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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