Sailing the Seas of Cheese: Life After Football
–Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, The Shawshank Redemption
Two articles about former Packers grabbed my attention this past week. Both players were from my college and post-grad years. Both were at the height of their careers as I was just entering mine. One had a long and successful career in the NFL complete with a Superbowl ring while the other’s was only two years before fading into obscurity. Yet each underscores the same message–the challenge, and perhaps burden of having to figure out how to live outside the realm of the NFL once that last snap was played.
By now, everyone has probably heard about George Koonce’s guest column at the ESPN blog. Koonce has devoted his entire doctoral dissertation to the subject. His honesty is painfully palpable as he recalled how a car accident–in retrospect was likely a suicide attempt–nearly took his life. And though the media would like to blame repetitive head injuries for all that ails aging NFL retirees, Koonce has no history of concussions. But what he suffered from is not unique. He simply could not deal with the crushing uncertainty of life after football. Koonce recalls:
I played nine years in the NFL and one in NFL Europe and didn’t have any concussions on record. But I did have suicidal thoughts in my first year away from the game. Not all of us suffered concussions, but all of us are going to go through the transition. And if you’re like most players, you’ve spent most of your life focusing on the next play, the next quarter, the next half, the next game, the next offseason.
Yet Koonce is hardly alone. I can only imagine Erik Affholter, a former wide receiver for USC as well as the Green Bay Packers from the Infante era has faced similar demons. I remember him from my summers slinging hash at the Packers’ training camp at St. Norbert college back when I was in school. The man that shows up in the above link is much older than the handsome and quiet rookie I remember. He went missing for over day this past weekend after hiking alone on a trail in California. His family assumed the worst. Did something happen to him? Or was there something the family feared he may do to himself? The article never says. Thankfully he let his ex-wife know that he was fine twenty-four hours later. But if you read between the lines of the news releases, life after the NFL has not been an easy road. Divorced and unemployed, Affholter is still looking for his big break in the possibly the PGA. Could that uncertainty be why he went walkabout and decided to go MIA for a bit?
These are athletes that were groomed from the moment they shined in high school until the day they exited the NFL as former players for only one thing: football. Their lives were conditioned and outlined for them by someone else–what to eat, when to sleep, how to practice. But when or where did they learn to be adults that had to make those decisions on their own? Koonce sums it up quite well:
In college, my day was sketched out for me, from 6:30 a.m. until 9 o’clock at night. There was no difference when I transitioned to the NFL. It was all about trying to win a championship, trying to get prepared. The role engulfs you even more. They pay those NFL assistant coaches well to show George how to drop back into the flat or cover a running back. I didn’t have those life coaches when I left the game. That support system disappeared, and I was lost.
For some, that transition not a problem. Many go on to successful careers either as broadcasters or coaches. Others become successful businessmen. Former quarterback Randy Wright has made a name for himself in the vending machine industry and is the CEO of Wright Vending. Those in the Green Bay area are familiar with the recently-closed Ford dealership that LeRoy Butler owned in Waupaca.
But for most of the NFL’s alum, the road to easy-peasy financial prosperity isn’t there. For most players, there isn’t a multi-million dollar nest egg to fall back on while they decide what to be when they grow up after football is over. The average NFL career lasts only three and a half years, and the vast majority of those players never raked in a million dollar yearly salary. Sports Illustrated has famously stated that within two years of retirement, 78% of NFL retirees are bankrupt or experiencing significant financial stress because of divorce or unemployment. Let me say that again eight out of ten former players are dead broke two years out. Some are victims of their own generosity, the gravy train of prosperity extends to girlfriends, wives, ex-wives, houses for parents, cars for high school buddies. Others piddle their money away on ill-advised investments and business ventures that never pan out–restaurants, nightclubs, and other odd assorted forays into entrepreneurship.
But then the money runs out.
Because so many of these players have, since they were teenagers, focused on football and only football, they may not have marketable talents to enter the workforce in another career. For every familiar face that succeeds in broadcasting, there are countless Erik Affholters that no one will remember and don’t have the star power to transition from the field to the booth.
And then there is the culture shock. What do you do with yourself once your life isn’t programmed down to the minute? That beloved character Red from the Shawshank Redemption hit the nail on the head. It’s hard to make it out in the world when all you crave is the comforting familiarity of a routine that is no longer there.
Koonce asks some powerful questions in his guest column. Are the NFL and the Players Association doing enough to help those athletes transition to life after football? There is Finance 101 that rookies are exposed to in the first weeks following the draft. But is there financial counseling for what happens when that pay check ends? What about mentors or sponsors to help network these newly-retired players toward new careers or, at least, help transition them for a softer landing in the outside world.
While Hollywood Bootcamp sounds like a lot of fun–former Packer Ahman Green recently particpated–very few players will make it in that career field either. Is that the best the NFL has to offer its retired players–a movie fantasy camp? The NFL has a program called Player Engagement (which, for the record strongly disagrees with the above-cited Sports Illustrated statistic.) On the surface it offers financial advisement, job shadowing opportunities and other fluff in addition to the Hollywood Bootcamp such as Broadcasting Bootcamp and Business of Music Bootcamp.
Hey NFL, you are kind of doing it wrong.
Where’s the What to Do With Your Business Degree That Will Lead To Actual Long-term Financial Security Bootcamp or the every popular What To Do with Your American Studies Degree Bootcamp? (Sorry, Aaron wherever you are, not to knock your former major, but I like you have no idea what to do with my actual degree. I have found that my undergrad chemistry major is only used for making really good pickles and getting cat hurl stains out of the carpet.) Not every player has the wherewithal to go out and get a doctorate like George Koonce and parlay that degree into a long-term career and not rely on occasional public appearances at the local car dealership to make the next mortgage payment.
For most players, a fantasy bootcamp at another stab at temporary celebrity isn’t a long term solution. It’s an empty promise for something that will never happen. It only perpetuates that problem of culture shock when the artificial world of football is no longer there.
Come on, NFL, you can do better than that. Do you want to be the problem or part of a solution so there are no more stagnated lives after that last down is played?