Nerds are no longer a stereotype, not in an age when comic-book movies dominate the box office and high-profile tech companies buy and sell each other for billions of dollars, all while racing to create the next gadget that will find its way into half the hands in the country.
Some stand 6-foot-6, weigh 251 pounds and have the kind of explosive athleticism capable of ripping off 40 yards in 4.51 seconds, blurring the line between jock and nerd into the Saints’ prize offensive acquisition in free agency this offseason.
Coby Fleener freely admits where he stands.
“I happily call myself a nerd,” Fleener said.
Fleener’s a nerd in the most binary sense, a tech geek who spends much of his free time outside of football researching, learning and investing in the finest Silicon Valley has to offer.
Born and raised in the Chicago area, Fleener always found himself drawn to computers and coding.
Then he got a chance to play football at Stanford, which lies right in the middle of the tech industry’s favorite playground.
“I think as a kid, I always had an interest in technology, and then Silicon Valley is just like 100 times as cool as you can possibly imagine, and I was kind of a kid in a candy store out there,” Fleener said. “And so it just magnifies that interest.”
Fleener, who graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in science, technology and society and a graduate degree in media studies, has used the free time afforded by some of the offseason breaks in the NFL’s schedule to stay on the cutting edge.
He’s been behind the scenes at every major tech company in California -- think things like Google -- and regularly attends major technology conferences like the Consumer Electronics Show, South by Southwest and the Collision Conference, and he harbors a great interest not only in things like computer coding but also social media, which has produced some of the biggest companies of the Internet age.
Fleener has seen and done enough that it’s impossible for him to instantly identify the coolest thing he’s done outside of football.
“It’s all of the above,” Fleener said. “I’ve worked with a few companies as far as the advisory side, I’ve invested in a few, I have equity in others, so it’s been something that’s kind of fun as a side project. I understand that (football) is the primary, and it will be for some time, but afterwards, you have to have a game plan.”
Fleener is far from the first Saint to dabble in outside interests. The man he replaced, Benjamin Watson, has become a leading voice in the fight for racial reconciliation and released a book during the season last fall. Quarterback Drew Brees has a wide range of business interests, and players throughout the roster have found ways to get themselves ready for life after football.
So the Saints’ new tight end is focused primarily on living up to the five-year, $36 million contract that brought him from Indianapolis to New Orleans. Brees has a new weapon in his arsenal, and if the Saints’ summer workouts are any indication, Fleener will cause some problems over the middle for opponets.
“You can’t truly dedicate the time throughout the year to justify getting a second job or something like that,” Fleener said. “(The schedule) allows for some convenience, being able to visit some places and see some people that I wouldn’t otherwise if I had a 365-day a year job, but I think people kind of want all or none.”
But when Fleener has downtime, his interests turn to technology.
For example, after he moved to New Orleans, he had time to do two things outside of football in his first introduction to the city: a trip to Jazz Fest and a trip to Collision, a chance to hear the innovations that are coming next.
Being on the footstep of Silicon Valley cemented his love in college, but what Fleener has found is that there’s somewhere to access his nerdy side in every city, and New Orleans is no different.
“I think it’s hard not to kind of fall in love with Silicon Valley and all the interesting companies and ideas and people that it comes with, and it seems like there’s a little bit of that out here, to the extent that I’ve been able to explore. It’s always neat to see. I got to find a little niche in Indianapolis while I was there -- I’m always kind of looking for ways to ingrain myself in the community.”
All while making a big impact on the football field.