Former college football player Shawn Bullard, now 31, was still at Temple, hanging in the locker room, when he overheard a conversation that would change his life.

Someone was saying that it was possible to buy houses cheaply from the city, fix them, and sell them.

"A lightbulb went off in my head," he said.

Bullard, a North Philadelphia real estate developer, credits football for his tenacity, confidence, and hustle - all keys to success.

But, he acknowledged, the game also gave him a false sense of entitlement that got him into jams, personally and in business.

"Football allowed me to express myself," said Bullard, who operates as Watchmen Property Management and Konkrete Investments.

He buys and renovates houses, converting them to apartments to rent to Temple University students. He owns a dozen buildings and plans a new project on North Broad Street, north of Temple.

Bullard grew up in West Oak Lane, and figured his prowess on Bishop McDevitt's football team would land him at a good college. His grades suggested otherwise. He wound up playing at a small Southern school.

"I got a lot into drinking" and more, he said.

"I had a playboy face, and a lot of girls liked me" - including a girl that the campus drug dealer also had his eye on. That led to a fight that left Bullard with a collapsed lung after being stabbed six times.

"I never run from problems, and I never back down from a fight," Bullard said. "That's how I am in business."

He dropped out, returned home, and got a job. "I was standing at the bus stop and I looked at my check. It was $250 and I had worked 80 hours. How did I go from being star athlete to this?"

Adding to the insult, one day while he and his girlfriend, a Temple student, were watching a Temple football game, she mentioned that a player was flirting with her in class.

"I used to be the guy who did that," Bullard said he told himself.

It motivated him to enroll at Temple, try out for the team, and figure out how to make his mark.

"Even though I was in college, I knew I couldn't work for anybody else," Bullard said. "I said, 'I'm either going to make the NFL or I'm going to be an entrepreneur.' I didn't even know what the word meant."

He made Temple's team, playing defense, but an injury set him back. To regain his eligibility, he had to juggle 24 hours a week of rehabilitation and a double course load. On the field, he started at the bottom, as the guy who held the blocking-dummy bag so top players could practice their tackles.

His coach yelled at him, Bullard said, "If you can't hold the bag, what are you good for?"

"I went back to the dorms and cried myself to sleep," he said. "But I wasn't going to let this beat me."

In 2005, just before he graduated and was briefly recruited as a practice player for the San Diego Chargers, he paid $40,000 for his first house at 11th Street and Lehigh Avenue. Bullard used a $10,000 student loan for the down payment, securing a $203,000 rehab loan.

He sold that first house and bought others. He started a company, naming it Watchmen Property Management, after the comic-book series.

Cash flow started moving in his favor, so he bought a sports car and moved into a nice loft in Northern Liberties.

Too much, too fast. He owed his mother, his credit cards, even guys from the street. "I had the loan guys calling me every day, 'Where's my money?' "

He traded the luxury loft for a semifinished apartment in one of his North Philadelphia homes. It was New Year's Eve, when 2007 turned to 2008.

"I remember, I was so cold. I had a sweat suit, a robe, and my blanket, and I had no money. I couldn't go out. No money to fix up my car. No girlfriend. I remember the ball was dropping, and everyone was having fun but me. I came from a glamour position, where I was being catered to, to this.

"That was a down point. I was trapped, stuck with all this debt. Hadn't paid off my mom," he said. "A lot of people would have said, 'I'm out, I'm gone.' "

He stuck with it.

"I looked at it as a learning lesson," he said. "This is where resiliency comes in - not backing down from a fight."

His credit rating was zilch. "I couldn't cosign to finance a bicycle," he said. So Bullard formed a partnership on a handshake with two creditworthy friends. They put their names on the loans; he built up the businesses.

In 2009, he won Temple's Be Your Own Boss business bowl, available to alumni.

"He was a very passionate orator," said Jaine Lucas, executive director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute at Temple. "He did a brilliant job with the judges, and he knew his stuff. They were very swayed that he was operating the business."

He bought one partner out. By 2010, he and the other partner weren't speaking; the two wound up in court, a case that has been settled.

These days, Bullard is back in his loft, with a glorious rooftop view of Center City's skyscrapers.

The lessons he learned are now in his playbook:

"Your business has to come before you. You have to be vigorous in your thinking and accountable. You have to be resilient."

Struggling

for Work

An Inquirer series has been focusing on those who are entering the job market and looking for work. Read more at www.philly.com/phljobs

Follow links to Jane M. Von Bergen's blog, Jobbing, for profiles of more young entrepreneurs.EndText

Shawn Bullard, left, talks about his experiences as a young entrepreneur at www.philly.com/phljobsEndText

Contact Jane Von Bergen at jvonbergen@phillynews.com, @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.