The National Football League (NFL) is one of the most competitive professional sports leagues in the world, and most of its players only have time to focus on training, beating the odds and remaining in the league for as long as possible.

The average NFL player’s career lasts 3.3 years, according to the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), but some players have managed to defy the odds and play longer, and even use their connections to grow successful businesses.

The recently retired Israel Idonije played in the NFL from 2003-2014, and even led all NFL players in blocked kicks in 2005, 2006 and 2007. The 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive end spent most of his professional career with the Chicago Bears, and at the team’s training camp in 2007 he drew up the X’s and O’s on a business idea that would become Athlitacomics.

Athletes and Comics?
Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Green Lantern and The Flash are just some of the superheroes we associate with comics, but it is uncommon to see a sports-centric comic book. That’s where Idonije’s Athlitacomics brand breaks the mold.

“We are focused on bringing the world of sports and comics together,” Idonije says. “It started in 2007 and I wrote the story during training camp.”

The first Athlitacomics comic book line, “The Protectors,” focuses on a group of football superheroes who use their powers protect the unknowing citizens of Earth from a dark force.

Idonije says the comic has parallels to real life in that many look to football players and other professional athletes for entertainment — and even as heroes.

“Growing up, I read a lot of comics as a kid, and I really just felt like there was an opportunity to connect,” he says. “I always felt like these athletes are heroes as well — in a different way — but it still has the ability to transform into that comic realm.”

After formulating the concept for Athlitacomics and The Protectors, Idonije realized he had a marketable idea and immediately looked to put a business together.

“I came up with the concept, kind of got everything rolling and was able to get connected with some incredibly talented writers, artists and illustrators that have 25-plus years of comic-book industry [experience],” he says.

Using His Resources
As a member of the NFLPA, Idonije immediately had an organization to help him with licensing opportunities and business growth.

“I reached out to some of my friends at the NFLPA [and said] we wanted to tell athlete stories as a comic,” Idonije says. “We wanted to tell their stories and their journey to success, making them Sports Heroes and characters, and putting them in a 32-page comic. We went ahead and created this rollout of images and from there, things have just exploded.”

Along with The Protectors, Athlitacomics has a line of licensed “Sports Heroes” merchandise, including wall decals, key chains, mounted figures and more in the form of comic-like illustrations of NFL stars such as quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson.

Along with the numerous NFL stars featured in Athlitacomics’ Sports Heroes line, several quarterbacks are displayed with the company’s “Quarterback Gummies,” which Idonije thinks will grow the brand exponentially.

“The product has just exploded and is going to be across the company in major retailers,” he says. “The real strength of the platform and the product is the regional aspect.”

Because the football-shaped product features different quarterbacks, children and other fans can purchase gummies with their favorite quarterback on the front.

Because he’s a former NFLPA member, Idonije has received plenty of guidance and help with securing licenses. “It was very seamless because I [was] on the players’ side, but now I’m on the company side,” he says. “The NFLPA’s vision is to leverage the player brands, to get the players out of their helmets and build their brands, but also they’re working to help create opportunities for me as the player.”

The NFLPA’s assistance with Athlitacomics is apparent. In about five years, the company has debuted a comic book, and licensed candy, apparel and other merchandise. The company’s line of T-shirts even won “Best Sports Licensed Apparel Item” at the 2015 Sports Licensing and Tailgate Show.

“I think the best part about it is to have the PA in my corner,” Idonije says. “Having them in my corner as an advocate is why it has been so smooth. They do these deals all day long. To have them mentor us through the process was beautiful.”

Fighting Fire with Madefire
Print media has come under scrutiny in the digital age, but Athlitacomics has teamed with another company, Madefire, which specializes in “motion books.” As a result, The Protectors is available in a digital format, which Idonije says has changed the game.

“Madefire [specializes] in motion books, which brings the comic to another level of life,” he says. “When you read a digital comic, it’s still a literary piece. But now the pictures have sounds.”

Printed comics still will be available, but with the rapid increase of online readership and subsequent decrease in print, going digital was an astute move for Athlitacomics.

“It’s a great platform and we were fortunate to get connected through some friends,” Idonije says. “We took the first five issues of The Protectors and cut it up into 25 episodes that will be on the Madefire platform for free. We will print comics for the fan that just loves print, but there’s a whole generation of readers that want to experience it digitally.”

Juggling Football, Business
When Idonije formed Athlitacomics, he was first and foremost an NFL player. In the offseason, he worked more hands-on with Athlitacomics, but during training camp and the season, it was virtually impossible to be fully involved.

“When I was playing — right now during (training camp) — I handled no business,” Idonije says. “During that time, it was all about football. During the year, I was focused on my craft. That’s being the best defensive lineman that I could be, and now I still work out, but every day I’m a part of the business.”

After retiring, this will be the first year in which Idonije can devote all his professional efforts toward his company. And with Athlitacomics prepped to take off, expand its brand and become even more mainstream, it may be a good thing Idonije has more time on his hands.

“I think we’re focused to grow and produce fulltime,” he says. “Not only just across the NFL, but to cover all different sports.”