Football fans mainly recall Troy Vincent for his on-field accomplishments over 15 seasons (1992–2006) in the NFL: 47 interceptions, five Pro Bowls, three All-Pro selections and a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Back then, Vincent was a leader even outside the locker room as president of the National Football League Players Association, the union that represents players in collective bargaining with the league—and is also charged with defending the likes of Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson as they fight commissioner Roger Goodell over his controversial disciplinary practices.

And that’s what makes Vincent’s current position, executive vice president of football operations (and Goodell’s No. 2), ironic. The man once elected by other players to represent their interests to the league is now a suit on the other side of the table, the highest-ranking exec in NFL history who is also a former player. It’s possible, if not likely, that in the future he’ll become the first former player to be commissioner. For now, though, his job is all about, in NFL parlance, “protecting the shield.” His purview spans the mundane, such as setting standards for referees’ physical fitness, and the high-profile: He’s a central figure in how the NFL disciplines players accused of misdeeds from child abuse (Peterson) to cheating (Brady). He played a major role in rewriting the league’s maligned personal conduct policy, which has been criticized by the media, fans, domestic violence advocates and, yes, the players union Vincent once led.

“If there is anything I dislike about my job, it is the disciplinary side of things,” states Vincent, who’s been personally criticized by current players for switching sides and becoming the NFL’s enforcer. But, he adds, “Criticism comes with the territory. I’m no exception to that. Whether as a union leader or as a league executive, my commitment is unwavering to the game of football.”

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Football isn’t his only commitment. Like many players, he left college, the University of Wisconsin, after getting drafted by a professional team. In Vincent’s case, that was the Miami Dolphins in 1992. Unlike many, he completed his bachelor’s degree after retiring from football, at Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey. He burnished that credential with studies in business at Stanford, Harvard, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. It was all preparation for the inevitable. “Knowing that the body has an expiration date, I began planning early for the next phase of my life,” he shares.

Finishing his formal education prepared him for life after football, but Vincent’s home and spiritual lives kept him grounded on the field and off. He and his wife, Tommi, share a 22-year marriage, five children, their Christian faith and a common interest in collecting art. They’ve amassed a collection of paintings valued at more than $2 million, including pieces they had specially commissioned. Their favorite artist? The late Ernie Barnes, a former NFL player who was more famous for his Sugar Shack painting, which was immortalized in the opening credits of the Good Times TV show and later as cover art for Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album.

Collecting is still a distant third to Vincent’s first two loves, family and football, and he uses what he’s learned from the former to inform how he governs the latter.

“I am a father of two student-athletes at the high school and collegiate levels and a husband. This gives me an entirely different perspective to add to conversations on everything from league safety and equipment development to making sure we are showing the proper levels of sensitivity and cultural competence in front of all demographics when we roll out new initiatives,” he explains.

One crucial demographic: women. Football’s fastest-growing audience in the United States is women, and the league was pilloried last year for its handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case. Vincent went before a Senate subcommittee to testify about the NFL’s disciplinary procedures as a result of the controversy.

A year removed from the Rice incident, Vincent says the game needs to be friendlier to female fans, including at NFL stadiums on game days.

“You don’t know how much it bothers me to go to games and stand on the sidelines and hear music blasting from speakers with profanity and negative lyrics about women. That is disrespectful to our fans but also to the values of the game,” he says.

“If there was anything I could change about where the game is right now, it would be to return to a real focus on the values of football.”

Getting there will be a tightrope walk. The NFL is a multibillion-dollar enterprise that has to balance the interests of its majority-Black athletes with fans as diverse as the broader populace. And that means also appealing to fans outside the United States; the league has been working for years to cultivate a following in Mexico, Europe and China.

That demands a deft hand from Vincent in managing issues such as the constant news cycle and social media, which put players, team execs and coaches under the lens even during the offseason. It also means navigating periods of tumult in an era when some athletes are more vocal about social justice than those  in decades past.

“I remember when the [St. Louis] Rams players faced controversy for their ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ demonstration to protest Ferguson last year,” he says.

“The last thing that you want to tell a player is [he] can’t do something. I’ve been in that locker room. I understand that culture. But after that, it was also my responsibility to reach out to some of those guys and have the conversation to say, ‘OK, now you did this. Why?’ That’s the only way that we become able to educate some of the young guys to be effective with what they are trying to do. That’s how the league can really support its players.”

— Additional reporting by Keith Reed