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Former Packers’ LB George Koonce: Lack of a Transition Prep is Killing NFL Players, Not Concussions

If there is one thing you have a chance to read, I suggest this column by former Packers linebacker George Koonce, who is now working in Marquette University’s athletic department.  Koonce is wrapping up is Ph. D dissertation and submitted it on the day former San Diego linebacker Junior Seau took his own life.

Koonce believes that it is not concussions which are causing so many tragic ends for ex-NFL players, but the lack of transition program back to regular life — if such a thing even existed for NFL players who’ve spent their whole existence trying to get the NFL — between the league, its union, and its players is leaving many ex-players lost and unable to function outside of football.  This is because so many players are used to their roles as players, they know nothing else.

And so, with that sense of self shattered, they tend to go into immense depressions; which may end in tragedy.

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.

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 three seasons of “Law & Order” and watching them 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. [KJB – Koonce opens the essay talking about a near-death accident where he took a 25 mph curve at 75 mph. He called the accident a subconscious suicide attempt.]

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.

Koonce is likely closer to the truth than any sports commentator out there on the subject; many of which have been quick to blame post-concussion syndrome on deaths in ex-NFL players.  The reality is Koonce is pointing out what many others in countless positions have dealt with when the role they’ve been doing their entire life ends suddenly.  For NFL players, that “suddenly” is pretty damn early in their lives.

Sometimes it’s called “Empty Nest Syndrome” in long-time parents.  Sometimes it’s called something else.  Our roles help define us; and sometimes without them, they lead to our own destruction.

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