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The Inevitable 'Next Step': Transitioning out of the NFL

Updated: May 16, 2023

The life of a professional athlete is vexing and moves at a torrent pace. Often described as being a “cutthroat” industry, the NFL is especially known for having an ominous environment, as there is an inherent uncertainty with the constant roster turnover and a perceived distrust between players and organizations. Although harsh at times, it is understandable as there is an unmitigated competitiveness and drive for excellence across all 32 teams. The NFL lifestyle is notoriously demanding, rigid, and in many ways is completely sequestered from reality. It is what players often described as a “bubble” with an exceptionally nuanced structure that is invariably different than the one most of us ascribe to (1). This culture, standard, and expectation infused into being a professional athlete is very difficult to replicate or understand from the outside. The indelible impression left behind from this bubble fuels the turbulence of the transition process and may explain why many athletes have difficulties finding their ‘next step’.


George Koonce is a name you likely haven’t heard of, despite being a tremendously accomplished individual. Koonce was an undrafted outside linebacker for the Green Bay Packers throughout the 90’s. After earning his way to a very successful 9 year career as an NFL linebacker affording him a super bowl ring, he then went on to earn his masters and PhD in Sport Management (1). But it wasn’t an easy, predicted path for Koonce by any means, and despite what we see of superstar players on television and in media, the uncertain and arduous path for guys like Koonce represents the vast majority of NFL players. Similarly, when it comes to retirement we tend to think only about the celebratory ‘farewell tours’ and press conferences from marquee players. But the reality here is again that rarely do professional athletes even have the opportunity to determine their own exit, as most are either forced out due to injury or a declining skillset, neither of which come with grace.

As evidenced in the quote above, which an excerpt from his powerful book, Is There Life After Football?’, Koonce succinctly describes the realities of having decades of tireless work, sacrifice, and obstacles to reach the NFL mercilessly ripped away. Within an instant, or so it seems, it all unravels right before you. Retirement for most NFL players occurs in a very unexpected and visible manner, compounding the emotional difficulties. This “afterlife” can be a turbulent reality to cope with, which Koonce discusses throughout his book documenting a myriad of firsthand realities from several former NFL athletes. Although there is no way to generalize the story of thousands of individuals, there does appear to be a few central commonalities that effect most NFL retirees. For the sake of this article, we will look at three primary areas that seem to give athletes the most difficulty while transitioning out of professional sports.

If we put aside for a moment the perceived financial status and clout of professional athletes, it can help us to humanize and relate to these individuals on a better level. For instance, among the general public, personal health and wellness are among the strongest and most common drivers of individual stress and anxiety levels. Not to mention, another top ranking stressor? Being fired from work. Beyond that, most of us can relate to being in unfamiliar and uncomfortable social settings, and understanding the difficulty that can come with reshaping your social circles. For most NFL retirees, who in most cases are still in their late 20’s-early 30’s, there is a copious amount of stress and anxiety being forced out of the game. No matter how we can or can’t relate, having your first true love pulled out from under you while being expected to seamlessly navigate an entirely new world is difficult to cope with. When you stack pain and injuries, the emotional disruptions, and the unfamiliarity of a ‘new life’ all together it can create an insurmountable burden to handle.


Physical Consequences of Sport

The violent nature and inherent risk of NFL football is all but unknown. In fact, with the rapid advancement of player monitoring and data collection we are more aware now than ever before of the potential physical and cognitive outcomes for players. Despite this awareness, it hasn’t deterred the ravenous pursuit of becoming an NFL player, at least not significantly, nor the rate at which injuries are sustained. For most players, it seems they either accept their potential fate and see the risks worth the possible reward, or they just try to compartmentalize it from being a conscious concern.

Tracking the injury data throughout the 50+ years of NFL football is a difficult task. For several reasons, well beyond the scope of this article, there has been an underlying ambiguity, inconsistency, and incomplete nature to understanding the true effects of football. Nevertheless, there is plenty enough statistical evidence, personal anecdote, and pure observational takeaway for us to recognize the brutality of the game. From devastating effects from compounding injuries and the shear demands of the game, to the harrowing evidence emerging surrounding head injuries, it is rather clear that if you play long enough in the NFL, some level of physical expense is inevitable.


