Even before the shocking suicide of former NFL linebacker Junior Seau this month, some of football’s most elite players served as poster-sized examples of lives in ruin.
Many, such as former Bengal Terrell Owens, struggle with financial problems — despite in Owens’ case having earned $80 million during his playing career.
Others, such as Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon, have lingering medical issues, in his case memory loss.
And then there are the deaths and suicides. McMahon’s former teammate, Dave Duerson, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest last year after sending a text message to his family saying he wanted his brain to be used for research on head injuries.
The recent spike in awareness of the long-term costs to playing in the NFL come as the league itself is booming in popularity and financial success.
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Forbes Magazine values the league’s 32 franchises at a combined $33.2 billion. The league’s championship game, the Super Bowl, has reset the record for history’s most-watched television broadcast in each of the past three years. February’s Super Bowl XLVI was watched by an estimated 111.3 million people globally.
Football’s success can be easily measured. However, the toll on those who contribute to that success is only slowly coming into view. Marvin Cobb, who played safety for the Bengals in the 1970s, is coordinating the Independent Retired Players Summit in Las Vegas this weekend. He said he never considered the long-term effects of playing such a violent game.
“Nobody ever bothered to explain what was really going on,” Cobb said. “The more I know about it, the more I’m convinced that playing football wasn’t the best idea.”
Kris Dielman, the former Troy High School standout, held an emotional news conference in March to announce his retirement as a San Diego Chargers offensive lineman. It came four and a half months after he suffered a concussion during a game and yet continued playing. His on-field erratic behavior in the moments after the injury was caught on camera and became widely discussed in the sport.
“I’ve got to get out when the getting out’s good still,” Dielman told reporters while leaving a nine-year career during which he made four Pro Bowls.
Dielman is just one in a line of players who have made NFL career decisions recently because of health concerns. Last week, Miami University graduate Jacob Bell, a veteran of eight NFL seasons, retired and walked away from a one-year, $890,000 contract he had signed with the Bengals just a month before. Greenville native Matt Light, who played in five Super Bowls and three Pro Bowls, also retired this month having had no discernible decline in his playing ability and appearing to have several productive seasons remaining.
Ohio State graduate Andrew Sweat turned his back on the NFL before his career even began, opting to pursue a career in law rather than trying to make the Cleveland Browns after signing a college free agent contract.
All of them cited a fear of future health problems as a major factor in their decisions, which research supports. In a 2009 report studying NFL retirees, a team of University of Michigan researchers interviewed 1,063 retired players and asked about a number of factors. One of the clearest conclusions from the report is that former NFL players face more physical problems than the general population. The survey discovered that 47.2 percent of NFL retirees ages 30-49 and 57.2 percent age 50 and over reported difficulty with stooping, bending or kneeling, compared with 8 and 24.2 percent, respectively, of all U.S. men of those ages.
About half of the respondents in each category said they had difficulty standing for two hours, something their non-NFL peers did with little trouble. The former NFL players also easily outpaced the U.S. male population in periods of depression, discouragement and anger.
Cobb tells the story of former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill, who played from 1974-85.
“Here’s a guy who did everything right,” Cobb said. “He got his law degree while he was still playing ball, and he practiced law for 15 years after he retired. Then all of sudden he started losing it. He started getting angry ... (and) eventually lost his practice.”
In 2009 McNeill was diagnosed with dementia linked to head trauma sustained during his time in the NFL.
Even a healthy, driven, well-educated player can find the transition to civilian life daunting.
“When you showed up in the NFL, you asked every veteran you could find: ‘How do I make it? How do I do this. How do I do that?’ You have to have that same mentality when you retire,” Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “You have to talk to people who have made the transition successfully and ask them, ‘How do I find happiness? How do I get my stuff together?’ ”
Many struggle with the transition. A 2009 Sports Illustrated report said its research found that 78 percent of NFL retirees have “gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce” within two years of leaving the game. Ickey Woods rushed for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns while leading the Bengals to the Super Bowl his rookie year in 1988. Less than three years later, he was unemployed at the age of 25.
Despite owning a degree in social work from UNLV, Woods started selling meat out of the back of a truck to pay the bills
“I didn’t really have a Plan B,” Woods said. “I thought I would play eight to 10 years. I was married with four kids, and those babies weren’t going to feed themselves. I had to come up with something quick.”
The college graduation rate for NFL retirees is about 80 percent, but 9 percent of the retirees ages 30-49 reported to Michigan researchers that they received financial help from relatives and another 7 percent reported financial help from friends. Andre Mirkine, associate vice president for investments at Wells Fargo Advisors and president of the Sports Financial Advisors Association, said many former players take financial risks investing their money because they were risk-takers on the field or received bad advice. Many exit college with debt that plagues their credit reports, he said, meaning they often receive high interest rates on their expensive purchases.
Many want to listen, Mirkine said. Some don’t.
“I’ve met with athletes who have a very good sense of what they want to do,” he said. “I’ve also had that palm-to-the-forehead experience where the client will not want to listen.”
Many players a generation or two removed from current NFL players said they didn’t view football as their only job.
“I had teammates who in the offseason went and worked as accountants, real estate agents, teachers,” said Kellen Winslow, the Hall of Fame tight end and current athletic director at Central State University. “I worked one offseason as a bank teller. That was after my second Pro Bowl season, at the height of my career.”
Today, more players are becoming more and more dependent on their agents and planners to handle their financial affairs instead of learning those skills for themselves. But they’re also more aware of the effect that the commitment and punishment of football can potentially have on their post-career lives.
Some have turned attention to their children, hoping to protect them from problems. Winslow didn’t allow his son, current NFLer Kellen Winslow Jr., to play football until age 14. Other athletes have spoken out on the topic recently, some saying they might not let sons play at all.
E.J. Junior views the topic as a 13-year NFL veteran, college football coach at Central State and father to son E.J., a former Middletown High School standout on his way to a University of Cincinnati scholarship. There are dangers and struggles in football, but also in life, Junior said.
“I know there are risks playing the game, but you could step off the curb and get hit by a car,” he said. “So to be fearful of a game? No.”