HOUSTON (CBS Houston) –What an individual projects outwardly isn’t always an accurate portrayal of what is really going on inside.
Just ask former Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans great Eddie George, who seemed to make the transition from the NFL to everyday life seamlessly once he retired in 2004. George still had it all: health, money, a supportive family, business ventures and an opportunity to work in front of the camera.
But something was missing and that something was football. It hurt, and soon the former college and pro running back great found himself slipping into a depression.
“It’s hard. It’s hard to find your life purpose, that next passion,” George said in an exclusive interview with SportsRadio 610 over the weekend. “There were moments when I had to seek counseling. I recommend to anybody coming out of the game to seek counseling to get that support to help you find your next venture or find who you are.
“It didn’t matter how much money I had in the bank account, what I had accomplished, it didn’t matter I had businesses. Nothing fulfilled my life like suiting up every Sunday and playing with the guys and in front of thousands of people cheering my name. That’s the ultimate high.”
It was the absence of that high which may have caused former NFL linebacker great Junior Seau to commit suicide last week. Seau, a picture of success after a brilliant 20-year career, is the third former NFL player to take his own life in the last 15 months.
The idea these deaths could have come as a result of a post-career depression, or a series of concussions during their playing careers, or quite possibly as a combination of both has people seriously concerned now.
George says he didn’t know Seau well, primarily interacting with him during the Pro Bowls they played in together. But the news of his death hit him hard all the same last week. It also hit home.
“Having gone through transition after playing for nine years I can understand where he probably was mentally in terms of not knowing where he was in terms of his life and where it was headed and just being lost, not knowing what to do next,” said George, who never missed a game due to injury while rushing for 10,000 yards for the Oilers and Titans from 1996-03. “You’ve played a sport for 20 years and then what do you do next because football is not a transferable skill. There is only one place in the world where you can play football professionally and that is in America and it’s only for a short amount of time.
“I don’t know the reasons why he did it or the cause of it but I know there is a period of depression you go through. The athlete experiences two deaths: The physical one and the one that is your career.”
Apparently far more athletes, particularly football players, have a difficult time making the shift from the game to real life. Certainly the majority of ex-players don’t commit suicide or even contemplate taking their own lives, but there is a struggle to fill the void left in their lives.
The growing belief is the NFL has not done enough to help its players deal with the reality that life after football is soon coming. George is the first admit the NFL does little to help players deal with that reality. But he also understands post-career preparation isn’t necessarily part of the NFL’s business model.
Players themselves must become better educated about what they are up against and the fact that 80 percent of them will face financial crisis and personal despair not long after their playing careers are done.
“In some respects people say it should be up to them but the NFL is basically about active players,” said George, 38. “They figure you have made enough money and if you were a good steward of your money and saved it you should have a long and fulfilling life. But the reality of it is that you are going to face financial distress, you are going to face physical distress, you are going to face emotional distress.
“I remember being in a meeting with the NFLPA and suggesting a plan that once you get the benefits you should have to go through a period of counseling to help you got through the other side and make the transition,” he continued. “That should be mandatory whether you think you need it or not. We as football players, as men we have a lot pride and ego thinking we can conquer everything and sometime it’s not needed, but the majority of time you do.
“There is going to be period of depression. Everybody deals with it different.”
Dr. Jarrod Spencer, a noted sports psychologist who founded the Mind of Athletes clinic, says many ex- players suffer from what is called Athletes in Transition Phenomenon Syndrome, which can cause them to slip into depression.
Spencer said the syndrome has a lot to do with the fact that from a young age premiere athletes are pushed into focusing on a sport and that is really all they know.
“So it limits their well-roundedness and other interests and hobbies,” said Spencer, whose practice is based out of Easton, Pa. “So after doing it for 10, 20 or 30 years an individual says `Now what? What do I do? I don’t even know how to spend my time.’ Some athletes transition well like a Kurt Warner. He has a ministry and a church, a book and all that stuff. Other athletes get bored quickly and go back to their sport, a la Brett Favre.
“This is why we see the athlete in transition phenomenon a little more frequently right now.”
George says the key for him has been finding that purpose. He has focused on philanthropy, his businesses, a budding acting career and more recently the four-time Pro Bowler graduated with his MBA from the prestigious Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Additionally, George has the strength and support of his wife, Taj, and their three sons.
But all that doesn’t mean it is no longer a struggle.
“It’s still a process for me. I think the key is really divorcing yourself from the idea you are a football player. You are a man who played the game of football well,” said George, who retired from football after one season with the Dallas Cowboys in 2004. “Now it’s time to take your other talents, foster those talents to do something even greater. You use football as a launching pad to do greater things. You were not put on the earth just to be a football player. That’s a finite window.
“Understanding that has helped me continue to make the transition to become something more than just a great football player in people’s eyes.”
George hopes to one day start a venture that will help football players deal with the transition from football by getting them to think about it as early as high school or college. The former Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State routinely speaks to players at his alma mater about looking at life beyond football.
He wants them to realize football doesn’t define them so they can perhaps avoid some of the issues that have plagued him and so many other ex-players in their post-career lives.
“Just because we put on a helmet, we are human beings, too,” George said. “People think about us with the gladiator mentality and we are living the champagne life. Yeah that’s a part of it, but when it’s over what do you got? What do you do? How do you spend that energy? What are you focusing on?
“When you don’t get to express that, it’s tough. It can eat you up. I know guys it takes years and years to find it. Now I’m finally coming to a place of comfort and solitude where I wake up and I’m excited about what’s next for me in my life in terms of entrepreneurship, entertainment, philanthropy. That’s what I get excited about, but it takes time to understand that.”