Justin Ricklefs


Flipping Hamburgers in a Fraternity and a Friend Named Clyde

It was the spring of 2003, what seems like forever ago and just yesterday at the same time.

I was a senior at Mizzou, newly married and without a clear direction on where I was headed vocationally.

Maybe I’d be a high school baseball coach, go on staff with Young Life, continue flipping burgers in my fraternity, shoot I didn’t really know.

What I did know was I was wildly in love and needed to make money but beyond that, I didn’t have much direction.

One weekend, I got invited to this guy Clyde’s house. There was this Young Life leader retreat at his house, and I didn’t know anything about him really.

Other than he had a huge house and was a big donor.

Walking into his front door that night, I didn’t anticipate my life would forever be altered by him (and for everyone who knows Clyde, I’m FAR from the only one).

Right when I walked down his massive, curving staircase to the basement, my eyes weren’t drawn to the furniture, or the wine cellar, or the projection TV, I was fixated on the wall.

See, his wall was filled with sports memorabilia. For a junkie like me, I was hooked.

A signed Bob Stoops Oklahoma helmet. A Roy Williams UNC signed ball. A picture of Clyde standing next to Stormin’ Norm.

I remember asking Clyde, rather sheepishly, “So…uh…what do you do for work?”

Again, if you know Clyde, you can script the answer. It involved a head scratch, a nose wiggle thing, some aw-shucks type genuine humility and ultimately an answer about working in sports and having fun.

Sports? Fun? Big personalities?

I’m in.

Google ‘Clyde Lear Learfield’ and you’ll be fascinated by his entrepreneur story. At the time, his collegiate sports properties had 7 schools.

Let’s just say it’s way more than 7 now. And the business has sold a couple times for a figure that rhymes with million but starts with a B.

It took some work, convincing and bird-dogging but after graduation, I ended up landing an internship with Mizzou Sports Properties while I worked full time in that fraternity kitchen (a story for another day, but a job I loved, working for a tremendous man).

As stories always do, one thing led to the next and before I knew it, I was a full time sales guy with Mizzou. Then after three years, they moved me to their property in Memphis (I’m still bitter that they lost to KU in 2008 after missing 100 free throws down the stretch).

I worked for Clyde and his company for 5 years, and like others who have had similar experiences, the job came in a distant second place to the joy of getting to know Clyde and the culture he was brilliant at building.

In 2008, I left Learfield to take a job with my hometown favorite team, the Kansas City Chiefs.

On paper, it was a total no-brainer. But Clyde (and many others in the company) made it an extremely difficult decision because of the culture.

Fast forward nearly a decade and, as stories always do, one thing led to the next and I found myself in late 2016 deciding if it was time to leave my job with the Chiefs (for the second time, another story for another day about a disastrous stint in Florida) to take a shot at my own entrepreneur path.

Naturally, the guy I sought out?


I drove down to his office in Jefferson City early one weekday. And instead of talking much about work or my business idea, he asked about my heart.

He asked how I was. Like really.

At the time, Brooke and I were in the throes of it. We hit a rough patch, a really tough season and most days, I didn’t know which way was up.

Clyde couldn’t have cared less about business, money or whatever. He cared if I was going to fight for my marriage.

He asked if I had good friends around me. He hugged me and told me it was worth it and to keep going. Even though most of the stuck-ness was my own doing, he never made me feel ashamed or less than.

He just loved me.

And when the tide turned to business, and we got down to it, he told a story that erased the final bit of doubt I had about whether to jump.

I’ll spare the name on the off chance the guy or his family ever sees this, but Clyde asked if I knew of a certain well respected individual in Jefferson City.

I had not heard of him.

He had a big job, made lots of money, was well-respected, had a membership at the country club, the whole deal.

But Clyde said, “You know what’s fascinating about him?”

He said, “He’s the most bitter man in town.”

As he went on, he said something to the effect of, “We were close in our mid-30’s, back when I was building the business. We’d hang out, smoke a cigar or have a drink and he’d tell me all his ideas. And they were good ideas. But you know what happened? He kept getting promoted. And it got a little bit harder for him to quit and pursue what he really wanted in life. He was chained to his own success.”

He didn’t have to connect any dots for me to get what he was saying.

I didn’t want to be the guy in my 70’s and 80’s, heck even my 40’s who was bitter because my good ideas stayed in the conversations of the past with a buddy.

It was time for me to see if any of my ideas were just meaningless chatter with friends. Or if they were the first step towards pursuing a life I wanted.

Clyde laughed, scratched his head, gave me a big hug and said, “Let’s call your boss. I want to be here when you tell him you’re quitting.”

I didn’t quit that day. At least not formally.

His story, his love for me and his wisdom certainly helped me get there though.

That doesn’t mean everyone needs to quit their job to find the life they want.

But if you’re anything like me, I imagine there’s an idea you’ve shared with a friend. A book you want to write. A nonprofit you want to support. An adventure you want to take. A conversation you want to have. Or maybe a boss you need to call and quit.

I can’t imagine any of us will be excited to knock on the doorstep of what’s next after this life and be thankful we didn’t take any action on those ideas.

Clyde. You’re one of a kind. And everyone who knows you by name knows it’s true.

Thanks for the push.

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