screamed at me as if I had just fumbled away the Super Bowl. No matter how well I did, he would critique and complain and bitch," McConkey said of Parcells. "The man was absolute. He refused to accept excuses."
Years later, McConkey draws on that experience.
"Having no excuses teaches you to get more out of yourself."
McConkey and others The Bond Buyer interviewed say their sports backgrounds helped guide them to successful business and financial careers.
All had big moments to share and stories to tell.
McConkey and former Philadelphia Eagles tight end John Spagnola, now a managing director at PFM Asset Management LLC, caught passes in Super Bowls. Kim Magrini, an associate at law firm Ballard Spahr LLP, was U.S. women's national rugby co-captain and competed in the World Cup. Kyle Kucharski, an institutional municipal sales associate at Janney Montgomery Scott, celebrated a men's ice hockey national championship at Boston College.
Former Rhode Island state treasurer Frank Caprio, a baseball captain and football defensive back for Harvard University in the late 1980s, batted against Roger Clemens in a spring training game Harvard played against the Boston Red Sox, as legendary Hall of Famer Ted Williams watched from the Red Sox dugout.
Caprio struck out. Of course, he had company. Clemens fanned nearly 5,000 batters, regular-season and postseason combined, over his 24 years in the majors.
"His slider broke from Tampa to Orlando," Caprio recalled of his at-bat in Winter Haven, Fla.
Caprio also doubled off Al Nipper and danced a bit while taking a lead off second base, drawing glares from the Boston pitcher but nothing further. Later that the same spring, Nipper and Darryl Strawberry brawled after Nipper plunked the New York Mets' slugger as payback for Game 7 of the 1986 World Series, when Strawberry took forever to round the bases after homering to seal the Mets' 8-5 win.
Their paths to public finance careers varied. McConkey made connections "through osmosis" in financial media capital New York. Spagnola broke in with First Boston during NFL offseasons -- his contacts included fellow Yale University graduate Chuck Mercein, an ex-Green Bay Packers fullback noted for his 1967 "Ice Bowl" heroics. Kucharski had family and prep school exposure to the business world as well as a mentorship program at BC.
Magrini's journey was roundabout.
"I kind of accidentally fell into public finance," she said. Magrini had majored in biology at undergraduate Penn State and graduate school environmental science at Drexel University. "I didn't know where to go with that."
While doing field work in Costa Rica, she met an attorney with the Leatherback Trust, a non-profit dedicated to saving the leatherback sea turtle. Land-use legalities began to intrigue her. "Then I thought, maybe I should go to law school," she said.
"The interesting aspect of public finance as a legal field is that you work with different people," she said in an interview at Ballard's office in Center City Philadelphia, where she focuses her practice on municipal finance and recovery. Earlier this month she moderated a web seminar on green bonds. "Refundings are always interesting," she said.
When McConkey arrived at the Naval Academy as "a skinny kid from Buffalo," he thought frequently about leaving Annapolis. "Every day," he said in an interview at New York's Algonquin Hotel. "I hated the [bleeping] place."
McConkey persevered and after graduation, worked for five years as a naval aviator and nuclear weapons transshipment pilot.
"In high school they gave you multiple-choice exams and if you didn't know the answer, you could guess and pick answer C," he said. "On a fighter plane you have to do 10 things at once off memorization and there's no [B.S.-ing] that. You either do or you don't."
Even though he caught a 6-yard touchdown pass and a 44-yard fleaflicker from Phil Simms in New York's 39-20 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI at Pasadena, Calif., McConkey still regrets the possible 60-yard TD toss that didn't materialize that day because a defender interfered. Likewise, Navy beat Army three of four times while McConkey was at Annapolis, but the memory of losing to the Black Knights his junior year still stings.
"I hated losing a hell of a lot more than I enjoyed winning," he said. "When I was a Wall Street trader, I made some great trades, but some of the ones that got away still bother me."
Spagnola learned separate styles of management from two highly successful football head coaches, Carm Cozza at Yale and Dick Vermeil with Philadelphia.
