Adjusting to Life After the NFL

I tend to try to stay away from controversial topics on the NFL. My love is for the game on the field and between the lines. I choose not to participate in the drama that is enhanced and fluffed by the media because it takes away from a game that is is so fascinating to me.

However, this afternoon there was a string of tweets by former NFL safety Hamza Abdullah that struck me as something that can’t be overlooked. The tweets are below, but beware of the language:

(Click each picture to expand and then read each picture from the bottom to top to read tweets in order.)

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Those are some pretty powerful words from a guy who played the game and lived it. I can’t validate or deny anything he says because I’ve never played the game. I was lucky enough to work for an NFL team and I worked closely with a lot of these players.

The NFL keeps getting younger and younger every year. The average age keeps shrinking because the current collective bargaining agreement makes it hard for teams to pay older players what they’re worth. Because of this, teams elect to pay younger guys to fill the end of the roster which collectively brings down the average age. This is for a league where most players are 20-28 years old anyways.

These guys vary in personality and maturity, but for the most part they’re still learning and finding their way in life. They’re paid significant amounts of money to play a game where millions of people watch them perform great athletic feats every weekend. There is inherent physical risk in this game that these guys accept – some knowingly, others unknowingly. But the psychological risk is just as ingrained in the game as the physical toll.

It’s important to understand the environment that these young men grow up in. Most start out as the best player in his Pop Warner football league. Then he’s All-State on his middle school team. As a high school teenager, where humans are typically the most impressionable, most of these young me are recruited heavily out of high school by schools that are trying to sell them the world to come play for their institution. He’ll be promised everything under the sun.

At this point, these young adults have been told by thousands of people that they’re great. All they know is how fantastic they are. Girls swoon over them because they’re the star of the football team. Friends look up to them because they’re the captain of the football team every year. They have an inflated sense of personality that is directly tied to football.

These football players’ identities now almost solely reside in football. It’s what they’re known for. It’s all they’ve ever known. It is who they are. Almost nothing in life has ever played such a significant role as football.

Let’s fast forward a few years through a professional football career that has just ended. The game has taken a toll on their bodies and brains. Now they’re booted out of a game that has been with them since they were a kid. A small minutiae of players get to leave the game on their own. Most have it torn from their grasp due to age, injury, or a refusal to pay market value because the team wants to go in a different (read: younger and cheaper) direction.

A significant portion of these men’s lives has just been removed. Instead of working 10 hours a day, six days a week, traveling all over the country, and making tons of appearances in the offseason, these men are now jobless with a massive void in their lives.

Someone asked me one time, “If you could offer one piece of advice to players to help them, what would it be?”

“Don’t let the game be your identity. While you’re still playing, find something outside of the game to put your time and energy into. Whether that’s family, community projects, a charity, a business, a hobby (many of these guys are quietly creative and artistic), or a life goal.”

When the game ends for them, players are going to have a lot of extra time on their hands. Many transition into broadcasting, coaching, or some other form of the game. The rest, the ones we don’t see or hear about as much, transition into lives where they now have no idea what to do. And that can make someone go as crazy as bashing helmets for 15 years.

I can’t offer any advice that’s going to help heal the physical toll that the game will take. Psychologically, I agree with Abdullah. Guys need to seek professional help, whether they think they need it or not. Then find something else to pour that elevated level of motivation and drive into.

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