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Ex-Packer Koonce gives inside look at player trauma, transitions

by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider
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George Koonce has an interesting tie to suicide victim Junior Seau. (Getty Images)  
George Koonce has an interesting tie to suicide victim Junior Seau. (Getty Images)  

At the end of George Koonce's doctoral thesis, a definitive look at life after the NFL, Koonce comes to a blunt conclusion. Remember, Koonce is a former NFL player who spent a large chunk of his life in and around professional football, playing the bulk of his career in Green Bay.

Koonce writes in his thesis: "Through my personal experience and the experiences of those whom I have interviewed for this study, I conclude that playing in the NFL is detrimental to one's life and well-being, especially for the players who are engulfed in the role of a professional athlete."

These are obviously strong words, but Koonce makes his case in a fascinating, stunning, at times frightening and often entertaining look at life in football and what happens after the game ends. Other research on the subject has been done by authors of all types, but Koonce has the added bona fides of having played in the NFL for almost a decade.

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The effects of head trauma and CTE, and how they impact players once they leave the game, are one of the hottest topics in football and will be for years, if not decades. The death of Junior Seau has only intensified the discussion.

The main thrust of Koonce's argument is that a lack of identity, extreme pain from the injuries of playing football, drug addiction (including painkillers) and being unprepared for life after football are far more detrimental for ex-NFL players than realized by almost everyone in the sport, including those who play, coach and manage it. But Koonce doesn't shy away from giving players their fair share of blame for their post-football troubles.

Koonce's thesis is called Role Transition of National Football League Retired Athletes: A Grounded Theory Approach, and he wrote it for Marquette University to help fulfill his doctorate in philosophy. It's more than 70,000 words.

Koonce says throughout his career he spoke to more than 5,000 NFL players, and for the dissertation, interviewed 21 ex-players (using many pseudonyms). He examines this issue as thoroughly as anyone ever has.

We're not allowed to print the entire work, but chunks of it appear below. Some highlights of his research include:

 A 1989 study of former NFL players reveals that 62 percent of those surveyed reported leaving football with permanent injuries. The study also said players reported emotional problems with only 21 percent saying they had no emotional issues during the transition period out of football.

 Another study: 21 percent of participants experienced four or more career changes since leaving football. "The relatively high number of changes," Koonce writes, "indicates that the transition process for athletes is a rather volatile experience."

 One study of former NFL players regarding depression and pain concluded that 14.7 percent of respondents experienced moderate to severe depression and 47.6 percent reported difficulty with pain as quite or very common. Frequently reported problems include having trouble sleeping, financial difficulties, marital or relationship problems and problems with fitness, exercise and aging. The participants experienced levels of depressive symptoms similar to those of the general population, writes Koonce, but the impact of those symptoms was compounded by high levels of difficulty with pain.

 Four distinct stages of transition are identified in a 1991 study: (1) awareness that the end is near prior to career termination; (2) denial during the first two to six months; (3) transition marked by conflict and trauma, lasting up to five years and (4) acceptance of a new reality. These stages are similar to those defined by Kubler-Ross for death and dying.

Other parts of the dissertation ... in Koonce's own words.

  

I witnessed how, for most players, their passion was football. It was hard to develop a love or passion for anything else. That said, some players got married. I knew some players who got married because they thought the coaches would look more favorably on them for supporting a family. These same guys never stopped seeing multiple girlfriends because they never developed an understanding of what it meant to love another individual as much as they loved themselves and football. To them, it was perfectly normal to give themselves physically but never emotionally to these women. These same players were shocked when their wives filed for divorce.

My personal experience has been playing football from the age of nine, participating in Pop Warner, middle school, high school, collegiate and professional football (NFL Europe, Green Bay Packers, and Seattle Seahawks) through the age of 32. In addition to playing, I have had the opportunity to be an assistant athletic director at East Carolina University, director of player development for the Green Bay Packers, senior associate athletic director for Marquette University, and an athletic director for a Division I program for a total of 10 years following my playing days. In all, I have enjoyed 33 years of observing and participating in sport.

In April 1991, I signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent. My signing bonus was $15,000 and my base salary was $125,000. I attended three minicamps, lasting one week each, and six weeks of training camp. I was paid $750 a week for camps. I was released by the Falcons after the last week of training camp and never saw the $125,000 because I failed to make the team's opening day roster. While I was fortunate to join NFL Europe in January 1992, most players never get another shot. During camps, the teams start with 85 players, and 33 of those guys get cut every year by each of the 32 NFL teams -- a total of 1,024 players. The majority of those guys have not played 3.5 years. My experience with the Falcons happens to probably about 80 percent of the guys trying to break into the NFL. Those players who are fortunate to make the team roster do not realize that it is just a matter of time before they get that tap on the shoulder and hear those dreaded words, "The coach wants to see you, and please bring your playbook."

