This article was written John Frierson for Georgiadogs.com. To view the original article, click here.
Will Witherspoon didn’t set out to be in the cattle business. Nor did he ever figure he’d be speaking in front of members of Congress on the misuse of antibiotics in livestock production. But life can take you almost anywhere if you’re open to new and interesting opportunities.
Sure, the smart and entrepreneurial former Georgia linebacker had already co-founded a doggy daycare business in Charlotte while playing for the Carolina Panthers. When he couldn’t find a place in town he trusted to take care of his Weimaraners, he opened his own. But what the heck did he know about the beef business?
In the beginning, not much beyond how good a piece of steak can taste. How it came to be on his plate, the details and intricacies from start to finish, was something he had to get up to speed on quickly. But he’s a quick learner.
It was while playing for the St. Louis Rams that Witherspoon bought, in 2007, a big piece of property, Shire Gate Farm, about an hour away, near Owensville, Mo. He bought the 600-acre farm for his two horses, Rocky and Simon, and so he, his wife Rebecca and their three daughters would have a place in the country. Eventually, after some outside encouragement, he decided to do more with the vast property and chose to raise cattle using pasture-based farming.
“I’m a learn-by-example guy,” he said. “When I went and bought the farm for my horses, originally I got the cattle for tax reasons. My tax guy was like, ‘Just go get two or three head of cattle and start working from there and we’ll figure out what we’re going to do from that point.’ I came home with 16. …
“Being in a cattle community, you can learn a lot there.”
Witherspoon said he’s never been afraid to ask questions. “Who you know is often more important than what you know,” he said, and he went to the people he knew that could explain the cattle business to him as he started this new venture and new chapter of his off-field life.
Witherspoon raises 100% grass-fed British White Park cattle and typically sells 40-50 head a year, he said. While he’s considering expanding his operation, Witherspoon said he never wants to be a big operation.
An “outdoorsy kid” when he was young, and to this day, Witherspoon said he’s always had an appreciation for nature and the environment, which is why when he got into the beef business he wanted to do it in the most sustainable, humane and environmentally-friendly way. In 2010, Shire Gate Farm earned the Animal Welfare Approved certification, which assures consumers that the cattle have been treated to the highest welfare standards.
While playing for the Rams, who have since moved to Los Angeles, Witherspoon’s St. Louis teammates were often chowing down on his steaks in the team dining hall.
“You never know what it’s like to walk into the team lunchroom and everybody’s eating ribeyes that came from (your farm), and they didn’t know,” he said with a laugh. “It was amazing to see how surprised guys were that you’re producing a product like that and they’re enjoying it. That’s one of those, it’s just heartfelt warmth there.”
On Saturday, Witherspoon will return to Sanford Stadium, where he along with Randall Godfrey (football), Brandi Hunter-Lewis (basketball) and Carrie Zimmerman (gymnastics) will be recognized as the four inaugural recipients of the Piedmont Bank Arch Award. Presented by the UGA Athletic Association and Piedmont Bank, the award honors former Bulldogs for their success and contributions as business leaders.
In July 2012, Witherspoon, then with the Tennessee Titans, was part of a group of speakers that addressed members of Congress on the need to pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. It’s fair to guess that none of his teammates were doing anything that interesting during the final days of their offseason.
Witherspoon had a great Georgia career from 1998-2001, finishing with 211 tackles and a degree in Landscape Architecture. Selected by the Panthers in the third round of the 2002 NFL Draft, Witherspoon played until 2013, with stops in Carolina, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Tennessee, before returning to St. Louis to finish out his career. He started 153 games and was in on 951 tackles during his 12-year run.
It was while playing for the Panthers that he co-founded Club Canine, a doggy daycare facility. “That was my first venture out into the world of business,” he said, adding that he sold it during the past year. “Did very well there, learned a lot of lessons along the way.”
Along with his playing career, owning a doggy daycare and Shire Gate Farm, Witherspoon has worked with the NFL Players Association, been an investment advisor, worked as a sideline reporter for the Rams Radio Network, and more. He’s also devoted his time to numerous charities and organizations including A Greener World, which promotes good farming practices that benefit the environment, the animals and society, as well as the USO.
A man of many interests and passions, Witherspoon grew up in a military family — his father was in the Air Force — and he spent part of his childhood overseas, soaking up different cultures along the way. Ever since, the USO and the military have always been a big part of his life.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and always wanted to do something. I’m never one to sit still,” he said. “If I’m not out doing something, I’m in doing something — and always looking at things and trying to discover pathways for things to be done.”
Witherspoon entered the NFL knowing that his career could be over at any moment, that one bad injury could sideline him forever. That’s why he was always looking ahead, always thinking about what he could do after football.
“At every point,” he said, “I think I’ve tried to make the best of every opportunity.”