Strength of spirit has served him well
Strength of spirit has served him well
By Jill Stewart Brigati
He is a Beltway businessman now, polished in both manner and appearance. Former Washington Redskin star linebacker Ken Harvey is impeccably dressed, carries gravitas in his voice and moves with purpose through the hallways of his Reston office. He is the president and CEO of JAKA, a socially responsible position (SRP) government relations and business development firm.
At first glance one expects to be thrown a few polite sound bites as Harvey sweeps by; conversation does not seem imminent. Harvey enters a corner room and curiously circles the perimeter, hovering at the very end of a conference table. It appears he will take a seat down there, two dozen empty chairs away.
Then in a surprise reverse, Harvey returns to the front of the room and pulls up the closest chair. He sits, smiles and begins to share.
A Rough Start
“I was just a really insecure, very quiet kid,” Harvey says. At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, the same height and weight he was as a teenager growing up in Austin, Texas, it is difficult to visualize the guy as a wallflower. Harvey explains that was exactly the problem. People expected him to be more of an action hero than a teenage boy. “I was coming into my own as an athlete, and I wasn’t used to the pressure,” he says. “I started messing up.”
In 11th grade Harvey dropped out of school for a semester. Although he returned to graduate, he soon found himself slinging burgers at Fuddruckers. “It was embarrassing,” Harvey says. “It wasn’t the job itself. I wasn’t doing what I needed to do.”
Harvey’s gentle candor is disarming. It slips through the force field of machismo surrounding the man who is one of the Redskin’s 70 greatest all-time players.
But when he was 18, Harvey was desolate, overcome by the feeling that he was perceived as a dumb jock. “I was down on my knees. I said, ‘God, if I don’t die tonight, then I know there’s a purpose for me.’” Inspiration grabbed hold of Harvey at that moment; he dreamt he’d soon be headed for California. “I saw the Golden Gate Bridge, the whole thing,” he laughs.
Weeks later, the dream began to materialize. An acquaintance at his gym pointed Harvey toward Laney Junior College in Oakland, Calif., his entry to the University of California at Berkeley. From there Harvey’s success story took off. In 1988 he was drafted into the NFL as the 12th pick in the first round, played in Arizona for six years, married his college sweetheart, moved to the Redskins in 1994 and went to the Pro Bowl four times before retiring in 1998.
Harvey, now 44, says that there was a lot of catching up to do in the business world, post-NFL. “I was lucky, I had a cushion [financially]. So I spent a lot of time sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.” Harvey says that he soon felt like a quitter, “just like I was in high school.” No one was banging down his door to offer him a job. Fans’ accolades faded. He realized he had to start from the bottom up.
“Simple things—making phone calls—it might seem like the simplest thing in the world. But how do you make a call to close a business deal?” The more he avoided the corporate world, the worse things got.
Harvey’s first public speaking engagement was a disaster. “I’m sweating, I knew I wasn’t doing well, but I just dug myself deeper and deeper,” with an off-color joke he told to an audience that included students. “There were a lot of cold stares,” he recalls.
For the first few years of his business career, he mostly encountered polite rejections. “‘We love you, but…’ ‘Sit next to me at the fundraiser, but…’” Associates wanted him to show up for dinner so that their clients could shake hands with a local celebrity. All Harvey would get out of the deal was “a free meal and a pat on the back,” he says. No one was investing in him.
Stellar Second Half
Today Harvey closes deals on Capitol Hill with the best in the industry. Allen Herbert, vice president of JAKA, says Harvey’s reputation opens doors. “Together, we’re a great combination. Separately we might not have made this work,” says Herbert, an aerospace engineer. The two met at a Bible study group in 2006 and started their company shortly thereafter. “We have grown as men because of the work we do together. We challenge one another,” Harvey adds.
In his spare time, Harvey has written several acclaimed children’s books and two novels. He is a past president of the Redskins’ Alumni Association, and gives motivational speeches to youth at risk.
