An NFL linebacker recently retired, and as has happened so many times before, to so many players who have difficulty making the transition from playing to regular life, a series of frightening thoughts began to enter into his mind.
The former player thought about killing himself. It wasn't the first time he had thoughts of suicide, but these thoughts seemed more serious. The player's wife became so concerned for not just his safety, but hers, that she contacted the NFL.
Two ex-players from the NFL's new league initiative that uses former players to coach recently retired ones responded. The three former players spent three days together. The players themselves bonded over having been in the NFL and talked bluntly about how difficult it is to leave the game and the money and the accolades and become a normal person again.
At the end of the three days, the player was no longer talking about taking his own life but instead was talking about the future. The wife of the player sent an emotional email to the NFL and the two players who talked a player away from the brink. It read:
"I just wanted to send out a HUGE THANK YOU to the two of you for what you did for my husband over the weekend! He is so enthusiastic about seeing the light at the end of a tunnel, and it absolutely would NOT have been possible without your support and this fabulous program. I honestly think it is the most worthwhile thing I've seen the NFL do in all of the years he was involved. He summed it up by saying, 'I think those few days saved a couple of lives in that room.' I don't profess to know or understand the small brotherhood of NFL alumni, but you guys did a phenomenal job in reaching out and changing lives. [Former player's name redacted] I know you spent years as an NFL great, but perhaps this is your best work, the thing for which you should be most proud. [Former player's name redacted] thank you for that initial phone call and email -- you made a difference in our lives. As a wife, I thank you for doing something I couldn't. Please express to whomever the powers that be what great importance this program bears. It is an integral part of the transitioning process and if you ever have a board for families or wives involvement, count me in -- this is the best thing the NFL has put money towards in years. THANK YOU and I hope to meet you two in person one day. Until then…”
The NFL confirmed the story but would not identify the player who comtemplated suicide or the two who responded and, quite possibly, saved a life.
The NFL's program might be one of the most innovative in all of sports and literally could save lives.
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It was just last year, on Dec. 1, 2012, when Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his 22-year-old girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, before driving to the Chiefs' facility and killing himself.
The NFL runs what it calls ambassador and transition programs, but it is the latter program that is extremely interesting. It consists of recently retired players who go through extensive training and actually become certified to help in the areas of mental and behavioral health.
The program is run by former NFL player Troy Vincent, who said one of the main goals is to give "a sense of hope" to players having difficulty both in the game and once retired.
"We want to support both active and retired players," said Vincent, who's currently a league vice president.
The objective sometimes isn't so grand as to prevent a player from doing harm to himself. Sometimes it's as simple as helping a player transition through a season-ending injury or issues with finances.
There are dozens of players in the various programs including well-known names like LaVar Arrington (Washington, New York Giants), Donovin Darius (Jacksonville, Miami), Derrick Brooks (Tampa Bay), Brian Dawkins (Philadelphia, Denver) and Aeneas Williams (Arizona, St. Louis), among many others.
The program is run by the NFL, not the union. Other leagues have something like this, just not as sophisticated. It's also relatively new.
Are these programs a direct rebuttal to the Belcher tragedy? It's unknown, but there's little question that what Belcher did sent a shiver up the collective spine of everyone in the sport. Players have told me privately they fear there are more Belchers out there.
This is the kind of program that can stop future ones.