Ex-Packer Dorsey Levens enjoys, appreciates post-football second act

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Dorsey Levens still worries. Even after three extensive neurological tests that he passed with flying colors (including his first brain scan a little more than a month ago), with a successful, post-football acting career that has him touring as a cast member in Tyler Perry’s stage play “Madea on the Run” and a successful athletic training business called I Am Momentum, he worries.

Six years ago, before Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru wrote “League of Denial” and before Will Smith played Dr. Bennet Omalu in “Concussion,” Levens began working on his own concussion-centric documentary, “Bell Rung.” Although the 48-minute film didn’t receive widespread attention, it was on the leading edge of a controversy that continues to hover over the game.

Levens said he "stumbled" onto the idea after talking with former players and their families -- Levens was an NFL running back for 11 seasons, eight of them with the Green Bay Packers -- as well as medical experts. Levens learned of the damage caused by repetitive brain injuries long before many of his contemporaries had ever heard of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the progressive degenerative disease found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

“Looking back, I think I was one of the first players who wasn’t suffering to realize it was really an issue and people needed to know about it,” Levens said on The Distant Replay Podcast on ESPN Milwaukee. “And I think the thing a lot of people still don’t understand is, this concussion thing, it’s not an NFL problem. It’s a football problem -- from the lowest levels all the way up to the NFL.

“Obviously, you can’t detect CTE unless you’re dead, [but] I truly think we all have it. Everyone who plays, I think, has CTE. But we don’t know why some people with CTE go on to have all the major problems that we talk about, and some guys go on to live perfectly normal lives and die of old age. They don’t know why some people live and some people die. That’s the thing that worries me. When does it kick in? What should I look for? Since the beginning of my documentary six years ago, I’ve done three neurological tests, and everything was fine.”

For that, Levens is thankful. Although he was among the plaintiffs in the concussion lawsuit against the league, he appreciates the lifestyle and opportunities his NFL career afforded him, and he harbors no resentment toward the game.

“I still love football," he said. "I still love watching it. I watch every Sunday -- or Monday, or Thursday, or whenever it’s on."

Wisely, Levens started planning his second career long before his first was over. Growing up in Syracuse, Levens had long admired Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown, and his appreciation for the post-football movie career Brown built -- along with a lot of cold Wisconsin nights in the NFL’s smallest market -- got Levens thinking about acting not long after his 1997 Pro Bowl season. Not only did he start taking acting classes in Green Bay, but he also was a regular at the local Cineplex.

“The people at Bay Park Square [Theaters], they knew me because I was a movie-goer -- not because I was a Packer. I was there twice a week,” Levens said with a laugh. “And if it wasn’t that, it was renting movies -- back when Blockbuster was still alive. I caught the bug.”

Although Levens’ football life didn’t follow the script he had envisioned while a high-school All-American in upstate New York -- “The plan was to go to Notre Dame and win the Heisman, but that kind of didn’t work out" -- he grew from a long shot to a backup fullback for the Packers in 1994 to the team’s franchise back and a two-time 1,000-yard rusher.

Acting, he said, requires similar perseverance.

"The ultimate goal is film and some television. But just like football, you’ve got to work your way up the ladder,” Levens said. “Kind of like when I started out with the Packers as a fifth-round pick, I didn’t have a spot that was guaranteed. I had to work my way up and eventually become a starter. I think it’s the same thing. It’s a process.”

Levens looks back on some of his early work in community theater productions -- he had an uncredited, non-speaking role as a coach in the film “We Are Marshall” -- and winces. But he knows those reps led to his biggest break so far: a spot opposite Perry in the touring company of “Madea on the Run.”

Of the roughly 90 shows he has done, Levens said virtually all of them have been before sellout crowds, a testament to Perry’s popularity. Levens spends much of his downtime picking Perry’s and other veteran actors’ brains in hopes of honing his craft.

“Every time I go on stage, I try to get better. And around Tyler [and] Cassi Davis, I try to learn from them,” Levens said. “I ask them, ‘How do you get in character? How do you study your lines? How do you bring your lines off the paper and bring them to life?’ Just like football, you’ve got to practice. It’s repetition. You’ve got to do it over and over and over again.”

Although he doesn’t know where acting will take him, Levens, who turns 46 in May, knows he’s one of the lucky ones. Not only does he have his health, but he’s also found a post-football passion to fill the void.

“I didn’t have a hard time giving up the game at all. When it’s time, it’s time,” Levens said. “I wanted to take two, three years off to travel and enjoy the fruits of my labor. And the issue was, after probably six months, I was bored out of my mind. I needed to do something. I was only 35, and that’s not an age you retire at. It’s just not. You have so much life left in you.

“It was difficult to figure out what I wanted to do. Fortunately, it has worked out.”