Motivational speeches from a self-proclaimed shy-guy? “When you’re quiet, you become a very good listener,” Harvey explains. “I learned a lot.” He looks across the room’s panoramic window. “Now I probably talk too much,” he laughs, although his eyes remain weighted. Eyes that belong to the insecure kid from Texas, the same “kid” who cased the room earlier.
Harvey’s teenage struggles now keep his motivation running at full speed. “There are just too many kids out there suffering, too many to reach,” as he shakes his head almost imperceptibly. Harvey’s goal is to show as many troubled kids as possible that there is a better way. Part of his game plan is to use sports as a vehicle to get more children excited about learning. He calls it “sportilization,” a strategy that integrates sports-based themes into education, and his company is taking it to outer space.
In 2008, Harvey and Herbert partnered with Space Adventures, the private space exploration company that sent Richard Garriott into orbit last October. Harvey and Herbert helped develop the “Float Ball” physics lessons that Garriott conducted aloft, demonstrating the effects of zero gravity. Students can access related online interactive games to predict responses and try out sports moves in virtual space.
Space sportilization could have many more fans if NASA takes a government panel’s suggestion to outsource commercial flights. More than $2 billion would be pumped into privatizing commercial space flight over the next five years. Harvey plans to be part of the movement to cross over the “space divide.” He sees a similarity in entrepreneurs who were prepared to launch into the early Internet industry.
“Space is an empty stadium. We want to fill that stadium with fans and excitement,” Harvey says.
Living the Dream
Coaches in junior college who gave Harvey a second chance at his dream spurred him to mentor today’s generation. They pushed Harvey and his teammates to enroll in a public-speaking class, giving thought to how the players presented themselves both on and off the field. “They took a genuine interest in me, not just the athlete in me,” Harvey says. He tries to clarify that his effort to “pay it forward” is not unique, explaining that it is not unusual for high-profile athletes to work with society’s underserved children. “Many of us have been on the other side,” he says quietly.
“I was shaped by the good and the bad in my life as we all are,” Harvey admits. “It’s not ‘woe is me’ or ‘look at what I’ve [accomplished].’” He says he is always driven to improve. In fact, Harvey had just hung up the phone with his next appointment—his piano teacher. “I’m going to learn how to play a song so I can surprise my wife with it for her birthday.” He hasn’t started yet. “Luckily, her birthday is not for a while.”
Harvey attributes his wife Janice’s integrity to keeping him on the high road of life, and he adds that living a life that is “just good enough” doesn’t cut it for either of them. “I could have remained Ken Harvey, the ex-Redskin signing autographs at the gym, or I could be a guy trying to make a difference.”
He says his wife’s name like a prayer, and spells it slowly without having been asked. “It wasn’t so much what she ever said [to me]. It’s her actions, just how she lives her life.” Janice, 45, owner of a local interior design firm, divides her days between her career, family life and philanthropy. As a volunteer, she says that she is drawn to “people that no one wants to deal with, situations that will force you to check your own character.”
The couple shared the pain of losing their first son, Nathaniel, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome 20 years ago. Harvey says Janice guided him to focus on their blessings. “We had him for a short time [four months], and I have to be thankful for that. We have Anthony (18) and Marcus (16). I’m blessed, that’s how I look at it,” he says.
The Harveys are active members of Grace Covenant Church in Chantilly. “This time on Earth is a gift from God, we’re just trying to use it wisely,” Harvey says.
“Champion’s P.S.” is an online newsletter published by Harvey, written for and by former NFL players, addressing their challenges in life after pro football. “There are many P.S.’s in life,” he laughs, again with serious eyes. “Everyone’s dealing in postscripts, right?”
Harvey is working hard to make his postscript big and bold. “So one day, when people come to the church for my funeral, I don’t want them to say, ‘That was the guy with 1,000 sacks.’ I want them to come from a cross-section of places and say, ‘I’m here because Ken Harvey touched my life.’”