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Ex-Ute Luther Elliss learned lesson while losing wealth

Luther Elliss celebrates at end of freedom bowl win.  10/10/2002
Luther Elliss celebrates at end of freedom bowl win. 10/10/2002
Photo by Tom Smart.

SALT LAKE CITY – You get a new job and the pay seems great. Naturally, you add some things you've been wanting: big screen TV, premium cable, car upgrade, maybe even a new house. Your cousin asks you to loan him some cash.

That's cool. You can afford it, right?

But soon the bills mount. Braces for the kids, car repairs, tuition. That investment property you bought before the crash? It's upside down. You realize you're eating hand to mouth.

It happens to thousands, but not just at the middle of the economic spectrum; it happens at the top, too. Take for instance Luther Elliss, the former University of Utah and Detroit Lions defensive end. He played 10 years in the NFL and made $11.6 million in one five-year span. Yet a little over a year ago he was relying on his church friends in Detroit to pay his bills and even provide food.

Now he's living in Salt Lake and the story isn't yet over. He is working on a degree at Utah in sports management and informally helping out with the defensive line.

Fortunately, he says, he hasn't been homeless.

“No, the Lord has taken care of us,” he said, “but it's been tough, even here recently, doing some speaking on those kinds of things, going to school. God's just giving us what we need to get by — no more, no less — through our church, our family. People have been helpful; they say they know it has been hard, they'll help you out with these kinds of things. That's what blesses us.”

Elliss is in life's prime, 38 years old. He wasn't just a fringe NFL player; he earned All-Pro honors in 2004 and 2005. A devoted member of K-2, a proselytizing Christian church, he is the married father of 11 children (6 adopted). But he is also a recovering over-spender and admits so. In January 2010 he left his million-dollar home in suburban Detroit, having already lost a home in Utah to foreclosure.

“It's been hard, I'm not going to lie. It's been a hard adjustment,” Elliss said, “but it's a story I can share and try to make these guys realize they don't need to do this.”

Sports Illustrated reported that 78 percent of former NFL players were bankrupt or under financial duress within two years of retirement. Likewise, 60 percent of former NBA players were reportedly bankrupt within five years of retirement.

Financial failure among athletes is not just about cars, women and jewelry, he said, adding that many get into trouble the way he did: investing poorly. Athletes are inundated with investment opportunities, many of them risky or even fraudulent.

Unlike the perception that athletes are greedy and self-absorbed, sometimes it's the opposite. Many routinely maintain friends and relatives they knew as they were growing up. They buy them cars, gifts, hire them on as assistants and overpay them for minimal work. Elliss paid for landscaping, a wedding and other things family members wanted.

Elliss used his wealth for good things like charities, as well as foolishness. Real estate was among his biggest downfalls. He took out a reported $1.6 million mortgage on a home in Oakland Township, Mich., but the expected resale price was only $800,000. He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2009.

Elliss said his mistakes were mostly business related, not so much other extravagances, though he did own luxury houses, cars and jewelry. He ignored advice from his financial consultant and his wife, investing in manufacturing and Internet companies, which failed along with his real estate deals.

“Most of it was bad investments, good money chasing bad money, trying to save it instead of cutting your losses,” he said. “I'm not one to give up too easily on things, so it was always just a little bit more, a little more time, a little more money and before we knew it, I put up the houses and guaranteed the loans, and when that came due, the bank came knocking on my door.”

Elliss believes the NCAA should teach money skills to aspiring athletes. Meanwhile, the gold-to-fold story has a moral for everyone.

“It's not just professional athletes that are doing this. Look at our country – it's trillions in debt. Where are we going? We're still spending,” he said. “It's something I've been advocating recently, especially at younger levels, we need to educate them in the basic finances and understanding you can't spend more than what you make.”

Even when you make enough to have it all.

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