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Authors: James A. Holstein,Richard S. Jones,Jr. George E. Koonce

Is There Life After Football?

BOOK: Is There Life After Football?
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New York and London

© 2015 by New York University

All rights reserved

References to Internet websites (URLs) were accurate at the time of writing.

Neither the author nor New York University Press is responsible for URLs that may have expired or changed since the manuscript was prepared.

ISBN: 978-1-4798-6286-3

For Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data, please contact the Library of Congress.

New York University Press books are printed on acid-free paper, and their binding materials are chosen for strength and durability. We strive to use environmentally responsible suppliers and materials to the greatest extent possible in publishing our books.

Manufactured in the United States of America

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Also available as an ebook

Dedicated to
the players of the NFL,
past and present



Introduction: “It's All Over!”

Pursuing “the Dream”

Inside “the Bubble”

The End

A Lifetime of Hurt

“All That Dough: Where Did It Go?”

What's Next?

Playing without a Playbook

Trials of Transition

Appendix 1: Methodology

Appendix 2: Retirement Benefits



About the Authors


Above all, we thank the NFL players and former players who talked to us about their football lives. They are a genuinely impressive and interesting cast of characters.

The book also reflects the generous input of friends, colleagues, and students who talked football with us over the course of the project. At Marquette University our friend and chair, Roberta Coles, encouraged our efforts and, despite her Chicago roots, became a Packers fan along the way. We also thank our colleagues and students in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences, and across the university: Jimmy Butler, Junior Cadougan, Louise Cainkar, John Cotton, Alexandra Crampton, Deb Crane, Tom Ford, Steve Franzoi, Beth Godbee, Angie Harris, Kim Salas Harris, Heather Hlavka, Ed Inderreiden, Gale Miller, Matt Mitten, Dawne Moon, Sameena Mulla, Paul Nollette, David Nowacek, Alex Peete, Jane Peterson, Adrienne Ridgeway, Ryan Seebruck, Olga Semukhina, Meghan Stroshine, John Su, Nick Szczech, Darren Wheelock, Marcia Williams, and Amelia Zurcher. Our appreciation also extends to those outside the university: Jun Ayukawa, Mitch Berbrier, Nancy Berns, Susan Chase, Jeffrey Chin, Suzy Clarkson Holstein, Chris Corey, Dana Ellingson, Bob Emerson, Kerry Ferris, Jessie Garcia, Scott Harris, Ray Hinojosa, Doni Loseke, Kathe Lowney, Linda Permaul, Nad Permaul, Jack Spencer, the Rev. Arthur Webb, Jr., Joseph E. Williams, and Pansy Yee.

Special thanks go to Joel Best, who encouraged us to venture outside the staid academic realm and masterfully showed us the way. Jim Holstein took a hiatus from his career-long collaboration with Jay Gubrium to work on this project, and thanks Jay for the space and support. His work always bears Jay's intellectual imprint.

Ilene Kalish, our editor at NYU Press, has been enthusiastic and demanding from the start. Her insight, expertise, and professionalism
are evident throughout. Thanks for the superb guidance that's made the book so much better. We definitely appreciate everything the rest of the staff at NYU Press did to bring the project to fruition, especially Caelyn Cobb, Dan Geist, and Dorothea Halliday.

Finally we thank the anonymous reviewers of the manuscript for their helpful insights and suggestions.

Note to the Reader

George Koonce plays a unique role in this book: he is both an author and the subject of many sections of the text. To distinguish his subject and author voices, we have italicized all direct quotations from Koonce, as they have been elicited through interviews. Thus, his subject voice is always in italics. Many of the interviews for the book were conducted with promises of confidentiality. Pseudonyms for players and teams were used in these instances. Consequently, some of the names of players quoted in the book cannot be found in NFL records. Player interviews from public media are attributed to actual sources and the names in these are authentic.


“George, don't you realize, that's it!”

She said it with love and compassion, but Tunisia, my wife, was telling me that my NFL career was over. I didn't want to hear it

I asked her, “Why the hell would you say some shit like that?”

“George, you're done,” she repeated. “It's all over!”

I didn't talk to her for a couple of weeks. That's when I started going to the beach and spending three or four days by myself. I would say, “Tunisia, I'm going to the beach on Thursday. I'll be back on Monday,” and she would say, “Really? OK.” And the beach was about two hours away. I was pissed off, hurt, angry, depressed. I just wanted to get out of there. I didn't really want to be around people who were asking me, “George have you talked to anybody, have any teams given you a call?” I didn't have an answer. Well, I had the answer, but I didn't want to tell people. I was basically a failure in my mind. I was totally numb. I was in a dark and lonely place. I was embarrassed to talk with friends in the league. I envied them. So I'd get in my Chevy Suburban and whatever happened that day was going to happen. I didn't really care
. . . .