Could I call an old playing buddy who had been out of the league for a few years for support? No; a player does not call another player who has been deselected because of embarrassment and vulnerability. Prior to that moment, the player had been great at everything. He was a warrior, a hero, a victor, and now -- what is he? He cannot let people know that he is weak. So, he keeps all that to himself and works out, trying to do things to keep himself busy mentally.

Former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne discussed how the transition out of football caused confusion and despair for many of his players that went on to play professionally in the National Football League in his book, Faith in the Game, (pg.20):

"An extreme example of someone finding it hard to transition from the NFL to ordinary life is that of an acquaintance who had a long and successful professional career. Upon his retirement from the NFL, he had a difficult time finding a place in the business world. Each morning he would leave his home in a business suit with his briefcase, and each evening he would return, giving every appearance to his family that things were going well. However, he was actually sitting all day long in a parked car in despair over his inability to fit into the business community. He eventually took his own life and that of his wife as well."

  

The facts remain, however, that the average age of a player leaving the game is 28 and the average life expectancy for retired NFL players is 53 to 59 years. That leaves a player with almost 30 years between leaving the game and his ability to claim retirement benefits. If he lives to the average age of 57 for a retired player, he will only receive those benefits for a couple of years.

On average, players have a 30-year income gap to cover between their NFL career ending and being eligible for retirement benefits. Most players are so role engulfed that they are not considering those 30 years when they are active in the sport. Many have extensive injuries and their bodies need to heal before they will be able to even begin to consider what they will pursue in their post-NFL life. For others, they have injuries that never heal, and their health insurance coverage runs out long before their bodies are in a condition to take on another career. In one case, injuries ruined a second career.

For example, Reggie Williams, a former Cincinnati Bengal and Dartmouth College graduate, played in the league for 14 years. After his retirement, he became an executive at Disney. Due to extensive injuries caused during his playing years, he had his knees operated on 17 times, which included having both knees replaced. Complications with bone infections had doctors thinking they may have to amputate his right leg, but they were able to avoid that. Nevertheless, he had to quit his job at Disney at the age of 53 because of the pain in his legs and will have to take antibiotics for the rest of his life. He was successful both on and off the field, but his injuries now have him rehabbing the right side of his body for three hours a day. He estimates that his medical expenses are around $500,000. Most of those expenses were covered with the insurance he carried at Disney, but he still had extensive out of pocket expenses. He applied for NFL disability benefits but was notified that he was not eligible.

  

On June 2, 1992, I received my first paycheck from the Green Bay Packers for $45,000. I was hesitant to spend the signing bonus because I was not guaranteed another check until after training camp. I put the check in the bank and waited. After six weeks of training camp, I made the 53-man roster. The first item on my list was to secure an apartment. When I filled out the application, I was denied. I was fortunate to have a teammate willing to co-sign for my apartment. I did not have enough financial experiences to build my credit. ... Many players fall prey to the rampant spending that characterizes some of the professional football culture, regardless of their upbringing. I was no different. My first major purchase was a 1992 white Corvette with red interior for $38,000.

Another interesting opportunity for players to spend extravagantly was for jewelry and apparel. Representatives were invited into the locker room periodically to address player needs and wants for personalized jewelry and apparel. Some players would spend $250,000 on jewelry. Tailors would come in with clothing packages ranging from $5,000 to $25,000. These packages would contain suits, shirts and ties. The tailors would take orders in the preseason and have the packages ready for the season.

The idea that satisfaction is only connected to football glory even influences many players' post-football career selections. Many players like being around that feeling of adoration and seek jobs where they can stay connected to football. Careers in radio and TV are appealing because of the comfort area. These jobs allow them to not feel vulnerable and completely cut off from the sport. While many former athletes will do anything to stay around the sport, re-entering sport in a different capacity is not always easy. Job qualifications are still essential to secure a non-player position. This causes many athletes to feel frustration. They want to coach, but they cannot coach. They want to scout, but they cannot scout. They are not afraid of experiencing other areas; it is just that they have not had a chance to develop any other skill sets. Football is all that they have known from a very young age, and they believe they should be able to capitalize continually on that.

Becoming addicted to the glorified sense of self can have many negative consequences for former players attempting to change careers. Thoughts of glory, fame and incredible achievement can overwhelm a person's sense of what it means to be content. Instead of going for well-roundedness, some athletes continue to look for self-esteem in the eyes of others. For some players, a long-term career in sport also results in an over-estimation of their own skills. Those who maintain a narrow identity approach academics and job preparation in a way that leads to crisis rather than relief during the transition period. It is no surprise, therefore, when they experience high stress over the long haul. A number of athletes admit that idealization of their own ability is part of this mindset as well. Confidence is developed in athletes without a reality check. As the stakes get higher and an individual becomes more successful in football, self-aggrandizement often increases.

  

On May 2, Koonce submitted his thesis. It was the same day Seau shot and killed himself. They were in the same draft class.

Reproduction of any segments of Koonce's dissertation without express written consent is strictly prohibited. Copyright George Koonce Jr., Ph.D.

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