Kickstarter: Former TCU star trades NFL for entrepreneurship

Jaden Oberkrom

Oberkrom’s Kicking Academy

Jaden Oberkrom pulled into the lot of an apartment complex and parked his car, keeping an eye on his phone as he waited for a call that would decide the future of his NFL career.

The 22-year-old placekicker – fresh off a stellar career at Texas Christian University, where he became the Big 12’s all-time leader in field goals made – had just returned home to Arlington after being released by the Jacksonville Jaguars the day before. Less than 24 hours after he landed on Texas soil, his agent called and said the Cleveland Browns had claimed Oberkrom off waivers. A plane would be booked to fly him to Cleveland that same evening.

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The Browns would call in 10 minutes to brief him on everything, his agent said.

Then Oberkrom, who was driving at the time, decided to pull over to the closest parking lot and just take a moment to think.

“I just got this really weird feeling,” he said. “I just felt like God was saying, ‘No, this isn’t for you. Do something else.’ ”

In what he calls the “shortest but longest” 10 minutes of his life, Oberkrom said, he spent the time praying, asking God to tell him what to do.

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Sure enough, the Browns came calling 10 minutes later. By then, Oberkrom had made his decision.

“I just watched it ring,” he said. “It went to voicemail.”

He then called his agent and said he would no longer be playing in the NFL. As soon as he hung up the phone, Oberkrom said, he felt as if a massive weight dropped from his shoulders.

It was a gut move, driven mainly by faith and nothing else, he said. God told him to leave the NFL so he did, Oberkrom said, and he doesn’t regret it.

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“The best part was after I called my agent to tell him I was out, the feeling I got proved to me that it was by far the right decision,” he said.

Oberkrom isn’t playing pro football anymore and he doesn’t plan on going back, but that doesn’t mean he’s kicking off his cleats completely. Instead, he’s keeping them on for a new purpose – coaching junior high and high school students in an entrepreneurial venture called Oberkrom’s Kicking Academy.

“It’s really my passion, just helping kids out with kicking, helping them get better, helping them be either the best high school kicker they could be or even the best college guy or after,” Oberkrom said. “It’s just something I was really passionate about, so I just said, ‘Screw it. Let’s just pursue it.’ ”

A new kind of kickoff

Oberkrom’s Kicking Academy opened in early June. Oberkrom got permission from the administration at Young Junior High and Boles Junior High in Arlington to use the schools’ fields for lessons (the fields are generally open to the public for non-organized events). Each lesson costs $80 and lasts about an hour.

Though he’s already started teaching, Oberkrom said his company is still in a “marketing phase.” He’s looking for more schools that would allow him to use their fields. He’s also reaching out to Dallas-Fort Worth area coaches to see whether students would be interested in private lessons.

Oberkrom said he likes to focus on perfecting what’s known as the “impact zone,” or the moment when the foot meets the ball. One drill he teaches involves standing at the ball and kicking it without taking any steps back prior to the kick, focusing solely on impact.

“I compare it to a golf swing,” Oberkrom said. “Everyone on the PGA Tour has a different swing, but at impact they all look the exact same. That’s how my philosophy is with kicking.”

Oberkrom said he discovered his passion for teaching during college, when he’d train junior high and high school kickers just for fun, without pay. He said he developed a knack for pointing out incorrect technique and explaining how to correct it, and the best part of the job is seeing students improve.

As far as his own kicking was concerned, he wasn’t doing too badly as a four-year starter at TCU – some Horned Frog fans even called him the school’s best kicker of all time. Oberkrom set school records in field goals made and career points scored, and his 57-yard field goal against West Virginia in 2015 tied for the longest field goal in school history.

Oberkrom also had individual performances that etched his name in Horned Frog lore. Fans fondly remember the final seconds of the TCU-West Virginia game in 2014, when Oberkrom nailed a 37-yard field goal in the final seconds for the win. In 2015, he hit a 22-yard field goal that forced the 2016 Alamo Bowl into overtime, helping the Frogs rally from a 31-point deficit to claim victory.

Oberkrom graduated in 2015 with a psychology degree, a business minor and a resume full of accolades. He received an invitation to the NFL Combine and eventually signed with Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent.

A kick in the head

By May, Oberkrom was practicing with the Jaguars. He spent about two weeks in Jacksonville and grew to love the city, particularly its many lakes where he and his roommate would go bass fishing almost every day.

“We would just pull up to a small pond or a mini lake or something, and just start fishing,” he said. “We caught fish at every lake we went to.”

But for whatever reason, Oberkrom felt out of place. He enjoyed the city, his coaches and his teammates, but something just felt off.

Then one day, he was sitting in team Bible study when he was called to a meeting with the general manager. At that moment, Oberkrom said, he knew his time in Jacksonville was over. He was told he would be released to make room for an offensive lineman (later revealed to be six-year veteran Jeffrey Linkenbach). He flew back to Dallas-Fort Worth that same day.

“I didn’t think I was kicking too bad,” Oberkrom said. “I was doing pretty good, so I was a little confused.”

He was confused, but relieved at the same time, he said. Unlike many of his peers, his heart just wasn’t in professional football, he said, and by the time his agent called to deliver the news that the Browns had picked him up, Oberkrom was ready to end his short-lived NFL career.

His 10-minute decision wasn’t exactly met with cheers of support, though, Oberkrom said. His agent was shocked. His parents expressed concern. After all, their son was giving up the chance to make about $450,000 as an NFL rookie.

Oberkrom said he lost friends, too. Some couldn’t accept his decision. Others criticized his faith.

“The comments, some were unbelievably good, some were unbelievably bad,” he said. “But it’s been great because those people I’m pushing out of my life.”

Through the process, Oberkrom said, he learned who his true friends were – the ones whose loyalty never wavered, regardless of whether they agreed with his decision or not.

“Those friends who were there to support me, it took our relationship to a whole new level,” he said. “It’s been good, but kind of depressing at the same time.”

Former NFL kicker Brian Happel could relate. The Fort Worth market CEO at BBVA Compass Bank played professional football from 1981-1985, hopping through seven teams in four years.

“Being cut and then not having a full-time job, then all of a sudden being signed again, it wasn’t fun,” he said.

Happel is familiar with Oberkrom’s college career, as BBVA Compass sponsors TCU head coach Gary Patterson’s annual luncheon series. Happel also helps with fundraising for TCU’s athletic scholarships. He said that though he thought Oberkrom had NFL potential, he understands his decision and believes that the name he built up at TCU will work in his favor.

“Kids want to be able to see somebody that was successful and somebody that can be a mentor to them,” Happel said. “He was always very professional in everything that he did. He wasn’t showboaty. He went out and did his job, did it very professionally and did it with what I thought was a lot of humility.”

An extra point

Oberkrom said he doesn’t mind taking a more humble route in life. Once Oberkrom’s Kicking Academy gets over the startup hump, he said, he’s looking at teaching as a long-term career.

“I’d rather wake up every day and enjoy something and make a tenth of a buck, barely anything, than make half a million dollars and dread it,” he said.

As far as a backup plan in case his kicking school doesn’t work out, Oberkrom said he doesn’t have one and wants to keep it that way – it only motivates him to work to make his business successful.

But so far, at least in the few weeks he’s been out of the NFL, Oberkrom said, his life has been on the upswing. He said he doesn’t regret the decision he made that day in his car on the apartment parking lot. Right now, he’s right where he needs to be, he says, and it’s all because of faith.

“It’s the No. 1 thing in my life,” he said. “Kicking is way at the bottom. My life’s been changed through Christ.”