Four years ago Bobby Newcombe was on the verge of stardom. He had graduated from high school in Albuquerque as one of New Mexico’s most celebrated young athletes and gone on to play quarterback for the University of Nebraska American football team. Now the Arizona Cardinals were offering him a $1.1m professional contract.

But he failed to make the grade at the Cardinals and, after a series of fruitless stints at lesser teams, retired from the game in 2002.

For most sportsmen, to have come so close to fame and fortune only to see it slip away would have been a crushing blow. But Mr Newcombe had something to fall back on: an online MBA.

He had developed a taste for business since studying it as an undergraduate at Nebraska.

For many student athletes in the US, academic studies are viewed as an inconvenience that gets in the way of the most important part of American campus life: college sport.

But Mr Newcombe took his degree seriously, even accepting an internship with a real estate investment trust between football seasons.

“That was when I really developed a passion for business, finance and investment,” he says, over lunch in a restaurant near the University of Phoenix, where he secured his MBA.

“I saw that there was more to life than football.”

He started his MBA at the same time as he joined the Cardinals, aware that his potentially lucrative contract brought no guarantee of a successful career.

The $1.1m offered to Mr Newcombe was dependent on him beating a group of other college players to a place in the Cardinals squad at the team’s pre-season training camp He failed to make the grade and walked away with only his $78,000 signing-on fee.

“As a college player, you’re just one step away from a multi-million dollar contract but it’s only a select few that succeed and in the end I was not fortunate enough to be one of them,” says Mr Newcombe, now 25.

At first, he struggled to adapt to life without football. “Running 80 yards to touch down in front of 80,000 people - that’s a level of excitement that is difficult to replicate,” he says.

But the MBA exposed Mr Newcombe to a new set of challenges and rewards.

“One thing I realised when I left sport was the difference between physical and mental fatigue,” he says. “I was used to physical fatigue, but mental fatigue was something new.”

The New Mexican pursued his MBA over the internet, at first in parallel with his brief professional football career and later while working for an insurance company after his retirement.

“It was tough combining work and study,” he says. “But I love learning and there was a strong support network among the students online.”

Mr Newcombe completed his MBA in 2003 and is now studying for a doctorate in organisational leadership at Phoenix, while working at the university as a student enrolment officer during the day.

Once he has completed his studies, he may consider returning to football to apply his newly-acquired skills as a coach or administrator.

“If I had had the knowledge and mindset I have now when I was playing football, I would definitely have taken a more strategic approach to the game,” he says.

“When I watch the game now, I analyse the leadership from the coaches and on the field. Good leadership is what makes the difference between winning and losing.”

However, while the lure of football will prove difficult to resist, Mr Newcombe is also tempted to test his abilities in the world of business and finance.

Mr Newcombe has been a keen amateur investor since his days as an intern at the investment trust in Nebraska. He ploughed his $78,000 signing-on fee from the Cardinals into stocks and bonds and says he has made a healthy return.

“There are similarities between investing and football,” he says.

“Before you go into a stock you conduct lots of research and analysis but once you make the decision to buy, anything can happen.

“It’s the same in football. The better you prepare for a game the better your chance of success but there are never any guarantees.”

He reports feeling as excited before the markets open each morning as he did before a football game during his playing days. Now he wants to encourage more athletes to widen their horizons through academic study.

Part of Mr Newcombe’s existing job at Phoenix is to recruit athletes to academic courses at the university. “It’s important that college players develop interests outside sport, so they always have another option,” he says.

Academic study is also becoming more popular among established professional athletes as they prepare for life after sport.

Shaquille O’Neal, part of the Miami Heat basketball team and one of America’s most famous sports stars, is pursuing an online master’s degree in criminal justice at Phoenix.

Kwame Brown, of the Washington Wizards, is taking an online business course, having missed out on college when he went straight from school into professional basketball.

“I want to understand my money,” Mr Brown told The Washington Times.

In the UK, Tony Adams, former captain of the England soccer team, and Audley Harrison, the Olympic gold medallist heavyweight boxer, are among several high-profile athletes to have studied business and sports science at Brunel University in London.

Mr Newcombe says that business education allows athletes to redirect their competitive instincts following retirement from sport.

“Through sport I was able to make a living and support my family through my athletic ability,” he says.

“Now it’s equally rewarding to discover that I can make a living using my intellect - and hopefully for a longer period of time.”

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