Commentary

How do you cope when it's over?

Updated: May 11, 2012, 6:29 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

I never fully considered the emotional impact retirement has on professional athletes. My reaction was never rooted in empathy. Sure, I saw them cry at the podium and certainly respected that they'd miss their passion.

But these were blessed individuals, compensated handsomely for years, for literally living the dream. They're rich and they're famous, and they achieved both by playing a game. I wasn't apt to feel especially sorry for them when it ended.

But in the wake of intense, honest context from men I admire tremendously, I am now.

While driving down the highway recently, I was listening to Charlotte's daily drive-time sports talk program. My buddy Taylor Zarzour is the host, and he was interviewing John Feinstein, the renowned sports author who penned best-selling works such as "A Good Walk Spoiled," "A Season on the Brink" and "A Civil War: Army vs. Navy."

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During the interview, Zarzour broached Junior Seau's tragic suicide, and noted the escalating concern in the sports community about traumatic brain injuries in football. Feinstein promptly responded with a poignant, train-stopping comment:

Athletes die twice.

I turned up the radio.

Feinstein expounded on the comment by noting that, upon retirement, the world as a professional athlete has always known it no longer exists, and that he or she must completely relearn how to function in society. He then cited the difficulty many former athletes experience in the taxing attempt to acclimate themselves to what most of us consider normal.

The stringent nature and structured routine required to achieve professional sporting excellence is no longer necessary. And even more dynamic than that, the doting adulation and attention from fans, media, family and most everyone else in their midst vanishes.

Just like that. Poof: It's gone.

You're the man. And then you're not.

"As an athlete your identity is tied up in what you've done. It's your platform," three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip said. "So when that's taken away you get a little nervous, scared about 'Where do I go from here?' "

Brad Daugherty was the No. 1 pick in the 1986 NBA draft, and retired as the Cleveland Cavaliers all-time leading scorer. His career was cut short at age 30 by injury. He'd spent two decades molding and willing himself into one of the greatest performers in his trade. And then it was over.

[+] EnlargeBrad Daugherty
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesBrad Daugherty said hearing the word "former" before his name still hurts.

"One day I was one of the top five in my sport, the next day I'm told, 'You're done,' " Daugherty said. "You lose that identity, and as it goes away you hear the word 'former.' That word stings. It hurts. So when you see what happens to guys like Junior Seau or Dave Duerson -- I hate that it came to that, but a little piece of me understands it. That scares me a little bit."

That, then, prompted me to ponder how some of NASCAR's greatest competitors were impacted by retirement. Granted, NASCAR drivers have a much greater opportunity to remain involved in the industry than athletes from most other sports, based on sheer numbers. There are thousands of retired football and baseball players.

By comparison there are but a handful of retired Cup drivers. But there is an evil dichotomy here: Racing careers for the great ones are generally longer than football, basketball or baseball careers -- and therefore so is the length of opportunity to compete, the sustained adulation by fans and, most importantly, earning potential.

It's there for years. And then it's not.

Moreover, in racing it's all about the driver. In other sports it's about the team.

"Most of us -- competitors in football, basketball, baseball, golf, whatever -- you've done that for a very long period of time, and that will and desire to compete doesn't just go away," said 1999 NASCAR champion Dale Jarrett, winner of three Daytona 500s. "So where do you channel that? I've had a really difficult time with that."

Daugherty did, too. He spent four years golfing, fishing and hunting. The luster wore off quickly, and he was miserable.

"If I could go play today, right now, you could keep the damn money," Daugherty said. "I want to feel that competition again. [Forget] the money. I'd play for free if you'd just let me go out and feel that desire to win again. Nothing replaces it."

Jarrett figured his love of golf would ease the transition. In retirement he would have time to play the tournaments in which he'd long dreamed of competing.

"It hasn't come close," he said. "It just wasn't as important as competing for my livelihood was. There are a lot of days and nights I've struggled with it, and haven't handled it well.

"We all have egos and those were stroked while we were competing, and when you get out of there you lose a lot of that. Darrell [Waltrip] and Rusty [Wallace] are Hall of Fame drivers and that's nice for them, but that doesn't replace it. They're still not competing. That's difficult, and again, I haven't handled it well.

"As I see the way other athletes handle it -- some go completely broke. And some end up like Junior Seau. It's awful."

Former NFL All-Pro Mark Schlereth isn't so certain Seau's grief was centered on losing the game. The void in retirement for Seau, he said, was unity.

"Where else in the world do you get that camaraderie, where you care more for the guys you play with than your own well-being and your own health, where if somebody takes a cheap shot at you, you know you have 10 other guys ready give him the business?" Schlereth said. "This bounty deal? That's a guy thing.

