Commentary

Life after NFL a challenge for many

After living the dream on the field, players struggle with transition to real world

Originally Published: May 31, 2012
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Tiki Barber can't say exactly how the routine started a couple of years ago. He knows only that it came as easily to him as carrying the football for the New York Giants during his glory years. He'd start his mornings by rolling out of bed, eating a hearty breakfast and nestling into the couch in his Manhattan home. He might call his twin brother, Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber, or a former teammate. After that, he'd sift through his Netflix account to see how best he could fill his day.

Barber watched as much as possible over the next 18 months: "Cheers," "Roseanne," "Dexter." Every set of DVDs was another reason for him to avoid dealing with the uselessness he felt in retirement at age 35. Instead of using his smarts and charisma to become the golden boy many anticipated, Barber was fixating on "The Golden Girls" when his life after football fizzled. "I realized how fast the opportunities disappear," said Barber, who played from 1997 to 2006. "You've been replaced on the field and you've been replaced in people's minds. That's when you start getting depressed."

[+] EnlargeTiki Barber
Kirby Lee/US PresswireWhen Tiki Barber's post-football plans fizzled, the former Giants running back fell into a funk.
The inertia Barber described shouldn't be a revelation to most former NFL players. Anybody who has played long enough understands there is a difficult transition that comes with shelving the shoulder pads forever. What Barber learned firsthand is how debilitating that process can be when your post-football plans fail. Players who've lived a dream life on the field suddenly discover how nightmarish the world can be away from it.

Currently the football-watching world is filled with constant stories about the brutal long-term consequences of concussions. Many suspect the recent suicide of former star linebacker Junior Seau -- who shot himself at age 43 -- is related to the pounding he absorbed for 20 seasons. But former players say issues such as dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy aren't the only major problems associated with retirement. They also know about financial ruin, imploded marriages and the emotional trauma that comes with thinking your life peaked in your 20s.

Terrell Owens hasn't officially retired yet, and he already has blown the $80 million he earned during his career. Warren Sapp recently filed for bankruptcy. Former first-round picks Michael Bennett and William Joseph currently face federal charges of tax fraud and identity theft. Not every player falls into these traps, but a 2009 Sports Illustrated study said that 78 percent of NFL retirees have "gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce" within two years of their careers ending. "You're talking about an identity crisis," said NFL vice president of player engagement and former Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent. "Every athlete has to face the same question when they're done: 'Who am I?'"

"Everybody does go through it to a certain degree," said former NFL quarterback Trent Green, who went into broadcasting after his career. "The hardest part is your daily routine. For 15 years, I knew exactly what I was doing in March, June and September because there was a schedule. When you take that away, you suddenly have a lot more time on your hands. I've been out of the game since 2008, and I still have a tough time with it. I find myself thinking, 'What's my motivation today?'"

Learning to move on

Derrick BrooksJamie Squire/Getty ImagesFormer Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks says players struggle to understand that when they retire from football, they still have to deal with the realities of life.
Lack of structure factors into the problems athletes face after football, but their personalities create big issues as well. Football players are hard-wired to focus on one play at a time, to dismiss potential distractions and quickly forget about costly mistakes. Said former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks: "Players always say the football field is a safe haven, that you can go there and block everything else out. But what do you do when that's gone and you have to deal with life? It can be a double-edged sword. I tell people all the time that you can retire from football. You can't retire from living."

Vincent discovered as much when he retired after the 2006 season. Although he would later work for the NFL Players Association and the Big Ten Network, he washed clothes every day until his wife told him that normal people don't do laundry that often. After that he started cutting the grass three times a week. Vincent said he was only trying to be a good husband, but he literally didn't know what else to do. Less humorous are the stories that make many players cringe.

Former linebacker George Koonce felt so disillusioned after his 10-year career ended in 2003 that he crashed his SUV in a failed suicide attempt that left his wife, Tunisia, begging him to redefine his life. Koonce's problems started toward the end of his career with the Seattle Seahawks.

