NBA, NHL, and MLB players leave their respective sports every year, but we don’t hear nearly as much about them struggling to adapt to life after leaving the sport. Sure, there are guys who blow through their money, but that’s usually about stupidity and living too high off the hog. I’m talking about players struggling to adjust to life without their sport.
Many football players truly struggle when they leave the game. Why? Football is a drug. And there is no substitute.
NFL 16 games a year
MLB 162 games
NBA 82 games
NHL 82 games
Football is a process sport. You train, plan, prepare, practice, and then play. You only have one game a week. The other sports are all about the games. Ray Lewis has been in the NFL since 1996 and has played in “just” 222 games. A second year baseball player could have passed that total by the all star game break this year.
Football isn’t fun, at least not in general sense of the word. It is work. Go look at an NFL playbook. There is nothing else like it in sports. The other leagues are free flowing action where you’re reacting on the fly an awful lot. There is obviously a lot of preparation done in other sports, but nothing that compares to football.
The men who succeed in football are truly invested in the sport. They spend all week working and preparing so that they get to go play for 3 hours each week. The games are special. They are an event. Ronnie Lott once sacrificed part of a pinkie so that he would not miss a game. Jack Youngblood played multiple games on a broken leg. He asked for a lot of aspirin and a really good tape job. Football players suffer a concussion and their first reaction is to shake it off and stay in the game. Think about that for a second. Who would suffer major brain trauma and not want to come off the field to get checked out?
Many football players live and die for the game. They have built their life around the sport and it is all they know. This isn’t about fame, celebrity, or money. I’m talking about football itself. There are a few reasons that it is so special.
Football is the greatest team sport of them all. In the NBA you can acquire a couple of superstars and instantly be a championship contender (Clippers just this year). We’ve seen World Series titles bought and paid for in baseball (Marlins, Yankees). Hockey is very much a team sport, but one player can make a huge difference in a franchise (Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, etc.). Football remains the ultimate team game. Barry Sanders never made it to a Super Bowl. Dan Marino got to just one. The Colts had more superstars than the Patriots, but it was New England that won more titles.
Being part of a football team is special. It can build bonds that last forever. There are friendships that develop in the locker room that go beyond position, age, race…whatever guys should have in common. Back in 2003 the Pats cut veteran SS Lawyer Milloy. Tom Brady drove to Milloy’s house and asked him if there was something he could or should do to help Milloy out. Lawyer said no, that’s just the business part of football. Brady was a young QB back then, but he knew how important Milloy was to the locker room. He wasn’t about to lose a leader and good player if there was something he could do about it.
Remember the stories about Barry Bonds and his huge locker in SF? He had a recliner and a TV in there. Joe Montana would have never gotten away with something like that. Because all 53 guys are so important in football, there is a camaraderie that doesn’t necessarily exist in all the other sports.
A big part of what makes football so special is the primal nature of the sport. You get to hit other players. They get to hit you. It has a caveman element to it. That touches into some parts of the psyche and soul that other games don’t know even exists. You can have a mild-mannered guy like Merlin Olsen step onto the football field and almost become a whole other person. The same is true with many others. Brian Dawkins is a great example from recent years. Off the field, he was a calm person with a nice smile and friendly demeanor. On Sundays he became Wolverine or Weapon X. He was a ball of fiery emotions that ran around at 100 mph and wanted to physically destroy whatever was in front of him. There are also guys like Kyle Turley who were kinda crazy on and off the field.
We love to use the word “warrior” in regard to athletes. No one is truly comparing them to soldiers of the present or the warriors of the past. As primal as football is, it is still very much a game. While death isn’t part of the equation, there is a kind of physical suffering that makes up football and brings the word warrior into play. Remember Emmitt Smith in 1993 running over the Giants despite his shoulder injury? There was intense physical pain every time he got hit, but like one of Pavlov’s dogs, Smith ran back to the huddle after every play and got ready for the next hit. Remember the famous image of Kellen Winslow after the SD/MIA playoff game in 1982? The man had given literally everything he could to help the Chargers win that dramatic OT game. He had to be helped off the field. When was the last time an NBA player was too exhausted to make it to the locker room? Baseball isn’t even in this conversation. Hockey players who go through the marathon OT playoff games are the guys who know best what this is like.
Think about playing in the elements. That puts a stress on football players that isn’t there for basketball or hockey. Baseball players do deal with heat and light rain, but have never played through a blizzard or day when it is -40 with the windchill factor. Again, this ties into the primal side of things. Playing a game in miserable conditions touches on some innate part of being tough. It is brutally cold/hot/wet/snowy. No normal human should want to be outside. But football players are there and ready to play a game in such conditions. They may not be happy about it, but they have a certain macho pride in doing so.
When you think about it, suffering is a big part of football. You play a game on a bad ankle when it is cold outside and should feel miserable, but instead that is the happiest 3 hours of the week because you got to play. You were on the field with your football brothers, all working toward a common goal.
Nothing outside of football is like this. Coaching is light years different. Business? Nope. Entertainment? Nope. Broadcasting? Nope. Nothing. Football is unique.
This isn’t about just playing a game, although that is part of it. You can play an intense game of pickup basketball. You can go play competitive softball or even some adult league baseball. You can skate around and shoot some pucks. You can play street hockey. In Canada I would think there are plenty of adult hockey leagues. Football is a different beast. The body can’t take playing tackle football beyond a certain point. You could play touch or flag, but that’s a different sport. And that’s part of the point. Football isn’t something that is always there. At some point you make a permanent break.
When some players walk away from football, it is the hardest thing they’ve ever had to do. Some are lucky and are able to put it in their rear view mirror and move on quickly. Others truly struggle with leaving behind the game they love. They won’t find that kind of brotherhood anywhere else. They won’t find any other job with that kind of primal nature and physicality to it. Oh sure, they could join the army, but that would involve a whole other level of sacrifice.
We don’t know why Junior Seau killed himself, but I would be that one issue is that he simply couldn’t find anything to fill the void left by retiring from football. We do know that a lot of football players struggle after retiring. Depression, divorce, and destructive behavior are some of the key problems for retired players. “Civilian life”, so to speak, has to be boring. Sure you might have some money, but how do you replace the mental, physical, and emotional challenges that football presented on a weekly basis? You really can’t. Football is a drug, and a very, very powerful one at that.