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Bradlee Van Pelt: an NFL Quarterback’s Wine Dream

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Bradlee Van Pelt was an NFL quarterback during his career with the Denver Broncos and the Houston Texans. As the the son of the late, great NFL linebacker, Brad Van Pelt, he was born to play professional football. Bradlee, who’s only 31, left the NFL in 2007, in the throes of a dramatic personal transformation: he’d fallen in love with wine, and decided to devote the rest of his life to learning about it and succeeding in a wine career. We chatted over a couple glasses of wine in Oakland.

This is part one of a three part series.

BRADLEE: When I explain the story to people about who I was before and who I am now, they don’t really buy it. They think I’m coming up with an excuse, in the sense of why football didn’t work out. And I don’t really tell everyone. I don’t tell people about my past. You won’t find it hanging on my walls, you won’t find me telling of myself who I was, before, because that was a different person. It’s someone I know, and someone I still look at in the mirror at times, but the transformation I saw in myself was of who I was, and who I wanted to be. And so when I got into wine, and I saw the people in this small little wine bar, hanging, drinking wine, swirling, talking about life, and culture, ideas, I felt so happy and so relieved that I didn’t have to feel a pressure anymore, I didn’t have to be somebody. They didn’t care about my money, or what I drove, the clothes I wore. To me, the culture was very inviting, and not stigmatizing.

SH: When you were with your athlete friends, did you feel pressure from them? I would think that was your peer group, that you’d have a relaxation and comfort with them.

The problem is, you have an image to live up to. And you don’t realize it, because you’re in that bubble, where all your friends have money, some have a lot more than others. You’re all wealthy. You’re going to be way upper class, even if you’re young, it doesn’t matter, 22 year olds, 32 year olds. So you don’t really get a different perspective. And you also expect to pay for things, whether it’s for your friends from the football team or friends outside of it. You don’t want to be seen as cheap, right? You don’t want to be seen as someone who doesn’t fulfill their idea of what a professional athlete should be. And that creates a lot of conflict, because you are starting to become someone who you think you should be, instead of the person you want to be.

What’s wrong with being wealthy?

I don’t think there’s anything. I mean, I’m still trying to become wealthy, in a sense. But it’s not all money-driven in wine. I figure I can make money, enjoy myself and be a better person, a nicer person, a more compassionate person. I mean, in football, it’s very hard to be compassionate, because you have no idea what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.

You can’t be compassionate on the field, but once you leave the game, can’t you be a nice, compassionate guy?

Well, sometimes you can, and there are people out there who are very nice and compassionate. What I mean by “compassionate” is someone who works 40, 50 hours a week, who’s trying to make ends meet, and how difficult it can be in our system, whether it’s our tax system, or if you’re a mother trying to raise kids, like I saw my own mother. You really don’t have a perspective of that. You can say you’re compassionate, but a lot of football players have a need. But to me, it’s a greed, to acquire more reputation, more prestige, cars. It’s really an image thing. We live in a very image-conscious culture right now, and when you have money, and you’re a professional athlete, it’s heightened, because now, everyone’s looking at you.

You didn’t want to go a Deion Sanders route.

I didn’t want to go that, and I didn’t want to just be a professional athlete. I thought it was very limiting. But I didn’t realize this at first, all the things I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be like my dad, caught in the traffic of having females all around me. I mean, it’s good and fancy while it’s happening, but you don’t see all the extra pressure, the image pressure, the sexual pressure.

Most people who listen to you will go, what the heck is wrong with this guy? He’s complaining because he had too much money, too much sex, too much nice stuff, too good a life. Where does that come from?

I think it comes from, I forgot what it was like to be a regular person. You’re built up as a kid. I saw my dad, he became very high, and he became quite low, too. So right in front of me I saw someone who had a lot and kind of lost it. I also had people around me who said “You don’t know how to value a dollar, you don’t know how to treat people. You don’t remember people’s names. They just forgive you because of who you are.” So I was learning life lessons.

Weren’t there any peers in the NFL you could use as role models, who were managing to do it in a graceful way, so you could have done it the right way, instead of abandoning it completely?

