Moving on from the NFL is hard to do

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Sports,NFL,Redskins,John Keim

End of players' careers results in major life changes

It's not just the money of an NFL player. It's the life. And that includes hanging out in the locker room with dozens of other like-minded guys, being seen immediately at doctor's offices and having every errand run by someone else.

And then that life ends. In a blink, everything changes. Health-related symptoms dominate news about retired NFL players, but the bigger issue for all of them may be the transition to a new life.

"There's a big difference going into the job force in your 30s than when you're out of college," former Redskins safety Matt Bowen said. "You're at the highest level of the world as an athlete. ... [Now] you're not the top dog anymore and it hurts."

Head injuries and health-related symptoms have drawn much of the focus on the lives of retired players. Not everyone is impacted by this. But every NFL player adds the adjective "former" at some point.

It's not as if money is always a problem. A 2009 University of Michigan study of 1,063 former players found that the median income of retired players at least 50 years old is nearly twice that of other males that age.

Still, financially healthy or not, the transition out of the NFL life is difficult. It's not just about the attention; it's about every phase of life.

"The longer you play, the harder it is to transition," said Troy Vincent, who spent one year with Washington in his 15-year career and now is the NFL's vice president of Player Engagement. "I never had to wait in a [doctor's] office until I was 37. I never bought baby formula -- it was delivered to the stadium. You don't think about the end because you're enjoying it now."

What they used to make in a week during the season might be what they make in a year now. Players devoted to a single purpose -- sometimes for a decade or more -- must find a new one.

Former Redskins tackle Chris Samuels recalls a conversation with an ex-player a year or two ago. The player had to retire after nearly a half-dozen NFL seasons because of knee problems. He did not have his college degree but had a family to support.

"He said he'd be glad making 30, 40 thousand dollars a year," Samuels said. "He wishes someone had helped him or that he would have sought more help how to manage the money, been a better spender, saving. I hear that a lot. Their bodies are broken up. Their best working days as far as being an athlete are behind them. Now what are they going to do?"

Following his retirement after the 2009 season, Samuels worked briefly with the Redskins before becoming an offensive coordinator at an Alabama high school. He applied for a college job but was rejected because he didn't yet have his degree. Now he's attending classes at his alma mater, Alabama, and working as an offensive line assistant. When he finishes his degree (he has nine classes left), he will seek a full-time coaching job.

He also preaches to college players to focus more on college than he did.

"The only thing on my mind was going to the NFL and making millions of dollars," Samuels said. "I was the guy skipping class and doing barely enough to get by. I'm not in a terrible situation because financially I'm stable. But I need that degree to get a job."

Perception changes.

"At one time we were recognized as the best of the best," Samuels said. "People look at you like you're a superhero. [But] I always kept a level head while I was there, so once everything ended I didn't have a panic attack or go out and go overboard with drinking or trying drugs just to cope."

Bowen's transition was smooth, too, partly for the same reason as Samuels: Financial stability bought him time to determine his next step. Bowen returned to college to get a master's degree in writing from DePaul, paid for by the NFL. He also wrote free columns for a couple newspapers, including The Washington Examiner, to get experience. Now he's a columnist and part owner of the National Football Post. There's also a chance he will get a teaching degree and coach high school football.

"Because you played in the NFL, you get a foot in the door at a lot of places, but that's it," he said. "You still have to work your way up the ladder."

Each step puts them further away from possibly the highlight of their working careers.

"Once it's gone, you never get it back. A lot of guys struggle with that. It's not that they're not smart guys, but it's that transition phase and until you find it ..." Bowen said. "You don't replace it. You move on because you're 35 and drive a minivan. You do different things with your life."

jkeim@washingtonexaminer.com

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