How college football players adapt to career-ending injuries

Earlier this month, Arkansas running back Rawleigh Williams III made "one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make," deciding to end his football career with two seasons of eligibility left.

A "stinger" that Williams suffered in the Razorbacks' final spring practice was an all-too-eerie reminder of the neck injury he suffered in the 2015 season, one that left him motionless on the turf for an extended period and briefly numb in a win over Auburn, providing an emotional scare that football players -- and their families -- never hope to experience, a reminder of how dangerous the sport can be.

"I've dodged the bullet twice," Williams said in a letter he penned on May 8, explaining his decision. "I realize that at the end of the day I want to live a normal life and be around my family."

Williams' decision is similar to one several college football players make every season, weighing their long-term health against the prospects of continuing to play a violent sport. Some players don't have a choice and get medically disqualified or sustain a career-ending injury. Others, like Williams, decide the risk is too much and walk away.

What happens to players after they give up the game midway through their college career? The challenges of transitioning out of a sport that consumed their lives and back into being regular students -- or entering the professional world -- can be plentiful.

Simply deciding to hang up the cleats is its own challenge. For most players, they've been playing football since they can remember and the significant time investment in the game makes it difficult to give up.

"It's very difficult to say, 'Who am I without this?'" former Houston quarterback David Piland said.

Piland was the successor to record-setting quarterback Case Keenum and had his own visions of how his career would go. After 18 starts, Piland retired from football in 2013 because of concussions (he sustained seven he knows of in games but is unaware of how many total concussions he has had, practices included).

He said for some players, fear of the world without football can keep players feeling like they must keep playing.

"It's very hard to go from a level where everyone looks at you and you're that elite and then go into the working world where you are now back at the bottom rung and you're just another guy," Piland said. "I think that's a big reason why so many people try to stay in the sport somehow. I think they're so scared of the outside of the world that they don't know what to do. I didn't know what to do."

For many players, the competition, camaraderie with teammates and amount of work put into the sport is hard to just give up.

"To be with that many guys that you love to play with and playing well and winning games and playing in front of fans, there's nothing like it," said former UConn quarterback Casey Cochran, who retired because of concussions. "It's addiction to play in front of thousands of people and to throw a touchdown in college ... that emotional side, I'll never be able to recreate."

Once the decision is made, however, the change is drastic. As hard as it is to hang up the cleats, one benefit is a more friendly schedule.

"You have so much more free time than you're used to," said Jay Arnold, a former Texas A&M defensive lineman who retired after multiple shoulder injuries. "You're so used to workouts in the morning, going straight to class then going straight to film then straight to practice and then doing whatever homework you have then going straight to sleep."

It's a cycle many players become accustomed to in high school. So once the absence of football leaves a huge void, it can be challenging to fill it. Simply being a normal student again is an adjustment.

"There's a protocol for back-to-play, but there's really not one for back-to-school," said Cochran, who sustained 13 concussions over the course of a 14-year playing career that dated back to his youth. "That was really tough for me ... I was a different student than I was before [the additional concussions]. I was having a lot of trouble, falling asleep in class, having trouble paying attention."

Cochran eventually sought help from doctors who diagnosed him and prescribed medicine to help him focus. He also learned various study methods to get back on track.

In addition to a logistical adjustment, the emotional shift can be challenging as well. Stepping away from the spotlight and not being in front of thousands of cheering fans on Saturday (or being contacted by them on social media) can be difficult to cope with.

"[Players] can have a big presence on social media and everyone wants to talk to them," Piland said. "Everyone wants to be their friend. ... And then they [stop playing] and they're saying, 'Where are all those people? How come I'm not still relevant?' It's very hard.

"I know a lot of former players who are actually in a depression because of it, because where they put their identity is in that prestige. It's what they hung their hat on. 'This is what defines me, this is who I am.' It's really, really tough to get out of that."

The important part, Cochran said, is finding the right people to be around or making the right choices on how to spend that free time in order to make the transition smoother.

"I think the biggest thing is filling up what football was for you with healthy options, because there's always going to be an unhealthy alternative in anything you do," Cochran said. "I stopped drinking probably eight months ago. That was one thing I realized I had filled up my life with after football that was an unhealthy alternative.

Cochran also noted that while he maintains a good relationship with many of his former teammates and coaches, he also found "a whole different set of friends that I hang out with that never played football. I met and discovered this whole other world outside of football that was never there before." Having other interests while playing is helpful. Arnold wrestled in high school and has a heavy interest in mixed martial arts that helped him transition and he also enjoys writing.

"I feel like for some people, a hard part of the transition is [not playing football] takes away a big part of the [physical] activity in your life," Arnold said. "MMA and that kind of stuff helped me keep a good level of exercise going."

The effects on former players' bodies is also notable. Arnold, who said his shoulder was "popping out three to four times per game" toward the end of his final season, said "everything else is a lot less sore."

"I still wake up in the morning sometimes and my shoulder is killing me," Arnold said. "Other than that, my body feels pretty good."

Said Cochran: "Your body doesn't feel beat-to-crap all day," anymore.

For players who suffered concussions, symptoms can linger, such as headaches. Piland says he rarely experiences them these days but he's also cognizant when he plays sports recreationally not to put himself in a position to get hit because of his concussion history.

"Going skiing, going wakeboarding, playing basketball with your buddies, you can't be as aggressive," Piland said.

Engaging with the sport after hanging it up can be more difficult for some than others.

Piland said shortly after he retired he traveled to Austin just to get out of town and get away from everything. A friend of his asked Piland to go down the street to watch Texas play, but Piland didn't want to. He ended up going.

"I had sunglasses on and I just cried my eyes out," Piland said. "No one knew, but I thought 'I'll never get to be on the field again where it's you [playing].'"

Piland currently works in the oil and gas industry but also does private quarterback coaching on weekends, which has kept him involved. He said he would like to be a coach one day.

Former Notre Dame receiver Corey Robinson, who retired in 2016 because of concussions, found a mix: he became a student assistant coach for the team, was elected student body president, became a Rhodes Scholar finalist and much more, an experienced he detailed in a first-person piece for SI.com.

Former Tennessee safety Inky Johnson, who sustained nerve damage in his right arm that left it paralyzed following a hit in a 2006 game, became a motivational speaker and wrote a book.

Cochran said he still keeps track of football but doesn't always watch it. He was a student assistant coach in the months following his retirement in 2014 but since then he worked to get his undergraduate degree and is wrapping up his master's degree in sports management this month. He also is in talks to write a book about his experience and has traveled across the country to talk to people in the sport about the dangers and effects of concussions. He is also on the board of directors of the Brain Injury Alliance of Connecticut.

Williams, who hasn't yet commented publicly on his situation since he penned his goodbye letter, noted that he does want to stay involved in football -- at a higher level.

"My dad always told me when I was little ... 'Don't work to just be the guy in the jersey on Sundays. Work to be the guy in the nice suit that's in the suite of the stadium making all the decisions' ... That is now my goal. To be the guy in the nice suit in the suite. To do whatever I have to do to gain more knowledge about the game in all ways. Just like I did when I was a player."

One of the biggest lessons to take away from the experience, Cochran said, is that the characteristics that allow one to succeed in football can be applied outside of the sport.

"I think a bigger portion of teaching and coaching needs to be about how these lessons in their sport relate to life," Cochran said. "A lot of coaches are guys who were players who never really spent time outside of football, so some of them may not even know how to even use those lessons.

"That being said, football is one of the greatest teaching places for young men, young girls, sports are in general. But the more you bring in outside help, business experts and people who know about the outside world to help out the coaches and players, I think that's a benefit."