June 12, 2013
The seasons fly. Here we are in the middle of OTAs. The smell of fresh cut grass fills the early summer air. For most, it is the best time of the year. Your guy's flying in and out between home and light practices. There's family time and away time and you look forward to both. Before you know it, the duffle bag is packed and you're gearing up for the long stint, when camp rolls around.
For some, however, this will be the first year out. And for many of them, this fact hasn't been confirmed, yet. Calls aren't coming in and the quiet is paralyzing. If this were The Matrix, your player is now suspended above his life in player stance, while all the world moves about in normal fashion. This is when you realize that "normal" for you is unfamiliar and foreign to him.
When my husband Michael's career came to an end after 12 seasons, it was a long, slow death. The Eagles had offered to send him off with a tribute at the end of the season, but he declined the offer respectfully - saying he wasn't retiring. The word alone didn't sit well with him and he instructed the kids to say, "Thanks, but my dad didn't retire, he was thrown out of the league."
Retirement, you see, was a choice.
That off season, he was in the best shape of his life. Lance Rentzel had introduced him to wheat grass juice, and he wore out the hill at his old high school with a makeshift sled. He dissected his playbook and fell asleep to film.
To keep anyone from talking to him he learned to play the piano. His first song set included: Yesterday and Try to Remember The Kind of September, a subconscious Swan Song, I believe. One morning I passed him and said, "Hey! You got any Eye of the Tiger?" He had to laugh. I saw his shoulders shake up and down.
Thankfully, it was during this time that I was finishing up my book, When The Clock Runs Out. This was key for two reasons. First, I was completely immersed in the project and that gave Michael space. Second, my entire topic dealt with Letting Go and I was getting great advice from hundreds of former players and their wives on how to handle it.
Their messages shaped to say, "This is just a phase. It's a transition. Don't chastise him for what he is doing or not doing right now. Let him process it. Mourn it. Let it sink in before you judge him."
Judging him is key. You don't mean to do it, but we can't help it. We see our man in uniform, as players. For many, that's all we know. Seeing them stripped of their number is unsettling. Their vulnerability is unfamiliar. And believe me, it's more morose for them. Football players are rare in that they are forced to die two deaths.
While he is processing his fate, it is your turn to steer the ship. Perhaps you have your own career or together, have already laid the groundwork for his second career. Now is the time to reach out to your NFL sources. Whether it be a new business start up, franchising, coaching, sports camps, broadcasting, music, you name it, the NFLPE will equip you with the information and contacts you need. Dive into the knowledge and when the time is right, start sharing it with him - without pushing him. Remember, he's still hoping for that call.
I remember hanging up the phone with former players. I could filter out what Michael would and wouldn't want to hear. One day I got a call from a friend who contacted Jack Lambert for me. His message was, "Nice idea - your book. But nobody cares." Michael was dark, so he liked that. I wanted him to know that he wasn't alone. Other guys, like Lambert, had been dark, too and survived.
When I speak to the young women of the league, I stress the importance of finding their own passion and life purpose, early on. This is never more important than during transition. Having the ability to focus on your own work, whether it be career, faith or family will offer some semblance to your altering terrain. It is during this time that your actions have the potential to impact your family for the rest of your lives.
Women are instinctive, nurturing and resilient. Whether you planned for this or just got the rug pulled out from under you, your intuition will become the life raft for your family.
Watch for signs of depression, rage, alcohol and drug addiction, apathy, mood swings, aggressive or reckless behavior. If need be, engage the NFL hotlines for direction. Reach out to the women of the league, both past and present, through the NFL Engagement Zone. Be selective and protective with the company you keep. For while the world and friends and family are telling him he should feel blessed to have played at all, he may be feeling cursed, lost, alienated and stripped down to a time he can't even remember and definitely can't relate to.
In the end, a change will take place and you will find yourselves on the other side. Hopefully, it will be a graceful transition. We all handle change differently. Sometimes change defeats us and in Hemingway's words many are strong at the broken places. What is comforting is knowing that this is not a solo journey. The path is seasoned and the bridges have been built. Take advantage of the great programs and resources that the league has created with your future success and the success of your family in mind.