Remote sites for potential wind farms are not exactly the types of fields you picture a retired NFL linebacker scouting. But Sean Tufts is not your typical retired football player. Nor is he your classic promoter of wind energy as the nation’s primary source of renewable energy.
It’s what sets the 30-year-old Colorado native apart from others in both arenas.
“I’m able to use football to tell my story to customers and sell myself as unique,” says Tufts, who played on the Carolina Panthers from 2004 to 2006.
What’s he selling? As development manager of RES Americas, he helps pitch utilities on the potential of harnessing the wind’s energy to provide electricity to consumers, he says. “It helps with sales. It’s a way to be remembered.”
Before joining RES Americas two years ago, he co-owned a company that convinced landowners to allow wind farms on their land.
While capitalizing on the skills he learned as a football player — traits that include tenacity, drive and teambuilding — he’s keen to the skepticism others have when dealing with former professional athletes.
“I get asked a lot if I’m an engineer,” Tufts says. He went on to say that he believes the energy field covers “two defenses,” the land field and the science field. He’s set his sights on the former.
“I am working with a team. They are the experts in perfecting wind farms.” Tufts serves as project manager for the company’s wind farms in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. He organizes and oversees a small team who handle engineering, permitting, financing and transmission issues.
It’s a position of respect he’s earned from having returned to his old alma mater, the University of Colorado, for his MBA in renewable energy and finance.
When knee injuries forced him from the Carolina Panthers and into the workforce in 2006, he quickly realized he was being sized up by potential employers, Tufts recalls. He understands the stereotype of former NFLers who use their football career as a crutch instead of a lever, he says.
“A further education would put that to bed,” he says.
And it has.
Ty Ferretti, licensing executive for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, didn’t even know Tufts had been a football player when the two were pursuing their MBAs in energy. Now he networks with Tufts, seeking advice on common energy matters and keeping each other abreast of industry trends and activities.
“He has the uncanny ability to organize a group of people and get them into one line of thinking,” Ferretti says. “He is part of the deals that get wind turbines in the ground. He uses his leadership and personality to get everyone to come to an agreement and moving in the right direction.”
For someone who was such a celebrity, “a local legend, Cherry Creek born and raised,” Tufts actually comes off as rather humble, Ferretti adds.
“He’s so likeable. You don’t see a fierce linebacker ready to sack the quarterback. He’s a very fun and happy and confident man, a charismatic leader. And people want to work with him.”
Still, it’s hard to mistake the intensity he brings from his former life into the workplace, Ferretti says. “Sean believes in the cause. It’s why he got into it. He’s able to use the discipline and internal motivation that is required to be a professional football player in a new industry that is desperate for someone who understands the industry and can get deals done.”
Tufts feels the same way. “My position is unique because my competitive background and desire and understanding help my company succeed.”
Since 1997, RES Americas, based in the Denver area, says it has developed and constructed about 10 percent of the installed capacity of wind energy in the country. In 2001, it co-developed and built what was the largest wind project in the world at that time, according to the company’s website.
More recently it has branched into solar and other renewable systems such as energy storage.
RES Americas’ solar project outside of Austin, Texas, is one of the largest in the country, the company states on its web page. Tufts is involved in a few of the company’s solar projects, but primarily focuses on wind energy.
While the jump from athletics to energy may seem drastic, Tufts says it stems from an interest in community action and an appreciation of nature.
“When I left the NFL grand stage that I enjoyed, I felt my next career should be a bigger calling,” he says. “Playing football, I had ample opportunity to volunteer in the community. Those included visits to the local hospital and reading to school children. They [fans] paid $75 to $100 to see you play, the least you can do is pay it forward.”
Growing up in the west, Tufts says protecting natural resources seemed embedded in the culture. Locals were expected to pick up after themselves, whether in downtown Denver or Rocky Mountain National Park, he says.
With a father on ski patrol, Tufts recalls his mountain adventures, which involved hiking, biking, fishing, hunting and cross-country skiing. “Sometimes we were prepared; sometimes we were unprepared. They say business is conducted on the golf course. In Boulder, business is done on the hiking trail.”
Tufts says his father-in-law opened the door to an energy career. He had sold a home to a founder of a wind business. At the time Tufts had just retired from football and was looking for a job. He had considered becoming a paramedic, but he knew his knee injury would hold him back.
“I found a position doing front end work in wind farms,” he says. “It had a quality of being bigger than me that I really enjoyed.”
Besides that, the economy was falling apart at that time while renewable energy was the only business that was thriving, he says. In the energy field, “I could support my family better, and my community.”
Through his current work, Tufts believes he can have a larger influence than he did in football, he says.
“Football is entertainment. The show is a break from reality.” In some ways, the position he holds now fits into the global game plan for solving the world’s energy crisis. Or as Tufts puts it: leaving his place better than he found it.