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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: The Business End by Billy Witz


When George Wrighster was in junior high, he noticed that some kids didn't have time to eat breakfast before school. So he asked his parents to take him to buy doughnuts and bagels on the way to school, and sold them to his famished friends.

Later, at the University of Oregon, Wrighster helped run a nightclub by marketing special events and hiring other students to get the word out.

Now all grown up, Wrighster is in the midst of an NFL career that has made him a millionaire for playing a game, but he still has a jones for business.

The Sylmar High graduate, who just completed his fourth season as a tight end for the Jacksonville Jaguars, has opened a clothing store in Northridge that he said he hopes will mirror his on-field success.

"I've always had a business-oriented mind," Wrighster said. "I'd read about the Bill Gates and the Donald Trumps and other successful businessmen, and I knew the type of head I had on my shoulders. I always had a lot of big ideas."

Third Generation Clothing is one of them. It's a small boutique that borrows from its owner's name - he's George Wrighster III - and specializes in urban wear, the type of casual, trendy clothes Wrighster said he always has had trouble finding for himself in the Valley.

Wrighster is trading on his NFL connections for the store's grand opening celebration today. Jacksonville teammates and former UCLA stars Maurice Jones-Drew and Marcedes Lewis will attend, and other friends, such as Cincinnati receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Dallas linebacker Akin Ayodele, may appear, too.

But this operation is less Monday Night Football than Friday Night Lights. It's tucked amongst a hair salon, a dental office and a shoe repair store in a typically non-descript strip mall at Reseda Boulevard and Plummer Street, just around the corner from CalState Northridge.

While Wrighster figures he has put $100,000 into the venture an investment he can be comfortable with after signing a five-year, $7.5 million contract extension in October - he's lending more than his money and his name. He has devised the business plan and helped design the store's Website and select the clothes it carries.

Still, from August until January, he's 3,000 miles away and occupied with football.

The store, which opened its doors in October, is managed by Jillian Lang, a former sales rep for a flooring subcontractor who has known Wrighster since she played basketball for the youth traveling team his father has long coached. Lang's sister, Jenni, also works at the store.

"It's my money so I'm trying to stay as hands-on as possible, especially in the offseason," said Wrighster, whose true hands-on contribution has been limited lately because of postseason rotator cuff surgery. "It's tough to be long distance, but when you have people you trust, it takes away a lot of the stress."

It's hard for Wrighster to conceal his pride as he shows a visitor around the store, flipping through stacks of hand-painted T-shirts and racks of 7 jeans, Coogi polo shirts and Ed Hardy wear.

"I buy what I like, but also what I think people are going to like," Wrighster said. "You want to be ahead of the trend, but you don't want to be too far ahead."

Her son opening a clothing store doesn't surprise Cassandra Wrighster at all.

"He's always had an eye for fashion," said his mother, a nurse. "When George was growing up and everybody was wearing designer this and designer that, we weren't able to buy him all that. People go into debtors' prison to get their kids clothes, but there was no way we were going to do that. If there was a special occasion, he'd get to buy something nice, so he really had to make a choice."

Wrighster was born in Memphis, along with his twoyounger sisters, Mariama and Ayana. They moved to LosAngeles when George III was 9 years old after his father, who worked for Federal Express, was transferred. Over the next few years, the Wrighsters bounced around, from Hollywood to Palmdale to Los Angeles and then to VanNuys.

A bright student, George III was recommended for a program that awards scholarships to underprivileged youths for exclusive private schools around Los Angeles. Wrighster landed at TheBuckley School in Sherman Oaks.

For him, it was an entr e into a new world.

While his parents took him to school in a well-worn 1980 Volvo, upperclassmen pulled up in new BMWs. His classmates included Muhammad Ali's daughter and Tito Jackson's sons, and many of his new friends lived in beautiful homes up in the hills.

"It was crazy," said Wrighster, who transferred to Sylmar so he could play against better competition in basketball and football. "I didn't quite feel like I fit in at first. It's a lot of rich kids that go there, but that helped me to see so many successful people. It kind of raises your expectations.

"It helps you to think bigger - not in a box. I got a chance to see and be exposed to a lot of things I wouldn't be exposed to.

"I got to see how things worked. It was like a good old boys club. All of their parents' friends are professionals, so they get to college and start looking for a job, an internship, and they turn to their parents' friends. They've already got a head start. They don't have college loans to pay off. It's like success perpetuates success."

Another adolescent influence was the book "Think Big," written by Dr. Ben Carson, the African-American chief of pediatric neurosurgery at JohnsHopkins University.

"It was about how you can't allow people to put limitations on you," Wrighster said. "You're in control over the majority of things that happen to you in your life.

"I have a quote on my wall and I keep it in my Sidekick: `Luck is the lazy man's excuse for a hard worker's success.' It kind of summed up all the things I'd ever thought. A lot of people say, `Ah, man, this guy got real lucky.' But you set yourself up in a position where you can be blessed. It's not just a coincidence when good things happen to people."

Wrighster, though, is quick to acknowledge that he hasn't reached his station in life alone. In addition to his family, he realizes he has had plenty of assistance along the way from his junior high teacher that pointed him to the gifted program to coaches that have helped him develop as an athlete.

It's one reason he's starting his business in the Valley, far from Jacksonville, where at least he'd have the benefit of people knowing his face.

Through Third Generation he wants to develop partnerships with high schools, youth sports programs, and fraternities and sororities at CSUN, where a portion of sales go back to them. He also plans to begin a scholarship program that will send Valley kids to college.

"Kids in L.A. have more people to look up to," Wrighster said. "In the Valley, there's not that many (athletes) - Gilbert Arenas, Travis Johnson, me. I feel like we have a responsibility to those kids that we can give back.

"I remember when I went to Sylmar, there were so many kids who weren't sure if they were going to college, or didn't have any direction. Through the store and scholarships, I want to eventually have workshops so they can see that, `No, I don't have to be a football player, a rapper or an actor to be successful. I can make something of myself."'

That sort of helping hand is what he often saw at home, whether through church activities, his dad's involvement in youth basketball or how his friends at Buckley, whose parents often weren't around, gravitated to his.

It's something that has resonated again in the past year, when Wrighster, who is single, became a father.

"We've always talked to our kids about giving back," Cassandra Wrighster said. "Everybody we've ever met in business has said, whoever is involved, everybody has to win. If you gave me a contact, then you need to be rewarded. When you are successful, you need to bring other people up to your left. You don't forget.

"Happily, he hasn't forgotten those things."

Nor is he done learning.

He still has four classes to finish his economics degree at Oregon, work he completed in three years before leaving early for the NFL. And in April, he'll take advantage of a NFL education program for a seminar at Harvard.

The subject?

Business. As usual.

Billy Witz can be reached at billy.witz@dailynews.com. This article appears in The Los Angeles Daily News.


Billy Witz

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

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