"I could see the handwriting on the wall," said Koonce, who just received his doctorate in sports administration from Marquette. "But I was still focusing on doing my job on the field. When I left the game and I was waiting for that phone call that never came, that's when things started to get blurry. It's even harder because you feel like you've got nobody to talk to."

Whenever former Denver Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith hears about an ex-player working in the mall or at a nightclub, he thinks about the advice current Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak once gave him as a player. "He said I should play as long as I could because when it's over, it's over," Smith said. "He said of all the guys he knew -- and this was somebody who'd been around the game for 20 years at that point, as a player and coach -- only a handful were doing well. It was a wake-up call for me."

Added Roman Oben, a 12-year NFL veteran who now works as a broadcaster and a regional director for marketing firm Advantage3: "Guys will tell me they're helping with the junior varsity team or trying to get something going. It's hard because they spend the rest of their lives being shadows of who they were at 25."

Barber's own funk deepened the further he moved from the gridiron. Once considered a shoo-in for a successful television career, he flopped as a member of "The Today Show" and watched his divorce from his first wife turn into national news. Said Barber, who now works with international shipping company First Global Xpress: "I couldn't figure out what to do next [after his broadcasting job ended]. It was strange to not have people telling me what to do because that was all I'd ever known. All of a sudden there was a malaise taking over me. I imagine that happens to a lot of players unless they're able to catch on to something."

The problems start early

NFL DraftJonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty ImagesWhen a player is drafted, says NFL VP of player engagement Troy Vincent, "He's not thinking about what's going to happen when he exits. He's thinking that the fun has just begun."
As easy as it is to detect a player's struggles in retirement, the truth is that the problems start long before he ever reaches the NFL. Vincent said the slippery slope begins when a player is recruited in high school and told how bright his future is. The process then speeds up in college, where the athletes have access to immense resources, a willing support network and adoring fans. By the time the player is drafted, there's a pretty good chance he's thoroughly spoiled and surrounded by enablers. Any potential problem -- whether it's fathering children out of wedlock, shaky financial investments or just irresponsible spending habits -- can be overcome because, well, things have always worked out in the past.

That approach is problematic because, as Vincent said, "The player is on the clock from the day he arrives in the NFL. He's not thinking about what's going to happen when he exits. He's thinking that the fun has just begun." Added attorney David Cornwell, a partner for the Atlanta-based firm Gordon & Rees who also has worked as an agent and assistant legal counsel for the league: "The problem isn't that people think the player walks on water. It's that when the player played, he thought he could walk on water."

Such an unchecked ego can lead to the first and most devastating problem for players in retirement: financial ruin. Even though the average NFL career lasts roughly three years -- and the league doesn't offer guaranteed contracts -- there is ample evidence that the longer a player plays, the more likely he is to ignore the financial realities of his world. Some don't fully grasp that eligible retirees can't touch their pensions until they're 45 years old. They can't cash in their 401(k) plans until they're 59½. For a player whose career ends in his early 30s, that's a long time to be hurting for cash.

Some have a hard time comprehending other aspects of money management. When the recession hit in 2008, one league source said former Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis actually walked into the locker room and complained about having to curtail his spending. "Nobody told me this recession affects everybody," he famously said that day. Ivan Thornton, a senior partner with the Fiduciary Management Group, added that players can wind up in bad investments because "the average adviser won't give pushback because he'll get fired. You'll have some players earning 7 percent on their investments, but then they'll be listening to their teammate telling them there's a guy who can get them 18 percent."

Oben often was teased during his days with the Giants for being frugal. His biggest sin? Driving a Toyota Land Cruiser that had 68,000 miles on it. "It's ghetto economics," Oben said. "Guys have been poor for so long that they have to show people how much money they make. But it's not about net worth. It's about self-worth. If you don't have good financial people involved with your family once you get to this point, you're lost. You might win the lottery when you're drafted, but that lottery ticket is over after eight or 10 years."