"We knew [Cozza] on a first-name basis. He delegated a lot to his assistants," said Spagnola, a Bethlehem, Pa., native, said of Cozza, whose program was an Ivy League mini-dynasty at the time. "As I transitioned into the pros, I came across Dick Vermeil, a totally different coach. Each was the perfect coach for that time in my life."
Vermeil, a consummate micromanager, didn't even want Spagnola on the Eagles' 1979 opening-day roster when he first joined. The team's director of player personnel overruled him. One year later, Spagnola, by then converted from wideout to tight end, was in Super Bowl XV in New Orleans, catching a 22-yard pass from Ron Jaworski early in the second period of a 27-10 loss to the Oakland Raiders.
Vermeil abruptly and tearfully quit as Eagles coach after the 1982 season. He returned years later after a long stint in broadcasting to guide the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title in January 2000.
His comeback inspired many, according to Spagnola. "He learned to take a step back. He backed off and delegated."
Former presidential candidate and New York Knicks basketball star Bill Bradley also inspired Spagnola, who took a semester off his junior year at Yale to work for Bradley when he ran for U.S. Senate in New Jersey in 1978. "He was so bright and knowledgeable. I learned a lot from him about policy development."
After his playing career, Spagnola co-founded Spagnola-Cosack Inc., which PFM bought in 2003.
Spagnola, who has also taught courses on managing public funds at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government, said sports taught him to keep an even keel.
"I think the overarching philosophy is not to get too high or too low. Things are not as good or bad as they seem," he said. "That lesson you can apply to managing assets and working with clients. The experience of 'we'll get through this' has carried us 15 years and through two of the worst bear markets in history."
According to Magrini, a player learns to improvise in rugby. That, she said, pays dividends years later. She played a position called scrum half, which she likens to a point guard in basketball.
"There are no timeouts and the coach doesn't call all the plays like in football," she said. "A player makes the decisions along with 14 teammates and you have to analyze the other side as well."
Playing in England in the 2010 World Cup was a thrill, even though the U.S. won no medal.
"That experience was phenomenal. The facilities were great. There was nothing like it in the U.S., at least for rugby," she said.
The former athletes all said sports taught them to deal with the ups and downs of a game or season.
Magrini played on two Penn State national runners-up at a non-varsity "team" level before she and her teammates took the big prize. Her team defeated Princeton in the 2004 finale.
Kucharski can relate to that. BC lost NCAA Division I national title games in 2006 and 2007. In the latter, the favored Eagles fell to Michigan State in St. Louis on a goal by current Detroit Red Wing Justin Abdelkader with 19 seconds remaining. "We were crushed," said Kucharski.
The Eagles, though, rebounded the following year and won the Frozen Four championship in Denver. Kucharski, while not a prolific scorer, helped set up BC's opening goal in a 6-1 semifinal rout of North Dakota that preceded a 4-1 title-game victory over Notre Dame.
Kucharski played under Jerry York, now college hockey's winningest all-time coach. "The biggest thing I learned from him was how to be the consummate professional," he said. "You had to be clean shaven, wear a suit and conduct yourself well, on and off the ice."
Kucharski has worked for Janney since May 2012. His parents, Wayne and Kellee Kucharski, were the chief financial officer and head of property management, respectively, at Brickpoint Properties Inc. in suburban Boston. His prep school hockey coach, Dean Boylan at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., was president of Boston Sand & Gravel Co.
BC had a mentoring program for the hockey players.
"After practices, professionals from various industries talked to me about careers in their respective businesses," Kucharski recalled. "That piqued my interest in finance and gave me an idea as to what direction I would eventually like to go after my playing career.
"This was important because not all of us were going to continue playing hockey after we left college."
The finance pros interviewed for this article speak frequently with younger athletes, either through mentoring programs or informally.
"I still go back to Penn State and talk with the team," said Magrini. "My biggest advice, with high school people and others, is to go where you feel the most comfortable and be true to yourself."