Special guest article by Tom Layberger (@TomLay810)
While James “Jimbo” Covert was paving the way for Walter Payton and protecting Jim McMahon’s blindside as a Pro Bowl left tackle for the Chicago Bears he took the time to lay the groundwork for his post-football career.
By 1991, a season in which Covert concluded his NFL career on injured reserve, he had already dabbled in a couple of industries before finding his calling in healthcare. Frankly, it was a matter meeting and being introduced to the professionals that could launch his career.
“I was really lucky because I played in what is one of the greatest cities in the world for a professional athlete to play, and that’s Chicago,” said Covert, who played eight seasons (1983-90) with the Bears before he was inactive that final year. “That’s not just because of the fans, which are great, but the business community there has a lot of opportunities. So if you are willing to put some time in during the off-season and network and introduce yourself to different groups of people and companies, it’s all right there in front of you.”
Covert has never looked back on a career that has seen him relocate on multiple occasions while employed by the likes of Baxter International, which gave him his start in the field, Caremark, HealthSouth and Horizon Healthcare. The 57-year-old most recently served as president and CEO of Pittsburgh-based The Institute for Transfusion Medicine (ITxM), a company that has many different businesses related to blood and blood-type services within a hospital or outpatient setting. A merge ultimately led to Covert accepting a severance package and he is currently seeking other opportunities within healthcare.
“About halfway through my football career I really started to (make networking) kind of a mission because I wanted to make sure that when I was done playing I could transition into something,” he said. “We of course did not make the kind of money (NFL players) make today, so I had to insure that I had the ability to make a living when I was done playing football. I got lucky, met some good people and jumpstarted my business career.”
The opportunity with ITxM brought him back to Pittsburgh. The Steel City is familiar territory to Covert, who is from Conway, about 20 miles up the Ohio River. It is also where hard work was not only expected, but a way of life. His father, John, put in 34 years at the former Armco Steel plant, which is where his grandfather worked for 44 years. John had an overnight shift and returned home at 10 a.m. to have breakfast before driving a Sears Roebuck moving truck for eight hours.
During the summer of 1978 before his freshman year at Pitt, where he started as a defensive lineman before becoming an All-American offensive tackle for a program that had three top-10 finishes in his final three seasons under coach Jackie Sherrill, Covert spent eight-hour days breaking down highway median barriers with a 90-pound jackhammer.
When he knocked off from pounding away at concrete it was then time to mix cement and haul cinder blocks to erect a porch John was adding to the family home.
“I never complained at all,” said Covert, chuckling at the memory of those long summer days. “There was no complaining in my house. That was our summer project before my freshman year at Pitt. It wasn’t like I had the summer off and I think I was in the best shape of my life.”
Covert credits, among others, the late Joe Moore and Mike Ditka as having a profound influence on his football career. Moore was his line coach at Pitt and took as much pride in his players’ success as they did. Ditka was sideline boss for Covert’s entire career with the Bears, with whom they won a Super Bowl in 1985. The two have much else in common. Ditka grew up in Aliquippa, very close to Conway, and like Covert attended Pitt, had his number retired by the school and was a first-round pick of Chicago, which selected Covert sixth overall in 1983.
“He was a tough guy to play for,” said Covert of Ditka. “He expected your best every single day. Not just some of the time, but all the time. It did not matter who you were, whether Walter Payton or the last guy to make the team, the expectation was there. I think that is why we were successful. He pulled us, dragged us and pushed us to be successful.”
Covert, who will be moving back to Chicago and spend winters in Florida, joined Ditka in having his number (75) retired by Pitt in 2015. The university is where he met his wife, Penny, a former Panthers cheerleader. The couple, who have three children, including Scott, a volunteer football assistant at his parents’ alma mater, will celebrate 34 years of marriage in May. Giving back to an institution that has meant so much is important to Covert, who is in his fourth year serving on the school’s board of trustees.
“From my perspective the university has given me so much in my life,” said the College Football Hall of Famer, Class of 2003. “I was able to get an education there. I played for some great coaches like Joe Moore and Jackie Sherrill. They were great influences on me and I was able to graduate from a great university where I met my wife. It gave me everything in my life and if I can repay that in any way shape or form I would certainly do that.”
The intangibles acquired playing football still have much influence on Covert. He was a team captain at every level going back to high school and the lessons he learned, especially those of leadership, have had much impact on his business career.
“I always tried to take a leadership role on every team I played and I think I tried to do that by example,” he said. “I don’t believe leaders have to be the most vocal people or are the most articulate and are out there ‘rah, rah, rah.’ That’s not what leadership is about. Leadership is about being the consummate professional, showing up every day for work, doing the job to the best of your ability, being a great teammate and not letting your teammates down. The same type of behavior on the football field from a discipline perspective is what you have to have in your personal life as well.”
Those principles have served Covert very well.