Guest column: Surviving life after the NFL

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
3:22
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George KoonceESPN.com IllustrationFormer NFL linebacker George Koonce has spent the past several years examining the emotional effect of retiring from football.
Former NFL linebacker George Koonce recently submitted to Marquette University a doctoral dissertation on transitioning from life outside the game. This column represents his personal experience, as told to NFC West blogger Mike Sando.

I had a wonderful wife, beautiful children, money in the bank and a Super Bowl ring back on that day in 2003 when my post-NFL transition took my Chevy Suburban around a 25-mph corner at three times the posted speed.

Whatever happened that day was going to happen. I didn't really care.

By the grace of God, I survived what was, in retrospect, a suicide attempt. But paramedics weren't going to cart me off. No chance. The football tough guy in me refused to get into that ambulance. My wife, Tunisia, drove me to the hospital and saved my life with words, not medicine.

"George," she said, "I don't understand what you are going through, but I sympathize. We cannot reinvent who you are, but we can redefine who you are."

Thanks to Tunisia, that car crash in North Carolina was a turning point. I would seek counseling, join a church and continue my education with the goal of becoming an athletic director. Tunisia even insisted I continue my education while she bravely fought the breast cancer that would ultimately claim her life in 2009.

The day Junior Seau committed suicide was also the day I submitted to Marquette University my doctoral dissertation on the difficulties NFL players face in transitioning away from the game. While it's fashionable to blame concussions for Junior's early demise, and it's certainly possible brain trauma played a role, the adjustment to life after football came to my mind immediately.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Koonce
Jonathan Daniel/Allsport/Getty ImagesAfter spending nine years in the NFL, former linebacker George Koonce felt directionless upon his retirement.
Eight years as a linebacker with the Green Bay Packers and one with the Seattle Seahawks should have set me up for life. Instead, the tunnel vision and unwavering devotion a football career demanded left me utterly unprepared for anything else.

Football is different from other major sports in that way. Hard work and dedication cannot make you a 7-foot-1 center in the NBA, but it can help a 6-foot-2 linebacker go from 205 to 245 pounds while gaining speed and athleticism. That was the path I followed from undrafted prospect at East Carolina to NFL starting lineups from 1992 to 2000.

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.

Look at Dave Duerson. There are more than 200,000 living alums from Notre Dame. Some run major corporations around the world. Becoming a Notre Dame trustee would be a dream for them. Duerson was a trustee at Notre Dame, not only because he was a good football player at one time but because of his business acumen and his dedication to being one of the best safeties in the league. And when that went away, and with the culmination of the concussions he had suffered, he ended his life.

Notice that we're not reading about NBA greats killing themselves. But we have someone like Seau, who might have been the best inside linebacker to ever put on a uniform, and that is what he did on May 2.

I'm not downplaying basketball careers or the work NBA players put in, but in the NFL you have to be obsessed with the role to make it. ("Role engulfment" is the academic term for it.) There are no prodigies in the NFL. There are no Hakeem Olajuwons who show up at the University of Houston from Nigeria and suddenly become the first pick in the draft. In football, you can have someone like my former teammate Desmond Howard win the Heisman Trophy and become Super Bowl MVP after everyone told him he was too small, too short and too slow. He has a heart the size of Wisconsin and simply will not quit.

You say, "You know what, I'm going to prove Peter King wrong or Chris Berman wrong or my childhood friend who said I couldn't make it." So you get even more consumed, more isolated in football, and then you have no skill set once the game is finished with you.

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.

[+] EnlargeJunior Seau
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesOn the day of Junior Seau's death, Koonce submitted his doctoral thesis on life after the NFL to Marquette.
When that day comes and they say your services are no longer needed, you are in a very lonely and dark place. That first year out of football, I drank. I can distinctly remember going into Wal-Mart and buying the first season of "Law & Order" and watching it alone at our beach place from Thursday through Sunday night. It was such a lonely time. And it was on the drive back home that I took that turn at 75 mph just to see what would happen.

One month, I was returning an interception for a touchdown during a Seahawks victory over Atlanta. The next month, I was finished. Even my agent stopped calling. I’d spoken to him on the phone three or four times a day since signing with him out of college, and now he wouldn’t take my calls. I’d had a decent 2000 season, finishing second on the Seahawks in tackles, but I was 32 years old, had a bad knee and was suddenly expendable.

In the locker room, we want to talk about how we're going to get past the Cowboys or 49ers. We’re not talking about weaknesses. We’re not talking about being scared. When guys start feeling that way in retirement, they go off by themselves and they start self-medicating: drinking, taking pain pills, taking narcotics, trying to fill that void.

Football becomes your identity. Your family buys into it, your friends buy into it, the alums from your college buy into it. And then it is gone. You are gone.

What can we do to help?

The NFL and NFL Players Association just hammered out a 10-year agreement. How much money is allocated toward players' transition away from the game? What about deferring some of the players' salaries until they reach a certain age and have matured enough to use it more wisely?

We hear about mentors when the focus should be on sponsors -- someone who goes beyond pointing athletes in the right direction, helping to personally make the introductions that make all the difference.

At the college level, Title IX forced the NCAA to account for women's athletics. Why can't the NCAA implement a senior level position for player and community development?

The average NFL career lasts only a few years. The game requires a player's unconditional investment while promising a very conditional and one-dimensional return. It produces too many athletes unprepared for anything else. More of them than we know will have thoughts like the ones I had coming around that curve in Kinston, N.C.

It's time to do more about it.

George Koonce played professional football for 10 years -- eight years in Green Bay, one year in Seattle and one year in NFL Europe -- and helped the Green Bay Packers to the Super Bowl XXXI title. Koonce has served as senior associate athletics director at Marquette University, athletics director at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, director of player development for the Packers and special assistant to the athletic director at East Carolina University. In his current role as director of development for Marquette, Koonce raises money for the Urban Scholars Program, which affords first-generation college students from diverse backgrounds opportunities to receive college educations.

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