Life as an NFL Player Can Be a Glorious Ride Until the Ever-after Part Hits
It was March of 2000, probably a few years earlier than Aaron Taylor anticipated retiring when he entered the NFL in 1994, but at that point, the pain in his surgically repaired knees was in that medical purgatory where it was far too agonizing to continue playing offensive line but they were fortunately still functional enough for him to lead a normal life.
So while a six-season NFL career wasn't exactly what he drew up on the chalkboard, Taylor outwardly was in a pretty glorious place in retirement, all things considered. The former college All-American and first-round pick in the 1994 draft had been prudent with his money and invested wisely. He had no debt, no wife, no kids, a Super Bowl ring he'd earned with the Green Bay Packers, a degree from the University of Notre Dame and a house in Southern California.
The world was his oyster, and all in all, retired life for Aaron Taylor was pretty goddamn perfect, right? Well, for a while, perhaps, yes.
"At first, retiring for me was a huge relief because I was in so much physical pain, I was glad it was over," recalled Taylor. "And the first couple months of retirement are actually fun because you're missing OTAs [organized team activities] and minicamp, and you feel like you're playing hooky. But that euphoria doesn't last long."
Eventually, NFL training camp rolled around in 2000, and for the first time in his adult life, Taylor had nowhere to be and nothing to do. It was scary as hell, and Taylor soon found himself in a dark place that, sadly, a majority of NFL players experience to some degree after retiring from the game — an empty daily existence fraught with depression and identity issues whose figurative seeds are sowed, unbeknownst to the players, the moment they enter the National Football League.
"From the time we arrive in the NFL, we are handed a schedule and a game plan for everything," Taylor explains. "We are totally programmed, and all we're asked to do is go execute. It's the ironic beauty of football — it's a vocation that allows us to excel without thinking too much. The problem is that it's all-consuming, so when it's over, you're left literally wondering, 'Who am I without the game of football? What is my purpose here?'"
With a pending billion-dollar lawsuit against the league (not to mention a 2015 feature film, Concussion) that is centered on brain disease and head trauma in former NFL players, the average football-watching fan is likely more aware of the pain endured by retired football players than he was, say, five or ten years ago. However, the misery Taylor and countless other players have undergone is a little more latent and harder to detect from the outside than the physical injuries, in part because of the intangible nature of emotional discord, and in part because NFL players have always been conditioned to subdue emotion and never show vulnerability, which works fine on the football field but horrifically in real life.
"From the time we were drafted, coaches demanded that we have on our 'game face' and show no emotion," said Taylor. "If we're being honest, the only thing the NFL truly values is a player not being a pussy. So as a result, we suffer in silence, and unfortunately we continue to suffer in silence once we're out of the game. We do that until we hit rock bottom."
Aaron Taylor says that the hardest part about retirement was the loss of identity and purpose.
Courtesy of Aaron Taylor
For retired NFL players, rock bottom can mean bankruptcy, divorce, chemical dependency or some combination of the three. A 2009 study found that 78 percent of retired NFL players experience one or more of these hardships within two seasons of retiring.
Taylor was one player in that 78 percent, having drunk himself silly through the first year and a half of his post-career identity crisis before eventually seeking help, going through the 12-step process and getting sober practically two years to the day after he retired from the NFL. "I was an ax-swinging motherfucker when I was in the league, man," said Taylor. "So finding the humility to admit I needed help was the hardest part for me."
Like Taylor, former Patriots linebacker and current Houston talk show host Ted Johnson retired from the game with championship hardware (three Super Bowl rings in all) and universal respect, both of which made him a tremendously popular player in a sports-crazed town. Unfortunately, a decade of using his head as his prime weapon for tackling — Johnson was known around the league as "Cement Head Ted" — left him with countless concussions, which led to his retiring prior to the 2005 season.
Physically, Johnson was ready for retirement, but emotionally, as with many players before him, life in the real world was a daunting prospect. "You go from having seemingly every minute accounted for in your day to having nothing to do," Johnson said. "It's hard to explain, but you leave the game and there's almost a level of shame in trying to acclimate yourself to everyday life. It feels like you no longer have a purpose."