"It's just a tight bond and an emotional attachment. It's family. And then all the sudden it's gone. It ends just like that. It's your own fault as an athlete -- you feel like a pariah, like you're not welcome anymore or worth it anymore. You got into a feeling of, 'I no longer belong.' That's devastating to a man."

Mike Hampton played 16 seasons in the major leagues, was a two-time All-Star and led the National League with 22 wins in 1999 while playing for the Houston Astros. In 2001, he signed an eight-year, $121 million contract with the Colorado Rockies, but injuries plagued the remainder of his career. He retired in March 2011, and spent six months laying on his couch wondering what was next.

"It's the deepest, darkest, quietest place you've ever been," Hampton said. "You don't know which direction to go. I've played baseball my whole life, and I know I can do that well. I can compete with anyone at anything, physically. But when your body goes, what do you do then? You have to totally reinvent yourself. There's some self-doubt there. You have to go find the confidence."

Jarrett said he battled depression, and that there were days he struggled to get out of bed for fear he no longer made a difference in others' lives. He said he became difficult to live with, and it ultimately impacted his personal life.

"I have been depressed, yes. Many times and many days," Jarrett said. "I never thought of myself like that. There were times I was so depressed after I retired that I didn't know what it would take to get out of that.

"I don't have any doubt that's a definite factor in my going through a divorce. I became more difficult to be around and more difficult to live with. It's been one of the most difficult things I've ever had to deal with in my entire life."

There were plenty of tough days during Jarrett's career. But he considers himself an eternal optimist, ever-positive and always capable of compartmentalizing professional setbacks and recycling them as fuel to succeed.

It worked. Until the motor fell silent.

[+] EnlargeDale Jarrett
John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCARDale Jarrett said his retirement from the driver's seat was hard on him, and his personal life.

"You're left with the question of, 'What do I do in life now?' " he said. "Not that what I was doing was changing people's lives. It's not like being a doctor. My job was for my entertainment and enjoyment, and in that sense then giving others the same thing. You don't have that anymore. Suddenly you start questioning your self-worth."

Waltrip and Wallace relate well. Wallace repeatedly second-guessed his decision to retire following the 2005 NASCAR season, despite praise from his most-trusted friends, family members and colleagues -- including longtime partner and team owner Roger Penske -- that it was the right choice.

The support was appreciated but didn't help. Those were other folks' opinions. Not Wallace's. And outside opinions don't ease a man's fears when his own inclination stokes them.

Wallace was a racecar driver. It was his core business and what he was born to do. And he was willfully quitting. He had an enticing job offer from ESPN that would solidify his future beyond the cockpit, and he knew it may not come around again. He wanted to spend more time at home with his family and didn't want to press his luck in getting injured.

So he retired.

"I had to go back and dream up the reason I was retiring," said Wallace, NASCAR's 1989 champion and winner of 55 races at the sport's top level. "I was really torn. I really doubted my decision.

"I still second-guess it. When you take your core business away and put yourself out there it's very, very scary. The first year [of retirement] for me was a very tough year. The second year was even worse."

It can be a terrifying revelation when who you are … isn't who you were.

"There's an itinerary that is your life," Daugherty said. "When that comes to a halt it's very sobering. The adulation starts to wane and you have to be reminded every day that it's no longer about you, and your schedule gets goofy because that 24-hour-a-day schedule is no longer applicable.

"When that stops, it's a grinding halt. There's no easy transition. You hear analysts say, 'Well, the guy at least got to go out on his own terms.' That's bull----. Just bull----. I don't care if you play 50 years or have a farewell tour -- it doesn't hurt any less. Call it narcissism. Maybe. But it's the damn truth. And it's scary."

Waltrip experienced the same emotion.

"What do I do now? People are going to forget me. Nobody's going to remember me. I'll just become a statistic. All of those things go through your mind," Waltrip said.

"And in a lot of cases, if you look around at other sports particularly, a lot of those guys end up with big problems, whether it's drug problems, mental problems, social problems, whatever. And I think that's a lot of it -- you're just lost."

Ricky Craven was lost -- and in denial -- when he retired.

"I left the window cracked, because there's such insecurity with saying, 'Hey, I'm done,'" Craven said. "The thing about being a racecar driver is no one has to ask how you're doing -- the damn scoreboard told you how I was doing.

"It is definitely a 'lost' feeling. I always had direction. My whole life I woke up for one reason: to haul ass. Suddenly I didn't have that anymore. There are very few retirement parties in this business. I don't think people know how to end the deal. It's dominated your life. It's extremely uncomfortable."

