When the Cheering Stops

What happens to athletes once their playing days are over and they become one of us? Photo Courtesy: Nicholas Erwin
What happens to athletes once their playing days are over and they become one of us?
Photo Courtesy: Nicholas Erwin

By Darius Williams

EVEN BEHIND THE TILTED BUDWEISER BALL CAP AND DARK SHADES, HE WAS NOTICEABLE. Noticeable at least to me. After all, I watched him play high school football locally in the Metroplex as a kid and then on to a very good college career in the old Southwest Conference days of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

A brief stop on a couple of National Football League rosters also was on the resume of the 6-foot-2-inch 225-pound (then) about 270 pounds (now) linebacker. No longer shedding blockers and running down ball carriers, his job description some 25 plus years later was to deliver beer to merchants of the distributor with whom he was now employed.

Quite the surprise to see him on my morning ritual stop to the local convenience store for my morning cup of coffee. Most in the store didn’t have a clue to his existence as he wheeled the cases of beer by the two parallel lines of customers. The cashier, obviously an old football fan like myself, thought he looked very familiar as well as he was signing for the bill of lading.

“Didn’t you play pro football awhile back,” the cashier asked.

“That was a long time ago and I try not to think about it sir,” the former player said solemnly.

“I just choose not to remember that time in my life because it was a setback in my growth as a person,” he added as he walked out of the store and back into his delivery truck.

It often is said that in the case of star athletes, they will die twice, the first coming when they have either voluntarily or involuntarily left the sport for which they achieved some level of fame and notoriety. Depression amongst former athletes, in particular those who made it to the professional level, is a common occurrence for many. Formal academic studies stated that the transition often is found to be difficult because of the sudden cessation of intense demands of elite athletic performance, compounded by the sudden loss of the athlete’s intense devotion to professional athletic competition and its attendant rewards. No longer pulling in salaries reaching seven figures can contribute as well.

In “layman’s terms” they have a condition not medically named but summed up quite easily as “No Longer Da Man-itis.” For as far back as age 6 for some, the praise from parents hoping they are the meal ticket out of poverty and “hangers on” wanting their association with the athlete to enhance their quality of life, they were put on a pedestal. Coddled through their formative years, developing a sense of reality escaped most of these athletic marvels. It’s only one way to success for them.

EVERYTHING CAME EASY TO THEM. Work in the classroom was met with marginal effort because they have basically understood for a while back that figuring out a calculus equation won’t be part of what they do as an adult. As teenagers they pretty much have the houses and cars already purchased in their head. Developing people skills with the thought of life past age 30 is an afterthought. Their way in life will be through the God-given ability to run, jump, catch and shoot.

The problem lies with when they are no longer cheered for their feats on the field, court and ice. Becoming an afterthought to the sports world can be unchartered territories for a person whose life was made by adoring fans who put them on an extremely high pedestal. Becoming a “regular Joe” never crept into their mind while scoring touchdowns or hitting game winning shots. The suddenness of how fast you can go from ‘Da Man’ to just ‘a man’ sends some circling the drain.

Elite-level athletes have an inner drive unmatched by many. Most of them thrive off the thrill of the competitive moment and time. The limelight. The huge stage of which they have to showcase their talents is all they know. So when it goes, and if they have nothing to replace that humongous void immediately, depression creeps in fast and all types of problems ensue.

“You are always trying to replace that feeling you have as a professional athlete, and then you realize after two, three, four years that you’re never going to replace it,” said former Major League Baseball pitcher now television analyst Ron Darling.

Replacing and filling that void is the least of worries for those who have derailed in their post-career life. The depressed state in which some have fallen into goes beyond the missed locker room camaraderie and six figure paychecks.

Take three-time Olympic distance runner Suzy Favor-Hamilton for example. It was discovered that after retiring from the sport of track and field, she fell into deep depression. As she stated, the medicine that was prescribed to her for her elongated depressed state, led her to believe a life as a Las Vegas call girl was a wonderful idea.