As it appears, the predominant orthopedic injuries among NFL athletes include shoulder, spine, ankle/foot, and most prominently, knee injuries. While acute orthopedic injuries don’t occur often, they are invariably severe when they do (i.e., leg fracture, shoulder subluxation). Chronic conditions like arthritis, on the other hand are more common as they develop from microtraumas over time. The most common soft tissue injuries generally include rotator cuff, Achilles, and hamstring injuries. The soft tissue injuries are a combination of severe/acute injuries (i.e., ACL, Achilles rupture) and chronic deterioration such as tendonitis and myofascial pain syndrome.

While there are a select handful of professional football players that walk away relatively unscathed, the vast majority of NFL retirees report struggling with pain and consequential outcomes from injuries/surgeries sustained throughout their careers. According to the University of Michigan 2009 study analyzing retired NFL athletes, 80% of NFL retirees aged 30-49 and 77.6% aged >50 reported having daily joint pain. When compared to the average US man, whose values are substantially lower, 20.6% (<50 y/o), 37% (>50 y/o) it really puts things into perspective. Based on this data, NFL retirees under 50 are nearly 4 times more likely to report chronic pain. As we could assume, NFL retirees also report having an arthritis diagnosis at a staggering rate. Over 60% of NFL retirees (over 50) and 41% (under 50) indicated having at least one arthritic joint (2).

Psychological-Emotional Despair

It’s quite common for NFL locker rooms to be described as a brotherhood, one that includes an unbreakable commitment between the individuals that share the space. In many ways, these athletes are conditioned to a very specific and unique lifestyle, and it’s one that they are introduced to, and raised in together. This lifestyle, which is often overtly glamorized from afar, may be hardnosed and cutthroat, but in a paradoxical way provides a sense of comfort and stability. This environment forms their social setting and cultural expectations and is seemingly the sharpest transition to traverse. While the orthopedic cost of NFL football and associating physical consequences takes its toll, if you ask the majority of NFL retirees what they miss most about their playing days, the answer is almost unanimously- “the brotherhood”.

*(Hyperlink provided via Washington Post)


The consequences of pain and injury are vivid, but the effects on identity, social fit, drive, and direction are far more underlying struggles. The two, of course, are interconnected in ways, but for decades all we prioritized to address were the physical injuries. For many NFL players, being a pro athlete is all they truly know, it represents the bulk of the identity they’ve formed for themselves. Their skillset, financial income, social status, and overall lifestyle are all inextricably linked to one thing- football. It becomes the fabric from which they are formed, and for most, it is the only or one of very few unconditional priorities in life. When athletes have this indelible brotherhood stripped from them, it can jettison them into a state of isolation. Suddenly, they are no longer perceived for having value and have abruptly become “just another guy.” This can be devastating for perception of self-value and eviscerate what was once an impenetrable confidence.


An unintended consequence of this emotional vacancy is the assumption that it can replenished or recreated through other means, for instance starting a new business or pursuing entrepreneurialism. A fundamental human behavior is to inadvertently cling to potential (or hope), as it allows us to suppress the present reality to fixate on an overtly optimistic future. When the idealistic plan or potential comes to fruition we find grace, however, when it doesn’t (and it often doesn’t) what we fall into is an even deeper pit of disappointment. For some, resilience and perseverance prevail, such as in the case with George Koonce. But it isn’t always a fairytale ending, as so many others are pushed into true darkness. We’ve sadly heard far too many cases of severe emotional disorders, crippling addictions, and at worst, fatal consequences such as suicide.


Despite the inherent confidence and resilience of professional athletes, they all know there is an inevitable endpoint; no matter the reluctance to voice it. Fortunately we have seen a slight changing of the guard that allows NFL athletes to be more inclined to show and discuss vulnerability, and this has helped players become more proactive to what retirement will impose. But as for how it is perceived by us outsiders, we still have a ways to go. Maybe it’s because of their physical prowess, or the perceived financial fortitude that comes with being an NFL player, but for some odd reason we have a tremendously difficult time empathizing for pro athletes and retirees. Although they may appear to be otherworldly- we cannot continue to dehumanize athletes based on their social and cultural prominence. At the end of the day, these are just individuals who happen to be very skilled at a game we all ravenously watch and follow. The relativity is deeply lost on us, and we need to open our eyes and address the countless athletes and former athletes out there who are struggling emotionally, physically, or otherwise.


Social-Cultural Disruption

The final pilar here is the radical adjustment in social circles, cultural etiquettes and even more generally speaking, a complete collapse of work structure and stability. In search of matching the invigorating stimulus that comes with the NFL, many retirees bounce around between careers/passion projects in early retirement as they struggle to match the energy of being a pro athlete. Although lacking interest and intensity may be factors, another consideration is the lack of structure and tangibility to most “real world” jobs. Every single aspect imaginable in the NFL is quantified and scrutinized. Evaluation is as fundamental to professional football as shoulder pads and a helmet are, and players feel the effects of this existential pressure.


