100% life from concentrate
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During my 14 years in the N.F.L., my favorite day was Monday. As long as I wasn’t preparing for surgery or being released, Mondays were special. They signified that I had made it through another week and was ready for another opponent. Even the soreness was oh, so sweet.
How I miss those days.
Now my Mondays go something like this: Work on my tennis serve; take a conference call with a Hollywood executive; get my three children to school; browse my favorite Web sites, none of them involving football; check my Words With Friends; and take the dog to day care.
By then, it’s only 10:30 a.m.
Welcome to the life of the secure and utterly bored former professional athlete.
The last thing I need is anybody feeling sorry for me. I’m retired at 36. I’m still in shape, I still run fast and I’m injury free.
So how did I arrive at this place, where the days run together, where sleep is so abundant that I can’t remember the last time I felt tired?
The Steelers. That’s how.
A few hours after the heartbreaking loss to Pittsburgh in the A.F.C. championship game that I played with the Jets in January 2011, I was standing by the bus and saying to myself: “This is it. I’m done!”
Then Coach Rex Ryan walked up to me and asked what I was thinking about the next season. I told him that I was emotionally and physically spent and that the last thing I wanted to do was deal with football again.
I’m a man of my word. Fourteen years on the defensive line was long enough. I lasted about 13 more than I thought I would, so I was content. Was I sad? A little. Was I elated and relieved? A lot.
But now I have a question: Rex, do you need a pass rusher next season?
Having retired way before my time, I have started to lose focus and drive. I’m retired from the game I loved. I’m retired from the perks, like getting a table instantly at my favorite restaurant. And I’m retired from the N.F.L. brotherhood. Passed by. At times, I feel ostracized.
The N.F.L. isn’t a street gang. We’re mercenaries willing to work for the highest bidder and willing to get along with whomever we need to in order to keep working. I know why I haven’t heard from any of my former teammates. But it’s not as if I’m looking for them, either. What would we talk about? What do we have in common now? Not much. Once you’re out of the circle, you’re out. So besides my family and a couple of my high school buddies, I don’t have many friends.
“Early retirement” sounds wonderful. It certainly did that cold night in Pittsburgh. I was going to use my time to conquer the world.
Boy, was I wrong. Now I find myself in music chat rooms arguing the validity of Frank Zappa versus the Mars Volta. (If the others only knew Walkingpnumonia was the screen name for a former All-Pro football player and not some Oberlin College student trying to find his place in the world.) I wrote a book. I set sail on the picturesque and calming waters of Bodymore, Murdaland. And when I’m in dire straits, I do what any 8-year-old does; I kick a soccer ball against the garage hoping somebody feels sorry and says, “Hey, want to play?”
With millions of Americans out of work or doing work for which they are overqualified, I consider myself lucky. But starting from scratch can be unsettling. If you’re not prepared for it, retirement can become a form of self-imposed exile from the fulfillment and the exhilaration of knowing you did a good job.
Many people retire around 65. I will turn 37 this summer, yet like all former N.F.L. players, I face greater health risks, both physical and psychological, that compound my fears.
I don’t know why I’m surprised by any of this. I’ve been preparing for retirement since the Denver Broncos drafted me in the first round in 1997. I was part of the inaugural rookie symposium the N.F.L. conducts to help college players make the transition to professional football. Three days of meetings pretty much consisted of the same two messages: use a condom and save your money.
The players who are drafted this week will hear the same warnings. The N.F.L. stands for Not for Long, and if you don’t heed that advice, you will be another statistic. To avoid that fate, I started thinking about the end before my career even started.
The N.F.L. helps active and retired players with off-season programs that teach ways to conquer the music business or the film business, or to work for ESPN. Those programs weren’t around when I started to accept that my career wasn’t going to last forever, so each off-season, I embarked on postfootball endeavors.
During the six-month off-seasons, I pretty much educated myself, dabbling in music, Hollywood, journalism, real estate and everything in between, with varying degrees of success. I was able to do a lot in so little time. Now that I have all the time in the world, it’s amazing how little I accomplish every day. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. Most times not.
Nothing truly prepared me for retirement. It hit me across the face like a Deacon Jones head slap. Suddenly, I’m sitting around at 10:30 a.m. looking for something good on television — which is impossible.
Don’t cry for me, though. I’m getting used to it slowly and will be content with my new life. That is, until Rex calls.