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Cover Story: Welcome to the Big Leagues

 Big Leagues
Gretchen Geitter, ’91, and Tim Zulawski, ’98, are vice presidents with two NFL franchises. See how they got there, and the advice they have for today’s students.

“Only 32 people have my job.” 

They say this with a sense of caution, managing the  expectations of aspiring young professionals. There’s also a hint of self-reflection – a pinch of sorts, to make sure they aren’t dreaming.

Those are the sentiments of Gretchen Geitter, ’91, and Tim Zulawski, ’98, two Fredonians who have carved out careers that, though highly demanding, are among the dream jobs of thousands of students at colleges across the U.S.

They work for National Football League teams. The NFL. The number-one sports league in the country. Make that the world. And they don’t just work there. They’re vice presidents – titles they achieved before the age of 40.

Ms. Geitter is the Vice President of Community Relations for the Buffalo Bills, a position she’s held since 2008. She oversees all aspects of the organization’s community outreach, working with players, coaches and administrators to benefit the community through programs and events, charitable giving and public appearances. She is entering her 18th year with the storied NFL franchise.

Mr. Zulawski is the Vice President for Sponsorship Sales and Service with the Atlanta Falcons. Now in his ninth year, he leads his team in developing partnerships with local, regional and national corporations. This includes overseeing day-to-day activities associated with promotional rights, advertising, custom experiences, hospitality and the sale of signage rights at the Georgia Dome.

They both got their starts at SUNY Fredonia, although the paths they pursued were decidedly different. So how did two Western New York natives find their way from the Admissions Office to their team’s front office?

For Geitter, a native of the Buffalo suburb of Alden, it wasn’t a lifelong dream. There was no such thing as a sport management major at that time, and the thought of working for her hometown team seemed like a pipe dream.

“I was always a fan,” she says, both of the Bills and her Blue Devils. “I went to the games with my friends and family, but that was really it.  And I’ve always been one to ‘join the team,’” she adds, referring to the student governments, homecoming committees, intramural teams and other organizations with which she was involved. “But I never imagined I’d be where I am today.”

What’s more, even though the Bills’ training camp was held on Fredonia’s campus every summer during her college days, she was never more than an occasional spectator. Instead, this communication major came to them via a 1994 Fredonia alumni networking event at the Hyatt in downtown Buffalo.  Through contacts she saw at that event, she applied for and was eventually offered a seasonal, summer-long ticket sales position to sell premium club seats – a job which was only supposed to last three months.

“I told them, ‘OK, but I’m going to work so hard that, by the end of August, you won’t want to let me go!’” she says with a smile.

She kept her end of the bargain, and so did they, retaining her for the full season. In 1995, the team was building its new practice facility which also became the site of the Buffalo Bills Experience pre-game parties for fans on game days, and she was hired to the full-time position of Special Projects Manager for those events.

Zulawski’s path was a bit more traditional. Baseball and hockey were his passions growing up, mainly out of necessity, as his parents worked long hours.

“Sports was kind of a babysitter for me, and one I sort of fell in love with,” he recalls. “There was a baseball diamond a mile down the road from us in one direction, and a hockey rink in the other, so I spent a lot of time at both.”

He was so into sports that he had his own trading card business – in high school. “I rented some space in a sporting goods store and ran it for a few hours a day after school,” he recalls.

But when it came to what he watched on TV, the choice was easy. Tim grew up in Hamburg, just south of Buffalo and a stone’s throw from what is now called Ralph Wilson Stadium – home of the Bills. “It’s what we all did, every Sunday [during the season],” he recalls. Those were, of course, the Bills’ glory years, highlighted by deep playoff runs, including four straight Super Bowl appearances from 1991 to 1994.

His proximity proved advantageous. One day his high school announced a new internship opportunity with the Bills. He applied and was selected, getting his first taste for what his career might entail.

When it came time to pick a college, he wanted a place that was affordable, close to home, and had a baseball team. It didn’t hurt that it was also his hometown football team’s training camp site. He began as a computer science major, but before long he switched to business – management information systems.

“I realized I talk way too much to just sit there writing code,” he jokes.

He played baseball for the Blue Devils, eventually settling in at first base and becoming an All-SUNYAC selection in 1997 and 1998. He remembers business professor Charles Telly and his baseball coaches, Dale Till and Dave Criscione, among his biggest influences while on campus. He also spent two years interning with the Bills at Fredonia and, after graduating, went on to earn his master’s in sports management from Springfield College at the urging of Bills’ Strength and Conditioning Coach Rusty Jones.

While the university’s connection to the Bills helped build Zulawski’s skills, Geitter benefitted from some of the campus’ other offerings.

“Fredonia provided so many opportunities to be involved,” she explains. “I lived on campus all four years and I was involved in student government, several clubs and organizations, and a sorority. I felt very fortunate that I was able to take advantage of those.”

She gives Fredonia a great deal of credit for helping to prepare her for the role she now has, including Communication Professors Ted Schwalbe and Joe Chilberg. But one man, in particular, holds a special place in her heart.

