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Former Linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski's Journey from NFL to CEO

Isaiah Kacyvenski always wanted to be a football player. Like all boys with big NFL dreams, Kacyvenski believed it was as simple as working hard. In a way it was.

“I knew I lived in a great country where I had opportunities,” Kacyvenski said. “Even then I knew that if I worked hard I would have a shot.”

For Kacyvenski working hard meant overcoming. 

When the former captain of the Seattle Seahawks walked into the banquet room at the Four Seasons in Denver last week, ready to start his day, few knew the path he took to realize his NFL dream. They were there to listen to Kacyvenski speak at the two12 Summit, where mentors give advice to CEOs. The linebacker, who himself became a tech CEO by way of Harvard and the NFL, was excited to talk about what he knows. 

The most important message he shared was believe in yourself and imagine doing what you would never think possible. It's a lesson Kacyvenski has lived. As a kid, he was at times homeless.

Kacyvenski starred on his high school team. But on the day of his most important game, his mother was hit by a truck and died. He was devastated, but he went on to have one of the best games of his life.

Not long after, he got a call from Tim Murphy, the head coach of Harvard, who wanted Kacyvenski to play for him. At first Kacyvenski wasn’t sure, but Murphy told him that he would never regret going to Harvard. When he got to Harvard, Kacyvenski was randomly given jersey number 49 at scrimmage. In college, he found an old picture of his mother. In it, she was wearing a Harvard sweatshirt. He also found a Bible she had, where she highlighted words from Isaiah 49:15 about a mother’s love for her son. From that moment, Kacyvenski knew he was right where he needed to be.

Growing up without a lot of material goods helped Kacyvenski appreciate everything he earned, which is why he speaks with such passion about his time playing football and studying at Harvard. 

“We didn’t have a lot, but not having a lot taught me to appreciate all that I do have,” Kacyvenski said. “My mother was a missionary, and she taught me how to be compassionate, how to put myself in other people’s shoes and see things from their perspective. This helped me as an athlete, and it’s helped me in my career now as an entrepreneur.”

Kacyvenski graduated with honors from Harvard as a pre-medicine student. He was also the first ever Harvard player to be drafted before the fifth round when the Seattle Seahawks took him with the 119th pick in 2000. Kacyvenski would help lead Seattle to Super Bowl XL as one of the team captains. He retired in 2008 and decided to go back to Harvard to earn his MBA.

Asked what is more important to Kacyvenski—school or sports—he said that both are important. “They both have their benefits and they are equally important,” he said. “There are things you can learn on the field that you can’t learn in the classroom and vice versa.”

Today, he is the co-founder of Sports Innovation Lab and helps companies navigate the world of sports and health technology. He also mentors other business executives by investing in their companies or helping them grow. 

Before he founded Sports Innovation Lab, he worked for MC10, a healthcare technology company. There, he helped launch several products, including a wearable device that indicates potential head impact for athletes called CheckLight and a cutting edge research tool called the BioStamp.

Head injury and trauma are important for Kacyvenski, who, after he retired, agreed to donate his brain after death so doctors and researchers can look at the impact of concussions on the brain.

He also remains involved with the NFLPA, providing advice on how to make the sport safer. Because being a pro football player was one of the best things that happened to Kacyvenski, he believes it is important to give back to the sport.

“Playing was truly an amazing experience,” he said. “I learned so much and valued the moment every time I stepped onto the field. It was a blessing.”

(Photo credit: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)