For 16 years, the rhythm of my life in August was simple: helmet, pads and two-a-days. The schedule repeated like clockwork every year, from Glenbard West High School to the University of Iowa to the NFL.
Until I retired in 2007.
And then I thought: What do normal people do in August?
The freedom was a bit jarring, after spending seven seasons in the cocoon of the NFL, where everything -- and I mean everything -- is scheduled and regimented from August through the end of the season.
The NFL players who retired just this week will most likely have the same feelings. Eugene Monroe, Phil Loadholt and Greg Jennings all could still play ball, but they shut it down -- for good.
We all retire for different reasons. I had a couple of small offers to play an eighth year for my fifth NFL team, but for what? To cover kicks again, to attack the four-man wedge, to scrap for a roster spot? Nah. I'm good. I didn't see the value, and family life was calling.
My wife was pregnant at the time with our second son, Patrick. Irish twins, they call it. And my oldest, Matthew Jr. -- who has Down syndrome -- was in therapy. I couldn't bring myself to move everyone across the country. Or to leave them behind for a job. No way.
"I had a couple of small offers to play an eighth year for my fifth NFL team, but for what? To cover kicks again, to attack the four-man wedge, to scrap for a roster spot? Nah. I'm good."
Family, ultimately, was my deciding factor. For others, it's the grind of another season. It was no surprise to see vets like Monroe, Loadholt and Jennings call it quits on the eve of training camp. Even without the old-school two-a-days, the anticipation of a pro camp can absolutely crush your soul as a player.
And remember, these vets aren't built out of rubber like the rookies. They have injuries to deal with, their bodies are beaten down to almost nothing and the daily maintenance required to just get on the practice field can wear down even the toughest dudes.
Plus, the players in today's game are now more educated than ever. They get it when it comes to injuries, concussions and future risks. Get paid, cash out and move on. Look at Calvin Johnson, who made more than $100 million playing ball. He's already a Hall of Fame player, in my opinion. Hang it up? Why not? His body was starting to hurt.
But just because the decision is clear doesn't make it easy. I remember staring at my retirement papers on the kitchen counter for days. It was like a piece of my life waiting to die.
My wife mailed them. She had to. I just couldn't do it.
The NFL has some nice benefits waiting down the road for vested veterans -- annuity, 401k, pension -- but all the security in the world can't prepare you for your first August without that familiar routine.
I was in my early 30s when I hung 'em up. I drifted around for a while, jobless and without a plan. I had a degree in journalism from Iowa. That counts, right? But what's next?
For me, it was graduate school. A masters in writing and publishing from DePaul in Chicago. Poetry classes. Non-fiction. Short story workshops. I entered an unknown environment. No one cared about NFL football, which I needed. Those classes became a bridge, a part of the transition.
Was it a perfect jump into life outside of football? Not really. It was hard. Heck, it's still hard. You never really get over losing that piece of your life.
Sure, I miss the games. But those are secondary. What I really miss is being on a team and spending everyday inside a competitive environment with like-minded people. You can't recreate that stuff when you leave the game.
Coaching DBs at IC Catholic Prep in Elmhurst, Illinois, is the closest I've come. The opportunity to get back on the grass, to compete, to talk football ... that's priceless. Sure, it keeps me young. And I love the kids. That's a special thing when you build a relationship with your players. Man, it's awesome. So is the feeling when your guys start to develop in a football program you believe in.
But, more than anything, I needed that competitiveness in my life. It gives me balance with family and work. It gives me an opportunity to escape the real world for three hours a day on the practice field and on Friday nights. And it brings me back to an environment that fits my personality.
I've been told I'm a football guy. That's probably true. I think it's the best game in the world. And it prepared me for life more than I ever expected. But I'm still adjusting to life without it. And in some ways, I always will be.
ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.