When he retired, in 2006 after winning the NASCAR Truck Series event at Martinsville Speedway, Craven took an entire year off to reprioritize his life. It proved to be a poor decision.

"That was the biggest mistake I made, was to take a year and do nothing," he said. "Other than the time I spent with my kids in Maine doing things with them I never had time for before, that was the worst year of my life.

"The idea of doing nothing -- that's the American Dream, right? That's called retirement? It's a lonely place."

Waltrip negotiated depression during the final two seasons of his career, when he says his legacy was compromised by mediocrity. This was a man that won three championships in five seasons in the early '80s, and 84 Cup races -- more than all but two men in NASCAR history, Richard Petty and David Pearson.

And in the twilight of his career he was an afterthought.

[+] EnlargeDarrell Waltrip
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCARHall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip said one of the first questions a star has to wonder about upon retirement is where they go from there.

That stings.

"The career that I'd had -- my star was tarnished. My reputation was tarnished," Waltrip said. "That hurt me worse than retiring, and made retiring a bit of a relief for me. I finally got away from that pressure of not being able to perform like people had seen me perform, and expected me to perform. If there's a relief to it, it's that."

There is no relief in retirement for Wallace. He says the lowest point in his life came when he called the 2007 Indianapolis 500 on ABC. As he describes it, he was "big-leaguing" a little bit, asking for this and that and upsetting his bosses in the process.

"It was a real low day," Wallace recalls. "It was a day I wanted to say screw it and go back to driving. I was depressed that day. It was very, very upsetting and humiliating for me. But I got over it and moved on. I'm not depressed now. I'm fine. But there was a point I was depressed. It was snap shots of depression, not, 'Oh my God I'm dying.'

"There was doubt, sadness and confusion. It wasn't a master plan, like, 'I can't wait to get out of this car and move on to my next life.' It was doubt. Doubt. Doubt. Doubt. People tell you, 'You made the right decision.' But you don't believe that. It never registers."

The biggest adjustment is lifestyle. Waltrip said athletes grow accustomed to having others wait on them, and, as silly as it sounds, he said they must learn how to care for themselves. And then there's money.

"You're going to have to make a dramatic adjustment in your lifestyle, unless you're like some guys who are very successful after you retire," Waltrip said. "But most athletes are faced with, 'What do I do financially? How am I going to keep the lifestyle I'm accustomed to?' "

Wallace faced that challenge. He said his total annual income was dramatically impacted.

"It's a massive hit in salary from what you're used to making -- probably a 75 percent hit in what you actually bring in," Wallace said. "So suddenly it's a different style of life now. I wasn't the guy making the decisions or the center of attention anymore. I was just one of the guys."

Craven is a numbers guy. In his first year of retirement he immersed himself in the cost-of-living adjustment between how much it cost him to live versus what it should cost him to live. He estimated spending 20 hours a week poring over diversification opportunities, cost-cutting and eliminating unnecessary expenses.

As a result, he said his lifestyle today is "probably half" what it was when he was racing.

[+] EnlargeRusty Wallace
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRusty Wallace said he would drive again tomorrow.

"The world we lived in was pretend," Craven said. "I had to learn reality."

Schlereth said there's a learning curve for all professional athletes upon retirement; that life requires a total recalibration of his or her personal financial structure. But the competitive fire that drives them in the competitive arena can create trouble in the business world.

"You miss the thrill of the competition. Marvin Harrison once said, 'I play Sundays for free. I get paid to practice.' There's no other place you can feel that competition," Schlereth said.

"So to try to find it, we get into businesses we know nothing about, and because we're competitive we're willing to take risks that are financially ludicrous. People take advantage of that. Most of us, myself included, have done that and are like, 'that was a gigantic mistake.' "

Wallace said his entire world has changed post-retirement, and he is mortified that he had to discontinue fielding a Nationwide Series team for his son, Steve, due to lack of sponsorship funding.

"I always was the guy that found the sponsors, but kissing-ass wore me out, trying to find money all the damn time," he said. "I have three massively beautiful shops right here [in Mooresville, N.C.], and we're not racing. It's not being used correctly. I'm humiliated by that."

That's not all that hurts Wallace.

Wallace was recently the grand marshal of the Shenandoah Valley Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Va., where he joined other celebrities such as Doug Flutie, Tony Dorsett and Mario Lopez in a parade before thousands of onlookers.

He estimated there were some 250,000 people in attendance, and as he rode along in the parade he noticed many of them carried signs imploring him to come out of retirement and race again.

"The signs said, 'Rusty, we need you back and the sport needs you back,' " he said. "They're all hollering that stuff. That drives you crazy.

"Not a day goes by I don't wish I was still in that car, racing it. You're empty. You just feel empty."

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