The tragedy of Junior Seau shines a light on NFL players' lives after football, parts of their lives that are ultimately more important than the football part.
The music stops
From the time NFL players begin playing football at elite levels, their lives are organized by the game: team meetings, position meetings, practices, spring practices, lifting and running sessions, team meals, bus rides, flights, team prayers, etc. The player's job is to show up and perform; the team takes care of the rest.
When I was with the Packers it always struck me how many resources we had for our players. When players entered Lambeau Field, staff was there to coach them, treat them, feed them, train them, counsel them, etc. And their lockers were meticulously prepared for them according to the daily schedule, with practice, workout or game gear cleanly laid out.
In addition to the ample internal team resources for them while they are playing the game, players are cocooned in the camaraderie and fellowship of the locker room and the thrill of weekly encounters with tangible and instant results. It can be quite a ride.
At some point, however, the music stops. Most players wash out in a couple of years or less and are thrown into a world without football for the first time. They have to catch up to their graduating classes, people who have already been navigating their way through the "real" world for that period of time.
For star players like Seau, the music plays longer than most. Their challenge is less about having financial resources -- we hope -- and more about filling the void. I often hear from former players unable to find another passion that gives them "the rush" football did, that surge of adrenaline they miss being a "civilian."
Speaking of which, I have read similar studies as to why soldiers in the military continue to re-enlist for more tours; they miss the excitement of battle and have not been able to find a replacement for that exhilaration in their lives.
An active player becomes a former player in the time it takes to read this paragraph. In a conversation that takes place over a thousand times a year in the NFL, a team official informs a player the team is "going in a different direction" and, in that instant, the present player becomes a former player.
Within an hour, he has returned his playbook, had his locker nameplate removed and been booked on a flight home. The team's coaches and front office have moved on to other priorities before the player is even out of the building.
And although teams have ample resources for incoming and current players -- the rookie symposium, player engagement directors, access to financial seminars, offseason internships and contacts -- there is no equivalent support structure for outgoing players. Similarly, agents are usually quite attentive to players while they are earning paychecks with their teams -- and fees for the agents -- but prioritize active players over former players in attention and focus.
I recently spoke to a group of former players and was struck by the level of frustration and resentment from the group. They were searching for answers that no one could give -- not their former teams, former agents, the NFL or the players' association. The sense I got was they were adrift and no one was providing a life preserver. It was sad.
Mindsets must be altered
Football is a head start on life, not a life. Being a football player is part of what the person is but not all of who he is. NFL life can provide contacts and a financial footing to give players a nice push into the rest of their lives. But it's just a head start. The players who identify themselves -- through nicknames, social media, license plates, etc. -- by their jersey numbers often have difficulty coping when they are no longer wearing that jersey.
Many active players feel invincible. Conceptually, they understand how fragile their careers as NFL players are but, practically, few plan for its conclusion. Moreover, players' world views can be extremely short-term. They are concerned about the next practice, the next game, the next season and -- perhaps most importantly -- the next contract. Issues such as second careers and long-term health are for another time. That needs to change; that time needs to be now.
I am not qualified to comment on the personal demons inside the head of Seau, demons that presented suicide as a viable option to him. However, I understand that depression and lack of self-meaning are harsh realities that exist even in football legends. Beyond the appearances of fame and fortune, many former players suffer in silence. Seau, someone who seemingly had it all -- fortune, fame and adoration -- was in a dark place from which he could not escape. And now three children wake up each morning without their father.
As hard as it is to think about, football players need to be prepared for the day the music stops. Seau kept it playing as long as he could, as have many athletes, from Brett Favre to Michael Jordan to Roger Clemens to many others. As all these players know, when it's over, it's over for good and 30-60 years of retirement lie ahead. Finding passions and filling those years in healthy and productive ways is, for some, harder than playing the game.
Perhaps the tragedy of Seau can urge athletes to be more emotionally and mentally prepared for the day their playing careers end. Although the mortality rate for NFL careers is 100 percent, life goes on after these careers. Let's hope the tragedy of Seau encourages all active and former players to find a passion to fill that inevitable void.