From End Zone To Engineer

Engineering lessons learned from professional football.


Jerry Doerger’s athletic gifts and imposing 2-meter, 109-kg frame made him a natural for the National Football League. But who knew it would prepare him for engineering?

Doerger spent a season each as an offensive lineman with the Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers before becoming vice president of operations at PEDCO Engineering & Architecture Services, an engineering and architectural firm in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Doerger says his seemingly disparate careers actually enhanced each other: Engineering instilled a discipline for preparation and a confidence in rapid decision-making, while sports taught him to learn from his mistakes. And both endeavors involve supporting and motivating a team toward a common goal.

“Preparing for engineering classes carried through to professional sports,” says Doerger. “Football is an 8-hour-a-day job. Besides fieldwork, there’s classwork prep – studying plays, opponents, strategies for certain situations. Having the discipline and problem-solving skills from engineering trained me to think quickly and gave me confidence in my ability to make the right decisions.

“The biggest skill I learned in football that I applied to my engineering profession was teamwork,” he adds. “The project manager is like a coach – he makes sure the team members know their assignments, and understands their individual strengths and weaknesses.”

The mutual benefits weren’t initially apparent when Doerger was dreaming about a pro sports career. He learned about wiring from his father, an electrical contractor. “I took things apart, but I could never put them back together,” he laughs. “But I loved math and science and my high school aptitude tests came back saying I should be an engineer.” The University of Wisconsin allowed him to play college ball and major in mechanical engineering.

Graduating in 1982, he played for a year with the Chicago Bears (where his best friend was quarterback Jim McMahon), another two with the now defunct United States Football League, and a final year with the San Diego Chargers. By the end of 1986, the physical pummeling had taken its toll.

“I’d had shoulder reconstruction, some broken limbs, and a fairly significant back injury,” says Doerger. “I tried out for five different teams and flunked five physicals. I thought, `It might be time to fall back on the engineering.’ ”

He set about earning his engineering license, and navigating interviews with potential employers who were either star struck or unable to reconcile a professional athlete with engineering smarts. He finally landed at a Cincinnati mechanical contracting firm for two years before moving to PEDCO in 1990.

“I realized that I needed to make a name for myself as an engineer the way I had in sports,” says Doerger, who keeps in touch with the game by coaching junior high school kids. “At work, I never brought up fact that I played pro football, which helped people accept what I brought to the table as an engineer.”

There were other lessons he gleaned from sports – how to work under pressure, speak in public, and motivate his staff during trying periods. “In football, it’s understood you don’t always win. In business, you’re expected to. I learned more from my failures than successes in football, because I’d find out what not to do. I use that philosophy in engineering - maybe I made the wrong assumptions or didn’t understand what the client was asking for.

“But just as I try to learn from failure, it’s important to acknowledge effort,” he adds. “Recently, one of my employees stayed until 10:30 at night to finish a project, and I recognized him for it. It’s those little things that make someone feel wanted. Even in tough times, I want to encourage my staff to move on and better themselves.”

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