Johnson's difficulties post-career were exacerbated by not only his concussions but also his courageous decision to go public in a 2007 New York Times interview in which he revealed that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick forced him to practice with concussions in 2002. The backlash from that interview left Johnson ostracized in the Boston area and contributed to chemical dependency issues that sent him to rehab on multiple occasions.
While some players are able to dodge the trappings of post-retirement financial, marital or chemical problems, some degree of depression is nearly unavoidable, and whether they like it or not, players will end up executing the five Kubler-Ross stages of grief for the end of their careers the same way they executed a play-action pass downfield.
"I don't care what anybody says, no player is prepared for the void you feel after retiring from football," contends former Houston Texans wide receiver David Anderson. "I've never taken crack, but I would imagine the high you get is like the high we got from competing in the NFL."
Anderson retired in 2011 after six seasons in the league. A seventh-round draft choice in 2006 out of Colorado State, Anderson was able to overcome his relatively diminutive size, carve out a decent living and leave the game relatively healthy. "I never needed any surgeries," he said. "Just a few concussions, that was it."
While he still enjoys watching the game of football, Anderson has no desire even to toss a football around as a form of activity. "I've played thousands of pickup basketball games and soccer games since I retired," said Anderson. "I've played maybe 45 minutes of football, tops. I can't do it. It's not the same. It's depressing."
Former Texan Chris Myers’s transition to retirement has included work in radio and coaching.
The degree to which players are able to adjust to life after football, or at the very least quell some of the despair that comes from the void created by retirement, seems to be proportional to the support groups and resources available to them. Former Houston Texans center Chris Myers retired last year after being released in March 2015, concluding a ten-year career that saw him make several million dollars along the way. Married with a family of four, Myers has enough distractions at home to at least keep him busy, even if he experiences the same aftereffects that take some guys into a much darker place.
"The first thing you notice is the emptiness," Myers said. "There was a structure to every single day, and not having that anymore, there's a sense of loss. The bad thing is, without football, guys can wind up dealing with their families the same way they dealt with football, and that type of aggressiveness doesn't work at home. The transition to being outside of the football life can be really difficult."
Myers deals with the change by almost subconsciously reinserting some version of football structure into his life on a daily basis. "Certain guys don't like the monotony of football, but you live it and you still live it afterwards," he said. "I still wake up early every morning at the same time I did when I was in the league.
"For ten years, I knew what I was supposed to do every day, and now, well…"
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the post-football career trauma experienced by former NFL players is the asymmetrical nature of their life experience and career timelines compared with those of regular, everyday folk. Most people experience the competition of establishing themselves in some long-term career path in their twenties and early thirties and then achieve their biggest fiscal earnings in their forties and fifties or later.
Conversely, football players are the exact opposite. They do a massive chunk of their earning before they even turn 25 or 26 (that immaturity being a major reason why there are so many bankruptcies, by the way), and find themselves at their "real-world" starting line in their early thirties, competing in a race where the system they experienced in the NFL can impede their ability to hit the ground running, if they ever get running at all.
On top of that, Detroit Lions safety James Ihedigbo, a nine-year veteran who is nearing his retirement years, maintains that an unhealthy view of wealth exists around the league. "Guys are taught from their rookie year moving forward that they're supposed to take the money they make in the NFL and make it last a lifetime," said Ihedigbo. "That creates a foolish sense of security and a stagnant mind-set that I think contributes to guys' not knowing what to do once they're out of football."
Myers goes as far as to say that there are numerous players who lack even basic financial literacy. "I've seen guys who have filed taxes for two or three years and not known what a W-2 is," Myers claimed. "I've seen guys who don't even bother to put money in the league's 401(k), which matches two dollars for every one dollar up to $10,000. There are guys actually forgoing a free 20 grand every year!"
If more coaches and management viewed NFL players as actual people rather than chess pieces, some of the post-career adjustment problems might be mitigated somewhat; however, the league is a cold business. Players are employees, no more, no less. In a 2015 Newsday survey, 85 percent of 763 former NFL players polled said they did not believe the NFL adequately prepared them for life after football.
