Playing for the NFL requires a high level of focus, dedication and hard work. With weekly games across the country, NFL players are subject to busy schedules that make their jobs atypical from the standard 9-to-5 office job. This demanding career doesn’t leave much time for leisure or any other career opportunities. But when Martin Mayhew (LAW ’00) played for the Washington, D.C. NFL team in the early 1990s, he managed to pull off not only playing for the NFL but also attending classes at the Georgetown University Law Center by night.
Mayhew decided to attend law school during his time playing for the Washington NFL team. Because of the demands of NFL training during the day, Mayhew attended nighttime classes for a year and a half before he left D.C. to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When Mayhew retired from the NFL in 1996, he decided he wanted to finish out his law career and returned to Georgetown to complete his law degree.
Since graduating law school, Mayhew has returned to working for the NFL, though not as a player. Mayhew has held a variety of roles in the league and has spent most of his career with the Detroit Lions. In 2008, following the Lions’ winless season, Mayhew was promoted to general manager, tasked with the responsibility of rebuilding the program. By 2011, Mayhew was able to turn the Lions into a 10-win team. In 2017, he was hired by the San Francisco 49ers to serve as their vice president of player personnel, where he has remained. This past season, the 49ers won their seventh NFC championship. The Hoya spoke to Mayhew over the phone about his career as a football player, Georgetown-trained lawyer and NFL executive.
What motivated you to go from being a football player to pursuing a career in law?
When I was playing for the [Washington NFL team], I was trying to decide if I wanted to do an MBA or a JD or what I wanted to do. So I applied to law school for a number of reasons. I just had experienced seeing how a front office worked and seeing agents, wanting to be around the game, and I thought it’d be a good idea to go to law school and pursue a career in the NFL later.
I was in the night program at Georgetown, and I did that for a year and a half. Then I was a free agent. I signed with the Buccaneers, and I just had to give up law school to go and play for the Buccaneers. But then, when I retired, because I had kind of dropped out and quit, I didn’t like that, and I wanted to go back and finish. So I decided to go back to Georgetown and finish, moving my family back up there in ’97, and reapplied to the law school in 1997. I was pretty sure I wanted to be in the NFL, but I just wanted to look at other opportunities and other careers. But ultimately I settled on the NFL while I was in law school at the time.
What allowed you to be successful in the NFL as a player?
I went to a very competitive school at the time, Florida State, so that was certainly a factor. I played against some really good players every day in practice, and we had some competitive practices; that was promoted. There was also a significant amount of competition for roster spots, so just because you started last season, you came in the next season, didn’t mean you were automatically going to start. You’re continually bringing in five stars, the best players. Every year you’re competing for your spot.
When I got to the NFL, it really wasn’t overwhelming for me in terms of going out to practice every day and competing every day … I didn’t really shy away from the competition aspect of it. I was very prepared to go out every single day and bring my best.
Tell me about your experience becoming a Super Bowl champion in 1991 as a player for the [Washington NFL Team].
It was awesome, it was incredible. It was my fourth year in the league, and at that time, I was just a cog in the machine. We had some great players, Darrell Green, Charles Mann, players like that, so we were a very talented team, and I was just fortunate enough to be good enough to start on that team. But we went into that season looked at as a pretty good team, possible playoff team, but we really just gained momentum, started playing with a lot of confidence. Mark Rypien had an incredible year that year and just was deadly with his passing. Our receivers were productive, great coaching staff, so it was just kind of magical. We all came together, and I can say that about week eight, it was essentially that this team was really special, and something special was going to happen.
It was kind of the same way it was last year with us, with the 49ers. About week eight or week ten, it was like, “Hey, man, we’re pretty good.” You just build that momentum and confidence, and every time you go out, you can dominate somebody. So it was a really great experience both times that I went, and they were 20-something years apart. Both times, it was sort of a magical season.
How did you end up becoming the general manager for the Detroit Lions?
[Former Detroit Lions CEO] Matt Millen was a very good friend of mine, and just by coincidence I was interning with the [Washington NFL Team], and I bumped into him on the sideline of a game. He was doing a game for — I think it was Fox he worked for — he was doing the game for the network, and we started talking. And then, out of the blue, a year later I think it was, I get a call out of the blue and it’s him. And he says, “Hey, I got this job. Do you want to come with me?” And I said sure.
So I went in as counsel and director of football administration, and in that role, I assisted our general counsel with a lot of things — a lot of work that he did, the workers’ comp stuff, a lot of the injury agreement stuff, I worked on that stuff, and also handled the team travel, the contracts for the team travel, the charter agreement, the hotel agreements, buses, and all that kind of stuff. And I oversaw several departments — the equipment room, training room, video department — oversaw those departments.
I did that for several years. Eventually, I got promoted to assistant GM working with Matt, got more involved in the personnel, the scouting, and the draft process, free agency, salary cap, contract negotiation. I got very involved in the other aspects of the team. And then in 2008, we were off to a really bad start, Matt got let go and I was made interim GM at that point. At the end of that season, in December of that season, I was made permanent GM. Mr. [William Clay] Ford Sr. was the owner at the time, and we had the opportunity to sit down after every game and talk about what happened on the field, talk about where we were as a football team, and I think he just gained confidence in my ability to do that job, and so he selected me to be the general manager.
