E.J. Gaines’ life had been turned upside down.
Having been traded from the Los Angeles Rams to the Buffalo Bills in the middle of training camp, the cornerback had to make a cross-country move while at the same time trying to earn a job with a new team.
One of the first people from the Bills to assist Gaines in that transition was Marlon Kerner, the team’s director of player engagement and alumni.
”He really took care of me when I first got traded out here,” Gaines said. “The trading process is so crazy, it's just good having somebody like that around. ... He's really helped me since I got here.”
That’s a pretty good summary of what Kerner’s job entails. Part mentor, part sounding board, and part tour guide, Kerner’s role with the Bills is as much about getting players ready for life after the NFL as it is assisting the with the everyday challenges of living in a new city.
“You can't play this game forever,” Kerner said. “So I try to make sure they understand financial literacy. Make sure they save their money. Make sure they understand taxes. I tell them, ‘Hopefully you guys play for 10 or 12 years and walk away on your own, but the reality is it's probably not going to happen, so you need to have a game plan of what you're going to do when that time comes and have some idea of what it's going to look like.’ ”
Kerner speaks from personal experience on that topic. A former third-round draft pick of the Bills in 1995, his career got off to a flying start. He earned the team’s nickel cornerback job as a rookie, and then became a starter when Jeff Burris suffered a torn ACL later in the year.
“I thought” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips “was going to give me this big speech,” Kerner recalled. “I go over to him and he looks at me and just says, ‘OK, rook, you're in.’ That was it. Just go play football and have fun.”
With Burris and Thomas Smith back the following year, Kerner once again served as the team’s nickel back. Although the Super Bowl years had just passed, the Bills made the playoffs in Kerner’s first two seasons. He was in a locker room with future Hall of Famers like Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed.
“The core of those teams, those guys were hungry, they wanted to win,” Kerner said. “They had the expectation and the mindset of doing every little thing right. How you're supposed to practice, how you're supposed to approach the game. Not panicking if things don't go your way. Even if we had a two- or three-game losing skid, they always had the belief of ‘we can come back from this.’
“Being around them, you understood what it took to really win, and how to will yourself to win, even if you're down in games.”
The 1997 season did not go as planned for Kerner or the team. Playing without Kelly, who had retired following the ’96 season, the Bills got off to a 5-4 start, but collapsed down the stretch, losing six of their final seven games to finish 6-10. Kerner also tore the ACL in his left knee with three games left in the season.
“I didn’t really think too much of it,” he said. “I had seen other guys go through it, so I figured I would be back. But there was just a part of me that said, if I don’t make it back, I should probably go finish school.”
So Kerner returned to Ohio State in the winter of 1998, and headed to classes on crutches with stitches in his knee. He graduated that semester with a degree in consumer affairs.
Upon returning to Buffalo, he completed his rehab and got ready for the 1998 season. In the first game of the year against the San Diego Chargers, he tore the ACL in his right knee.
“That was kind of it,” he said.
Kerner’s left knee had suffered more damage than what doctors originally thought, and necessitated a microfracture surgery. He again went through a lengthy rehabilitation process, but the Bills released him before the start of training camp in 1999.
At that point, Kerner didn’t know what was next.
“They said you can’t work out here, but you need to finish your rehab,” he said.
He returned to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and continued to work out with the hope of resuming his career.
“I thought I was going to get back, but it didn't happen,” he said. “I went through the whole: ‘I didn't accomplish my goals.’ I got down on myself for a little bit, and was like, ‘Man, if you could have stayed healthy. If you did this differently’ ... You second guess where did it go wrong? After a while, I realized that, 'you know what, it happened.' You've got to move on.”
Kerner got one more tryout, with the Indianapolis Colts in 2001, and ran a better 40 time than he did in college. But his left knee was too far gone.
“I had a lot of arthritis in that knee,” he said. “They told me, ‘we know you can run, but we don't know if your knee is going to hold up. Six knee surgeries is a lot to overcome.”
At 25, Kerner realized his playing career was over.
“I played four seasons, and I'm like, what do I do now?” he said. “OK, I qualify for benefits, I qualify for a lot of good things, but you can't touch it for another 40 years, so now what do you do? I was trying to figure that out.”
Kerner’s wife, Nicole, is a native Western New Yorker, so the couple moved back here. They have three children – Elijah, 16, is a track star at Lancaster; Kendyl, 14, plays soccer and basketball; and the youngest, 12-year-old Gabriel played modified football this season.
Disillusioned with how his playing career ended, Kerner had no desire to be around football. With three kids to support, that meant life in the “real world” was next.
Kerner took a job at KeyBank after seeing that his local branch was hiring.
“I did everything,” he said. “ Call center, branches, inbound, outbound. I did it all for them.”
He stayed there for four years, then worked for Tops for two years and spent eight more working for Target, the last few of which were spent in human resources.
The banking and retail worlds are a long way from the bright lights of the NFL, but that’s a trade-off Kerner was willing to accept.
“I was OK with the fact I knew I had to start from scratch. It was difficult, but after a while you say, ‘Ego aside, my job is to provide for my family,’ ” he said. “If this job pays the bills, and helps bring in additional income, put your ego aside, put the fact you played in the NFL aside, and do what you have to do. Some guys aren't going to be OK with that.
“If you're not OK with starting from the bottom and working your way to the top, I try to get guys to understand that they need to do some things in the off-season while you're playing to kind of give yourself a leg up. ... That's something I can bring to those guys from experience.
Kerner’s path back to the Bills started when he bumped into Marc Honan, the team’s former senior vice president of content and media, at a charity golf tournament. Honan told Kerner about a position as the team’s director of alumni. Kerner took that job in August 2015, and transitioned into his current role in April.
“Sean was looking for a former player,” Kerner said. “He wanted somebody who was going to understand what players are going to go through.”
Kerner is a fixture at every practice and is on the sideline for games.
“I kind of have flashbacks to when I was playing,” he said. “It’s something I can honestly say I never thought would happen.”
Earlier this season, McDermott had Kerner address the entire team and tell his story.
“I would say, when I came here, he's definitely one of guys that made me feel at home,” said running back Travaris Cadet, who signed with the team last month. “Just sitting there talking to him, talking ball with him. ... A lot of people behind closed doors, they really don't know what goes on, the preparation on a day-to-day basis constantly pushing yourself to the limit, constantly putting in extra hours of study. There's always that worry in the back of your mind – and I've talked about it with Marlon – that's there somebody else out there outworking you. It gives you that edge to push your game to a whole other level. Marlon gets all that.”
Kerner and his staff, which includes alumni manager Jeremy Kelly, team chaplain Len Vanden Bos and coordinator of player services Laura Young, make it a point to reach out to every player on the team.
“We’re trying to be there as support for them,” Kerner said. “The reality is more than likely that their playing career is going to end abruptly, and they need to prepare for what's going to happen and how that's going to look, and have a game plan.”
To that end, Kerner works with players on resume building, job shadowing and internship opportunities in the off-season.
“We want to give them some meat and potatoes on their resume,” he said. “You can’t play this game forever.”