"If a guy is in his second contract, you can see the debt he's incurred by the time he's in his sixth or seventh year," said Bryan Dennie, director of sports for CFO4ThePro, a firm that manages finances for pro athletes. "That's the guy who you know will be broke. If a guy is spending $29,000 or $39,000 a month and has $2.5 million in the bank, it's hard to make him understand that you can't keep spending like that."

'You can't really catch up'

Rod SmithStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesFormer Broncos WR Rod Smith says he thrived after football because he came into the league as an undrafted free agent who "never wanted to end up as a homeless guy who once played in the NFL."
The most damaging part of such financial ineptitude is the ripple effect it creates. Money woes strain marriages and leave many players scrambling for cash to pay for child support, back taxes or homes and cars purchased for loved ones. Those who can't find work in broadcasting or coaching can quickly panic when the money evaporates. The players who tend to have an easier time dealing with such realities usually either had careers that started without great acclaim or didn't play long in the league.

Smith has thrived after football -- he runs a coffee business that has generated more than $13 million in sales since his 13-year career ended in 2006 -- because he came into the league as an undrafted free agent who "never wanted to end up as a homeless guy who once played in the NFL." On the other hand, Green recently talked to a former teammate who had a decent career but was looking for a job where he had to work only three or four days a week. Brooks, who worked as an ESPN analyst before becoming the president of the Arena Football League's Tampa Bay Storm, sees the same issue.

"When guys tell me they want to be on television, I'll ask if they're willing to broadcast a high school game for nothing to gain experience," Brooks said. "And their response is 'No. I'm such-and-such.' I tell them, 'Well, you're nobody in this game.' You need to put as much effort into this as you put into being a player."

Added Barber: "It's hard for an athlete because you take a different path when you leave college than other kids. For 10 years, you're doing your thing while those other people are climbing the corporate ladder and growing up. Once you get into that game, your peers are much higher than you and you're 30-something years old. You feel like you can't really catch up."

The transition doesn't stop there. Brooks recently had a woman ask him why a player who had such a long career was still working. Oben faced similar comments once he entered the workforce in 2008. "There is an emotional drain that comes with people constantly saying, 'I know you wish you were still out there,'" said Oben. "When I went to work for CBS Outdoors [as an account executive], the hardest part of my job was proving to people why I deserved to be there."

The one thing all retirees agree on is that it takes at least three to five years to find a niche after football. It also doesn't hurt to reach out to friends. Koonce found his way into athletic administration by contacting a trustee at his alma mater, East Carolina, who eventually became a mentor. When Barber failed at a return to football, he received a call from a longtime pal who worked in logistics and implored him to get off his couch. Once Barber started working for that friend, he networked well enough to find his current gig in business development.

Vincent also hopes his program -- which works with players in high school, college and the league -- makes huge strides. He recently attended a seminar taught by a woman who explained how soldiers transition into civilian life and he loved a term she floated called "the new normal." In Vincent's eyes, "the new normal" for NFL retirees is learning how to spend time at home, discover new skills and realize that "there is an expiration date on the body. And when it comes, you'll be judged from the neck up."

That is the same lesson that Brooks learned years ago, shortly after he became a first-round pick of the Buccaneers in 1995. Whenever he'd return home to visit his mother, she'd make him wash his car. One day Brooks decided he'd pay a kid $20 to do the job, and that angered his mother so much that she dirtied the vehicle immediately. Her rationale? She didn't want her son losing touch with the responsibilities of the real world.

It is the same message Barber hopes future retirees learn before their playing days end. "I had a publicist friend recently ask me to help [Rams running back] Steven Jackson with some advice about dealing with life after football," Barber said. "I basically said he should stop hanging out with the cool kids and start hanging out with the rich kids. Because once you stop playing, you're not cool anymore. You're not even relevant."

Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.