What did you learn as general manager of the Lions?
I learned so much. I think one: In that job as a GM, there are a lot of balls in the air, sort of like a juggler — a lot of things you have to manage all at once. You have to be able to multitask, be able to manage several different things, a lot of moving parts. Time management was critical, to be efficient with your work, to determine the things that were important that you need to focus primarily on and the timeline for that, to figure out when to focus on the draft, when to focus on the free agency, when to focus on roster management, and to be able to successfully navigate all of that stuff, it’s really important. Managing people is really important; I’d done quite a bit of that in my role overseeing those departments. I was pretty prepared for that aspect of it, so I learned that as well.
I also learned that the public perception is really important as to what’s going on. You have to be able to communicate effectively what your goals are, what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going about achieving those goals.
I’ve had the opportunity now to work with [former New York Giants General Manager] Jerry Reese and [San Francisco 49ers General Manager] John Lynch, work under those guys as GMs, and they both had significant success. That’s what I like about this profession: There’s constantly opportunities to learn.
You overlapped at the Lions with Head Coach Jim Schwartz (CAS ’88), a fellow Georgetown [graduate]. Did you ever share in the bond of being Hoyas?
Yeah, we did. We talked about Georgetown a lot. He played football at Georgetown, and he talks about his experience there quite a bit. I think he had a really good experience there. He really enjoyed being there, made a lot of good friends there. I think he’s still in contact with his head coach. It was kind of interesting that we both went to Georgetown. I went to the law school, so I wasn’t on the main campus, but we did have some shared experience.
Tell me about the difference between being a general manager and your current role, vice president of personnel for the San Francisco 49ers.
Really, it’s being able to focus on fewer tasks and being able to try to excel at a few things rather than trying to be good at everything. I’m primarily in personnel, so I deal primarily in scouting, college scouting, pro scouting. And then my experience comes in handy I think for John if he has questions about anything he’s dealing with as a GM for the first time — which is actually getting more rare now that he’s going into his fourth season — but his first year I think he really leaned on me more for advice on decisions and things like that for where he is now. My focus is primarily on scouting and watching tape and writing reports, making recommendations of players, assisting in any way with the process of acquiring players.
There’s a lot of things I’m not really as involved in. If we have any agreements, I have no involvement in that, very little involvement in contract negotiation, communication, salary cap management — those things are off my plate now. It’s a pretty streamlined type of job, and I enjoy the work that I do, but certainly a lot less stressful than having to juggle all those balls, having that much on your plate. As a GM there’s never time off, even in the summer when you have a little bit of vacation you still have to be on because you never know what may happen, what player may become available or if, God forbid, there’s an injury in the offseason, or if there’s some type of other legal issue or something like that. You have to manage that type of stuff throughout the offseason. In my current role, as it is now, I pretty much have some time to spend family time and sort of take it down a notch in the summer, which is very rare that you’d actually be the GM.
Why did you choose San Francisco? How did you end up there?
I left Detroit in 2015, and then in 2016, I was hired by the New York Giants in February of that year. So, I went to the Giants for a year, actually dealing primarily with contracts and salary cap management and some personnel on the side. I was there for one year, and that was the year that John was offered the opportunity to go to San Francisco, and shortly after that happened, I got a call from John asking me to go out with him. John and I are former teammates, and we played together with the Buccaneers; we both got there right around the same time, he stayed there much longer than me, I was only there for four years, but he had most of his career there. He and I have been good friends for a long period of time, so when he called, I was really excited about the opportunity to go out and work with him. That’s kind of how it happened. The Giants did not have to let me out, but Jerry was also a friend and Jerry allowed me to pursue the opportunity and it’s worked out really well.
The 49ers are the reigning NFC champions; what are you most proud of in regards to your contribution to this success?
Just being a team player, really, doing the things that I have to do to support John and support our starting group, support our coaching staff. I think that’s really, when you look at teams who are successful, what you typically see is very talented people at the top, and then people who are very capable, who provide support in different areas. I think I’m happiest about it that we’ve been able to go from that first year really struggling, in 2017, and then all the way to a conference championship in our third year. Just really glad to be a part of it, and proud to be able to work with the people that I work with like John, and like Paraag Marathe, Adam Peters and so many quality people, to have the opportunity to work with our owners, the York family. It’s really been a blessing to be a part of this.
What changes do you anticipate seeing in the NFL this fall?
I think it’s going to be a season unlike any other that I’ve been associated with. We really don’t know what to expect. I think there are a lot of unanswered questions about how we’re going to be able to get on the field consistently, especially dealing with this virus situation. There are a lot of unknowns, and my expectation is the team that handles the unknowns the best might not be the best team, might not be the most talented team, it might not be the most talented or experienced or skilled coaching staff, it might not be the team with the best salary cap management. It’s going to be the team with the most resilience and the team that is able to adjust the fastest and to work through difficult situations most efficiently is probably going to be the team that wins the championship this year.