“Bob Coon – he’s one of my favorite people of all time!” Geitter beams.

Gretchen was relatively shy. Mr. Coon, a member of the Class of 1950 and the Vice President for Student Affairs at the time, became her mentor, steering her toward activities that provided the skills she needed to develop confidence. She went on to become the very first recipient of the Robert E. Coon Recognition Award, established when he retired at the end of her senior year and given to a student who shows excellence in the classroom and contributes significantly to student life.

“He helped me plow through the tough parts and accomplish some things I didn’t think I could do,” she recalls. “He made me see that I could run Student Association meetings. He just believed in me.”

She remains indebted to Coon and has stayed connected with him for more than 20 years.
“To this day, whenever something good happens to me…you think of that list of people in your life who have helped you along the way,” she says. “He’s always on that list – right at the top with my parents.”

Zulawski’s post-college career began with a one-year contract with Disney’s Wild World of Sports in Orlando, but he was quickly transferred to the corporate marketing and sponsorship division of Disney Parks and Resorts because Disney was involved in a major licensing change from Mattel to Hasbro.

“I learned so much that year,” he says appreciatively. “You couldn’t ask for a better introduction to the world of marketing.”

He then went about 90 miles west to the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning. There he was Senior Corporate Sales Manager for two seasons, beginning in 2001, and in charge of negotiating sponsorships for the Lightning and the St. Pete Times Forum. “That first year we were an abomination. We won all of 27 (out of 82) games,” he admits, “but two years later, they won the Stanley Cup.”

Zulawski’s timing wasn’t ideal, as he left Tampa for the Falcons in mid-2003, right before the Lightning’s Cup run. But he has no regrets. “I get to work with some of the most inspiring people in the business,” he says. That list begins with Arthur Blank, who co-founded The Home Depot and has led the Falcons’ resurgence to one of the most competitive teams in the league.

“You can learn so much from just listening to what he has to say,” Zulawski notes. “You see his business acumen, how hard he works, how he treats others. He reminds you that you don’t have to let the position change you as a person.”

Geitter finds similar inspiration in Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr., who, at age 92, has transcended from leader into legend. He founded the Bills in 1960 as one of the original American Football League (AFL) franchises, was pivotal in the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and was enshrined as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

“The way I feel about Mr. Coon – that’s how I feel about Mr. Wilson,” she says.
“He has done so much for this community for so many years, and he’s helped me develop as a professional. I am honored and privileged to be able to work for a man like him and a franchise like the Buffalo Bills.”

In fact, Geitter is as involved in her community as any player or coach. She serves on the boards of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, the Roswell Park Alliance and the National Federation for Just Communities of Western New York, as well as numerous other affiliations. Her honors include being named to Business First’s “40 Under 40” Class of 2007, the Big Brothers Big Sisters Service Award in 2006, the Ralph C. Wilson Distinguished Service Award in 2009, and many more.

She admits she occasionally still finds herself in awe – but not in the “star-struck” manner most fans would be if they rubbed shoulders with NFL stars. Instead, she is inspired by what the players, coaches and administrators all do.

“I get to meet and work with people who are at the absolute top of their game,” she explains, “and I’ve learned that they get to be the best because they put in the work – years of hard work, determination and sacrifice. It’s amazing to see what it takes for them to be out there every Sunday, and for the front office to put it all together.”

Zulawski is quick to point out that this career is not for everyone.

“When you sign up for this, it’s a lifestyle, not a job,” he warns. “During the season, an average day is 10 to 12 hours, maybe 100 hours a week. The business of sport is not easy to break into, and there’s a high washout factor because of the demanding schedule.”

This is valuable advice for current Fredonia students, especially those majoring in sport management and exercise science, which became officially recognized on campus in 2010. But it’s all worth it, they agree, especially as it relates to fans.

“Baseball’s been called America’s pastime, but the NFL is America’s passion. The amount of time fans spend engaged in it…it’s like a part-time job,” Zulawski marvels. “If you think about how fragmented people are nowadays with their attention, and yet they will still block out several hours every week for football. That’s amazing.”

Indeed, football has found that perfect “sweet spot” within America’s culture. It blends emotions with economics, be it the neighborhood pub that’s jam-packed on Sundays or the fantasy football leagues and office pools that have been born out of the game and further connect fans with the sport.

“It means so much to them. It galvanizes entire cities and gives them a release,” Zulawski adds.

Years after they have graduated, both Zulawski and Geitter look back fondly on their Fredonia days, appreciating what they learned both within and outside of the classroom.

“I had a really good time, from an educational perspective, plus the social and athletic elements,” Zulawski says. “I got my money’s worth and then some.”

Geitter agrees. “I can say with 100% certainty that I made the right choice. I went on to graduate school at Boston University, and I was as prepared, if not more prepared, than anybody. I’ve always been really proud of that – and proud of Fredonia.”

posted @ Tuesday, August 16, 2011 2:08 PM by Christine Davis Mantai

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