Carl Brazley says the tailspin began a decade ago when he discovered a bookkeeper had embezzled up to a half-million dollars from his business, Mo' Better Marketing, by "cooking the books."
From then on, the 13-year CFL veteran confronted lawsuits, employees who hadn't been paid, near-bankruptcy, and the prospect of funding his daughter's university education with credit cards.
To get by, Brazley – a former CFL all star and two-time Grey Cup champion – mowed lawns.
But football taught the defensive back much more than just how to stifle offences. Those life lessons solidified his marketing career after football, and liberated him from his "dark days," too.
"What I really learned, I learned through my time playing football," said Brazley, 55.
The real education of Brazley began as his professional football career was coming to a close. He was in his 11th season with the Toronto Argonauts when actor John Candy, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and businessman Bruce McNall purchased the club in 1991.
The glamorous trio built a Grey Cup champion team that season – starting by stealing the hottest rookie prospect from the NFL by giving Raghib (Rocket) Ismail a then unheard-of $18-million contract. They also sold the struggling CFL to Canadians by enlisting Candy's Hollywood friends and making the league cool again.
This was no-holds-barred marketing, and Brazley – the Argos' likable, gregarious veteran – relished his all-access pass.
"There was so many lessons to be learned at that time if you wanted to," Brazley said.
He learned the value of humility by noticing how Gretzky, possibly the greatest athlete on the planet, acted as if he weren't.
He watched in awe as Candy squeezed his outsized personality into radio stations from Montreal to Saskatchewan, sharing his passion for Canadian football.
"He knew the market that he really wanted to impact. He said, 'I'm a big-time movie star. I could go to the States and never come back. But look where I am. Look what I value.' Then he sold that value."
Brazley often hung around the Argos corporate offices, firing questions that had much more to do with business than any playbook.
"That's what he would do all the time – just pop into the office and ask questions," Bruce McNall said of Brazley in a recent interview. "He knew he had a future outside of football. So many athletes, they're there for a blink. And then what?"
After retiring in 1993 as one of the most popular players in Argos history, Brazley thought his future was in making movies, a creative outlet he adored. He had some quick success: he produced a Reebok commercial featuring his former teammate Michael (Pinball) Clemons, and there was some preliminary talk of a contract with HBO.
But he realized a Hollywood career was short on guarantees, and it was time to go home to his native Kentucky and get a stable job. After years of dragging his wife and two young children between Louisville and Canada, it was time to shelve his dreams so that they could chase theirs.
Brazley remembered something striking McNall had once said. The most successful people aren't the smartest or the richest; they're the ones who are brave enough to take that extra step; the step that other people think they should not take.
Starting Mo' Better Marketing was scary at first. Marketing was something he had watched play out in the CFL, but his degree from Western Kentucky University was in communications.
But soon, he had built a seven-person company in Louisville. They earned small but important contracts, promoting the advantages of a state-run bridge project and steering youth away from gambling. His big personality and unfiltered banter, which had made him a go-to interview for sports reporters during his CFL days, also proved useful in networking.
Then, in 2002, after realizing his bookkeeper had been robbing him blind, "I reached into some of the dark days," Brazley said.
"That's the part that's real ugly."
Brazley said he and his wife thought they might lose their house. Their daughter, Sunni, had earned a scholarship to Vanderbilt, but they were so cash-strapped they considered paying the remaining bills on credit.
"Every night, my wife and I looked at each other and we prayed real hard."
He says the bookkeeper destroyed the evidence needed to prove his case in court. Some employees accepted that they would never be paid, or gave him a long grace period. He says their generosity helped Mo' Better Marketing survive.
It's only been the last couple years that things have felt normal, Brazley says.
McNall recalls what happened next. "[Brazley] called me a couple years ago, and said, Would you be my mentor?"
McNall had also faced disaster by then. A former thoroughbred race horse owner and sports executive who owned the Argos and Los Angeles Kings, he spent 13 months in prison after being convicted of conspiracy and fraud in charges. After being released from prison in 2001, he returned to the entertainment business. He had gone from someone who owns the Los Angeles Kings to someone who accepts free seasons passes to Kings games. But his former players, including Gretzky and Brazley, have remained loyal. McNall had learned some hard lessons, too.
"Losing everything – prison, the whole bit – and then coming back to the real world again. ...You know, it's made me value things more, and not be so desperate for just feeding my own success and ego."
"You learn a lot from those experiences," he said. "I wouldn't advise it, by the way."
McNall did have some advice for Brazley when he flew out to Los Angeles. The two men, who keep in touch by e-mail, met at McNall's Santa Monica office with A-Mark Entertainment, which funds film and charitable ventures. McNall showed Brazley around, and introduced him to his business partner, Steve Markoff. They had steaks in the valley.
"I just said, don't reach for things that are outside of your ability. Start slowly."
Take that extra step.
Earlier this year, Brazley bought New West, a former competitor in the marketing business, and merged it with Mo' Better Marketing. Now the CEO of New West, his business has grown from seven to 23 employees, one of the largest minority-owned full-service communication firms in the United States, according to a company release. His daughter, 27, is a lawyer and engaged. His 23-year-old son, Nikolas, played football for the University of Kentucky and recently graduated with a degree related to marketing.
As for next steps, you might see him making movies one day. Brazley says he and his wife, a teacher, love being empty-nesters.