"While we're playing, the league doesn't -really educate players at all on finances and life after football," claims Ihedigbo. "The league cares about the league and making money. They don't care about life after football. They want you to abide by the rules, carry yourself accordingly, and once you're done, it's 'best of luck.' No different than any other business, really. It's up to the individual to be accountable."
So in a league in which 80 percent of retired players wind up financially or emotionally destitute within two years of leaving the game, and virtually 100 percent of retired players are dealing with various kinds of physical ailments, how does this transition phase, with all its metaphorical potholes and land mines, get fixed? Because it has to get fixed, right?
Well, since the implementation of the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011, and even more so since he took over as president of the NFL Players Association in 2014, former Houston Texan and more recently Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Eric Winston has been focused on this very thing — the seamless transition of retired NFL players from the league to society.
"In 2011, during the work stoppage, that was one of the big things," claimed Winston. "We knew that we had a lot of guys who were out of the game, and they're at Point A, and they know what Point B looks like, but they don't know how to get to Point B, and we needed to find a way to get them there."
The solution was the NFLPA's creation of The Trust, which is described on its website as "a set of resources, programs, and services designed to provide former players with the support, skills, and tools to help ensure success off the field and in life after football." Its creation was a revolutionary step for a league and a union that had watched previous generations of battered players pretty much fend for themselves to find a post-football career and, in turn, a reason to wake up every day.
The Trust claims to offer a "total wellness program." In other words, it operates not only to assess, monitor and aid in the physical health of retired players, but also to assist those same players in getting started on post-football careers, with programs designed to help in everything from generating a résumé to networking with companies and business leaders in a player's city of residence.
Winston says The Trust executes a player-centric process that focuses first on the physical well-being of the player and then on his professional well-being. "One of the first things we do is help them get their paperwork filed for workmen's comp and line of duty, and start getting them healthy," outlines Winston. "Guys are broken and they need fixing, so we say let's get 'the person' right first.
"From there, The Trust asks them what they want to do," Winston continued. "We can have them take an aptitude test, we can create connections in cities that allow networking, help them get their degree with tuition assistance, help build their resume." Anderson is one example of a player who has taken advantage of the tuition assistance, having had nearly 80 percent of his tuition paid for by The Trust and the NFL in receiving his graduate degree from the University of Southern California. Today, Anderson works for a sports analytics start-up company called Second Spectrum.
All the services The Trust provides are free of charge to players who have two or more years of credited service in the league. On paper, this is a huge benefit for former players, and acceptance of it is growing by the day. "It's not an easy process, but we have 1,700 enrollees. The big thing is word of mouth and getting guys to buy into it," said Winston.
As someone who himself is nearing retirement sometime in the next few years, Winston is sensitive to the need for former players to have a purpose in life, and he knows that the plight and depression of those leaving the game are generated by everything from the game's aggressive culture to the semantics of the word "retirement."
"I've thought for a long time that the worst thing we do is use the word 'retirement' when talking about football players because it implies some sort of finality when it comes to actually working," Winston said. "It's like that word implies that guys are done working, and it's time to hit the beach and live the good life. It's a dangerous word. I prefer to call them 'former' players, not 'retired' players."
While the long hours and soul-crushing grind of the NFL are a big reason players leave the game inadequately programmed for the real world, Winston theorizes that it can be those very things that make a former NFL player attractive to a company or organization.
"Even the most well-adjusted guys struggle, and it's strange: The longer they play football, the less qualified guys feel they are to do anything else," said Winston. "Guys don't realize, though, how unique it is that they've worked 12- to 15-hour days constantly for years, and how that stacks up when they're working with regular people. Football players bring something unique to the table."
Convincing and communicating to NFL players that their workplace, with its average career of a little more than three years and an average annual salary of $2 million, can somehow actually facilitate normalcy after they retire is a massive but necessary step. As much as we all enjoy our fantasy football drafts and our Sundays in the fall, it's pretty eye-opening that the transition of the average NFL player to regular society probably best mirrors the transition of paroled prisoner Red in Shawshank Redemption, in which the character actually wishes he could go back to prison because he misses its mindless routine and draconian structure.