From meeting rooms to practices, game film and knowledge of playbook and opponent are all intensely reviewed, often harshly. But despite the criticism, this is largely helpful for players as they are clearly made aware of what needs to be done differently or better. While the constant pressure to perform can be agonizing, many athletes become so conditioned to this that they begin relying on this exchange for direction and confidence in play. There is a very objective winner and loser, not only in the outcomes of seasons, but down to every snap of every game. EVERYTHING in the NFL is defined by winner or loser.


The lack of tangibility and explicit guidance (or expectation) in most standard careers drives former athletes to either feeling they are without direction or have little incentive to meet goals or expectations. And this isn’t to say they need to be micromanaged or coddled, it’s simply a different infrastructure in most corporate settings in America. Familiarity, as it applies to human physiology, is critical for an individual to establish comfort or resonance in daily life. We are constantly seeking out people, pillars, or environments that shape our constructs for reinforcing our resonance. Beyond dramatic changes in work setting, the ratio of time which guys are spending at work or at home is radically shifted as well. We’ve established that the work demands/hours for NFL players are substantial, but by default, this results in disproportionate amount of time spent away from home, albeit if players are married, have kids, etc.


Something that was publicly speculated with the Tom Brady retirement saga was that a part of his decision to “unretire” last off-season was influenced by the shock of what full-time parenting and being a husband included. As we all know, this has since resulted in Tom going through a divorce, and now re-retired with rumors that the decision this time was inversed- he was intent on being more focused on fatherhood and rectifying his personal life.


Nevertheless, Tom being just a publicly glorified case, this perfectly illustrates this disruption of resonance and familiarity. Moreover, demonstrates another subtlety to transitioning out of the NFL that is not only overlooked, but a difficult thing to understand vicariously. In a sense, suddenly spending an abundance of time at home and with family can almost be a culture shock for players. It forces a new perspective on loved ones, and there are new expectations and responsibilities to stepping into the family arena. Where the contemporary “NFL wife” effectively assumes the role of “life manager” by undertaking a fulltime demand of overseeing the household and family responsibilities, the expectation is shifted when players finish up their careers. This can result in unforeseen tension between spouses and again be an added layer of stress while adjusting to their new world (1).


Conclusion


The difficulties of transitioning out of pro sport is something that has largely been overlooked, and not just for casual fans, but for league establishments and organizations as well. Even the players themselves routinely undermine the difficulty they will inevitably face, despite an abundance of horror stories documenting the cutthroat nature of professional sports. But interestingly, we have started to see a shift with player awareness as it relates to life after football, as more players, even at elite levels, have begun to step away from the game much earlier than what has traditionally been expected (see: Calvin Johnson and Andrew Luck). In all likelihood, this is signaling a heightened awareness or significance placed on longevity, rather than feeling that football is all they have.

*(Hyperlinks provided via Sports King & ESPN)


Although it’s difficult for outsiders to empathize with men and women with perceived success, especially from the financial point of view, we need to reframe our perspective of the contemporary professional athlete. For as glorified as it is, there is challenging, sometimes dark side to professional sports that is enveloped by an immense pressure to perform. The transition back into the real world is anything but a graceful exit to a long life of stability and sovereignty. Yet to even be 30 years old, the vast majority of professional athletes are abruptly met with their finality in sport, rarely having the affordance of determining their own end point. Whether pushed out by their team due to performance or become physically incapable of enduring the brutalities of sport, there is little grace and concern to be found.


This is what we are building at Rude Rock Strength a designated focus for retired and injured professional athletes that is intended to address the deficits imposed by the game. We want to provide an effective solution for the athletes that nobody else seems compelled to work with, the ones who’ve put their body on the line for decades all for the betterment of the team. We want to address the human, not necessarily the athlete, by helping to guide them out of pain and show that there is a path to longevity. Having autonomy over health and wellness is one of the most fundamental elements to living out a long and enjoyable life. And despite countless athletes feeling this has been effectively stripped from them, we are here to show them that is far from the reality they need to accept.


References

1.) Holstein, JA. Jones, RS. Koonce Jr., GE. 2015. Is there life after football? Surviving the NFL. New York, NY. New York University Press.

2.) National Football League Player Foundation Care: Study of Retired NFL Players (2009) via University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.


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