Former Chicago Bear tight end Eddie “Boo” Williams was so out of sorts when his playing days abruptly ended that he decided to end his life by laying across some train tracks. Thankfully an elderly homeless couple saw him and talked him up off the tracks. He later said the idea of no longer being the man to turn to for his family, yet becoming the one needing financial help was too much for him to handle.

AFTER THE CROWDS STOP CHEERING, A NUMBER OF ATHLETES STRUGGLE WITH ADAPTING TO A “REGULAR LIFE.” Obtaining a 9-to-5 that they never gave thought to can be humbling. In the limelight no longer, in their eyes they are forgotten members of society. Be it through injury, age or exhaustion, a career terminated can induce dramatic changes in the athlete’s personal, social and occupational lives. The potential for a negative effect looms greatly. Many don’t know where to turn for their next move at age 30.

A 2009 Sports Illustrated article stated that 78 percent of NFL retirees have gone bankrupt and are under financial stress because of joblessness and divorce within two years of their playing careers ending. Guys weren’t equipped with the resources that the league has instituted in the last five years to help with the transition into their post-athletic careers. For example, the NFL Players Association previously sent players whose playing days had been exhausted onto the streets with a handshake and a two-page  list of potential employers in the “real world” who may be interested in having a former NFL player on their payroll.

Not all who walk away from their particular sport suffer to the extent of others, yet dealing with depression after one no longer is playing flows through them all in some capacity. Some find professional success in their industries through coaching opportunities. Some venture off into the world of  radio/television broadcasting. However, the sum of those who struggle emotionally or mentally with a significant decrease in earnings, exposure, visibility and adoration appears to be tilting the scales in that direction.

Not all have the same driving force that leads to depression like in the case of Williams who just wanted to be the continued provider for his family. One particular unnamed former National Basketball Association player had a less responsible reasoning for what led to his depressed state. It was the inability to head down to the local “gentleman’s club” and throw his money into the air, known through hip hop culture as “making it rain.” Let that sink in for a bit.

Without a plan for what you are going to do when every team in the league says you’re done, players are doomed. In most cases where the fortunate ones, like former Tennessee Titans star running back Eddie George who took care of his money, just not having that regimented life leads to uncertainty.

“There was that void, a huge void, of ‘what am I gonna do tomorrow morning when I wake up?’ George said after retiring, asking himself, “Who am I? I am no longer a football player.”

SINGLE-TRACK MINDED ATHLETES WHO KIND OF CONTROL THEIR OWN DESTINY FIND IT EXTREMELY HARD FOR LIFE AFTER THE SPORT. Former welterweight and middleweight boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard falls into this category.

“Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory with thousands, millions of people cheering you on,” he said.

Leonard also struggled with bouts of depression trying to find something to compare. This often led to fruitless attempts at a comeback way beyond his prime years in the sport and getting annihilated once the bell would did ring.

Retired athletes have expressed a feeling of emptiness in their lives and one of the leading stakes in this transition is to therefore reconstruct and adjust themselves on the basis of a new lifestyle.

The various rookie symposiums adopted by the various professional leagues cover issues with life post-playing days. Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists are now employed on staffs. Their job is to help bridge the gap from playing to retirement and limit the growing number of former players living daily in a state of depression. Wise investment spending and not those including money pitfalls like the restaurant business are encouraged at these meetings.

It was a bad knee injury that ended the playing days of the former linebacker turned beer truck driver. After asking around to those who knew him better, it was indeed depression that he suffered from shortly after his playing career and continued over the next couple of decades. I really didn’t need that clarified actually. It was all in his face that morning. No longer hearing the cheers and making significantly less as a delivery guy, he withdrew from a certain part of his life.

The silver lining in this story, if indeed there is one, is that this serves as a reminder to athletes about the importance of preparing themselves for life after sports through education and networking. Those  avenues can be vehicles to a new career path. These athletes should seek help should depression begin to rear its ugly head. Stay on course in life even when the cheering stops.