On a related note, in that aforementioned Newsday survey from 2015, 61 percent of former players said they found it difficult to adjust to daily life after their NFL careers, and 89 percent said that, despite the medical and emotional difficulties they were experiencing as a result of football, they would do it all over again.
When it comes to explaining the transition to life after football, Aaron Taylor prefers an analogy in which he sees every NFL player driving toward a cliff, and that cliff is retirement from the NFL. "We are all going to drive off that cliff, but some will do it with more velocity," Taylor explains. "That velocity is generated by money, by resources. Guys like Drew Bledsoe, with their health and tens of millions of dollars in the bank, will go off the cliff at a high speed, fly far and land softly. Other guys, with less money, less resources, less velocity, they'll plummet straight down and land hard.
"Most guys in the league land hard," Taylor conceded.
While the removal of structure and interpersonal camaraderie with the other players is a huge reason retired players tumble emotionally, Taylor believes the biggest reason is that, unlike with other jobs, when players are fired from football, they are fired from the industry permanently. "Think about it. If you're a banker or a chef or nearly any other occupation, and you get fired, there's always another bank or restaurant or whatever," said Taylor. "But there's only one National Football League, and when you're asked to leave, it's forever. It's hard to put into words how frightening that is for guys."
Still an active player and president of the NFLPA, Eric Winston hopes to help make post-career life better for all NFL players.
Communication is a huge key to substantive change in the quality of the lives of former NFL players, specifically players' doing away with the macho notion that they keep depression and anxiety to themselves. One of the flash points in the awareness of brain trauma and depression in former players was the 2012 suicide of Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, whose friends claim to this day that they didn't see any outward signs that he was ready to take his own life.
The fact is that the tougher a guy appears to be, the less those around him think he needs help. Seau obviously needed help in the worst way possible. "Junior Seau embodied an otherworldly level of toughness," said Taylor, who was a teammate of Seau's in San Diego. "I knew he had issues; I took him to A.A. meetings with me. His death really shook people up."
If there can be a positive pulled from the fire of a tragedy like Seau's death, though, it is indeed the resulting attention to the plight of bruised and battered retired players, and that the tide seems to have turned for them in their fight for resources and help after their careers.
There is most assuredly still more work to do. On the NFL Players Association side of things, Myers believes more communication with players during their athletic careers on post-player planning is a necessity. "We need to come up with any program we can to communicate to guys and make them knowledgeable about finances and life after football while they're playing," said Myers. "I've even thought about a program that communicates this to guys before they get into the league."
Even with the enhanced post-career preparation programs available to players, there will always be a degree of trial and error when it comes to guys' identifying their optimal career paths. Anderson flirted with a radio career before settling upon graduate school and his current employer (although he jokes that he would still rather just "roller-blade all day in a Speedo and spend the rest of [his] money"). Upon sobriety, Taylor backpacked through Europe for a couple of months as an active way to figure out his purpose in life. He thought it would be as a teacher, until ABC called to hire him as a college football analyst in 2002, a position that he now holds with CBS.
Myers is moving his family to Philadelphia later this year, into a brand-new dream home that ten years in the NFL allowed him to build. He is still adjusting to life after football and for now appears to have taken a liking to coaching, specifically training NFL draft prospects, but he's still figuring things out. Winston might come back for another year with the Bengals, but either way, his tenure as president of the NFLPA has given him a crash course in finding that post-NFL purpose.
"It's allowed me a glimpse at the future while I'm still playing," Winston said. "I've learned a ton about running a business. Understanding, learning, it's been out of sight."
The NFL has never been more popular and more lucrative than it is at this very moment. Every financial metric says the game is healthier than it's ever been. It would stand to reason that the most important employees, the ones who truly are the product, would have a chance for similar health after they're done playing, so there don't need to be any more Junior Seaus and so that the 78 percent of retired players who are bankrupt, divorced or chemically dependent within two years dwindles to a much smaller number.
There is an old, morbid saying that football players die twice — once when they retire and again when they actually die. It encapsulates the abyss of despair players have tumbled into for decades upon retirement.
Going forward, Winston would like to see that metaphor turned completely on its head, and tell every retired player: "You climbed the mountain one time; you can do it again."
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.