Well, I could have. And that was something that my family, my agent, and people around me were telling me, as I left Houston and decided I need to go back to California and hide out. I need to just walk away. They said, “Why? Can’t you just regroup?” And I said, “No, it’s not like that, because if I go back into it, it’s me clawing.” Because that’s how I felt, I was clawing to rise to the ranks of the NFL. Not only because I thought I had the talent, but because I wasn’t going to let anybody tell me I couldn’t do something.

In any industry, you have to claw to be at the top, if that’s your ambition. And so you’re going to be clawing to get to the top in wine, too.

Well, I am, but I think I can claw and still be a better person, a better brother. What I mean by more compassionate is knowing what it’s like to walk in a person’s shoes, a regular American’s shoes. And I know that’s hard, because that’s putting everyone in a group. But I mean getting up in the morning, putting on a shirt, going to work, having to report to someone, working for $15 an hour, $20 an hour. It’s really hard to understand that until you do. The only time I understood my brother and my friends for the first time is when I started working. I used to be preach to everyone: Make sure you go work out and save your money, and they used to look at me and be like, “Why don’t you just shut up? You don’t know what it’s like. You work out for a living, you get paid X amount of dollars, you travel so you’re always relaxed.” And I was like, Well, that’s a good point, but darn it, I work hard, so I deserve it! I felt–a lot of us in the NFL feel–entitled. And I really believe that, in a lot of professional sports, you felt entitled, because you worked hard.

One of the things I want you to amplify on is, last time we chatted, you were talking about how you’d be out with your NFL friends, they’d be chugging Dom or Cristal, and you’d be talking about swirling and sniffing, and they would look at you like, Dude!

I remember bringing it up with you. It was almost feminine, being like soft. “What are you doing, swirling wine, philosophizing? What are you trying to find about wine? Why do you keep swirling it? What is this? Why?” Because very few people did it. It wasn’t looked at like going out and drinking beer with the guys. I mean, you’re sitting there wanting to go into wine bars, sit down in dimly lit areas and drink wine. And very few understood it. The majority of people, they looked at me being that odd, almost eccentric person.

I asked you before if you were gay, because–were they looking at you that way? “Dude, you’re not married, you’re swirling wine…?”

Yeah. You know, I can’t say anyone ever thought I was gay, but I could see from the course of when I was quite young, to today, I’ve gotten along with both heterosexual people and with homosexual people, and at times, people have joked, they’ve thrown out, “You must be gay or something, because you don’t seem to really chase women.” I mean, male contact is perfectly fine with me, touching someone. A lot of things didn’t bother me. But at the same time, I could see how that created a lot of interesting relationships with people, because I was very open, and I never was scared or worried about another male’s responsiveness.

Tomorrow: Part two.

  1. sao anash says:

    Great piece, Steve. I enjoyed reading about the ways in which Bradlee fell in love with wine. Looking forward to part’s two and three.

  2. Steve:

    Just wanted to say a word of thanks for this great piece about Bradlee Van Pelt. One of the strange (and wonderful) things about the wine business is that it’s the only one I’ve ever known where your competition wants you to succeed.

    I’ve been bowled over by the help, advice, and courtesy extended to us as a small start-up winery from much bigger, more established players. Four years in and I’m still not used to doing business without contracts, but I very much appreciate it.

    Coming from a place like the NFL (or finance which is my background), I can completely understand Brandlee’s attraction to the wine industry and I applaud his decision – and yours for highlighting his special, but not altogether unique attraction to this business.

    Thanks again – looking forward to the next parts.

    All the best,
    Brian

  3. I watched Van Pelt play at Colorado State University and was impressed by his intensity and competitiveness, even though it occasionally got the better of him. I would have liked to see him succeed in the NFL, whether at quarterback or some other position, but it’s good to see that he seems comfortable with where he is, and has found a life after football. A lot of players struggle to figure out where they’re going once their playing days are done, and while I suppose he still could be, it’s good to see that he’s at least off to a good start.

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