It was on the drive back home one day that I took a turn at 75 miles per hour just to see what would happen. I flew off the road and the truck ended upside down in a ditch. Thank God, I didn't hit anyone. But I survived. By the grace of God, I survived. Maybe, in retrospect, it was a suicide attempt. At the time I just didn't care

But the paramedics weren't going to cart me off. No chance. The football tough guy in me refused to get into that ambulance. Tunisia drove me to the house and saved my life with words, not medicine

“George,” she said, “I don't understand what you're going through, but I sympathize. We cannot reinvent who you are, but we can redefine who you are.”

After we got home, Tunisia said to me, “Well, did you accomplish what you intended?”

I told her, “Yeah, and that part of me is dead now and I'm ready to move on.”

After nine years as a starting linebacker in the NFL, George Koonce's football days had come to an end.
He was depressed. Perhaps suicidal. Emotionally estranged from his wife. Avoiding his friends. Why had such a rewarding career boiled down to this? Is this what retirement amounts to for NFL players? What can they expect from life after football?

George Koonce's account of “the end” may not be typical, but it's not unique. It expresses many common themes of how ex-NFL players get on with their lives. Like Koonce's account, the stories are complex and often paradoxical. NFL careers are relatively short—3.5 years according to the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA)—yet their impact lasts far longer.
Recently, the spotlight has focused on tragedies, poignantly and publicly exemplified in the suicide of former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau. At age 43, Seau shot himself to death in May 2012. Seau had been out of the game for less than 18 months. He had actually first “retired” several years earlier, in 2006. At the time, Seau referred to the move as his “graduation” because he was simply not going to stop working. He was moving to the next phase of his life, which lasted only four days before he signed to play several more seasons for the New England Patriots. Retirement on both occasions proved difficult, and ultimately tragic. His heartbreaking story epitomizes the difficulties confronted by many former NFL players. Seau's untimely struggles and ultimate demise literally prompt the question: Is there life after football?

Junior Seau's death launched a firestorm of speculation and investigation into the relation between head injuries and post-career troubles for NFL players.
Other incidents contributed to the headlines. Since 2011 at least seven NFL players or former players have committed suicide, including Seau, Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, Kurt Crain, O.J. Murdock,
Jovan Belcher, and Paul Oliver. Belcher also killed his girlfriend.
These painful stories might shed new light on the frequently overlooked tragedies of older ex-players like Jim Tyrer, who was involved in a 1980 murder-suicide.
The same might hold for the emotionally wrenching cases of dementia tormenting Super Bowl quarterback Jim McMahon and former Charger, Dolphin, and Raider Dave Kocourek.
Then it's just a short inferential leap to questioning the connection between playing in the NFL and the debilitating mental health problems, prescription drug addiction, and depression that plagued former players such as Mike Webster, Ray Lucas, and Lionel Aldridge.

But the stories are not just about head injuries. The general physical condition of former NFL players and the aftermath of their injuries are monumental legacies of this quintessentially violent game. Most retired players are scarred by major surgery, some from dozens of trips to the operating room. Many—Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell, for example—can barely walk. Hundreds have had joint replacement surgery. Some—quarterbacking legend John Unitas comes to mind—lost use of their hands and fingers. And a few—Kurt Marsh and Jim Otto, in particular—have lost limbs to football injuries. In response to mounting health concerns, the NFL has instituted drastic rule changes and injury treatment protocols. In addition, in September 2012, the NFL announced a $30 million grant to the National Institutes of Health to study brain injuries and other sports-related health issues, and in 2013 the league and NFLPA announced a huge financial payout to players suffering the aftermath of head injuries.

If the ravages of injury aren't enough, former players by the dozen face financial disaster. Despite their lucrative contracts, ex-players are showing up flat broke shortly after retirement. Terrell Owens is nearly penniless despite earning top dollar for years. He reportedly owes the IRS $438,000 in unpaid taxes. Seven-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle—and one-time multimillionaire—Warren Sapp has filed for bankruptcy. Court documents show he owes more than $6.7 million to creditors and in unpaid child support.
The NFLPA says that between 1999 and 2002, at
least 78 players and former players were swindled out of more than $42 million.
Sports Illustrated
claims that over three quarters of former NFL players are in desperate financial straits within two years of retirement.

BOOK: Is There Life After Football?
7.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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