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Is There Life After Football Excerpt

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The following is an excerpt from  'Is There Life After Football? Surviving The NFL,' a new book by Marquette University sociology professors James Holstein and Richard Jones and former NFL linebacker George Koonce, Jr. Check out Doug Tribou's interview with Feldman here.


What does it mean, to go out on your own terms? There is no perfect exit.

Why is it so hard for players who’ve earned millions of dollars, who’ve been battered and broken, to walk away while they still can? Why don’t they simply sit back and enjoy the well-deserved fruits of their talent and labor? Why can’t players simply leave the bubble and get on with their lives? Former All-Pro Michael Strahan offers a possible explanation:

That’s the tough thing about professional athletes. . . . It’s over and you are in your mid-thirties. . . . You wake up one morning and they tell you you’re not doing something that you’re used to doing for your entire life. What’s your next step? That’s the biggest challenge, I think, for most pro- fessional athletes.2

It’s a shocking scenario, fraught with change, uncertainty, and anxiety. For many players, “the end” is traumatic because of how it begins, with the immediate, shocking displacement Strahan so eloquently describes. Although many former players endorse this explanation, if we look closely at what actually happens to most players, Strahan is slightly off the mark. The end is seldom so straightforward, not nearly as dramatic. It’s unlike almost any other retirement. In fact, the term “retirement” seldom describes the end of an NFL career because players often don’t realize that their careers are over. They don’t retire; they get fired, and they may not even know it.

That’s what George Koonce discovered. He played in the NFL for nine years, a starting middle linebacker with the Green Bay Packers from 1992 through his last game with the Seattle Seahawks in 2000. He was a defensive stalwart for two Super Bowl teams. He signed two multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts. His career was three times longer than the average NFL player’s. But when he reached the end, it wasn’t how Michael Strahan suggests.

At the age of 31, Koonce started 15 games for the 1999 Packers. In week ten, he injured his shoulder. Team physicians told him it would require surgery but he probably couldn’t further aggravate the injury. He could take pain-killing injections and play out the rest of the season or he could immediately go on injured reserve, have the surgery, begin rehab, and start preparing for next season. The Packers were going through a rough season: major coaching changes, up-and-down play, a good possibility of missing the playoffs. Koonce wanted to play—for the team, for his pride, and yes, for the money. He had recently signed a long-term contract and wanted to show the Packers that he was worth their investment. So he played. He took painkilling shots before every game and sometimes at halftime, and played for the rest of the season.

After the final game, Koonce did the normal season-ending exit inter- views with coaches and the team medical staff. They scheduled him for surgery, which he had about a month later in February 2000. Shortly thereafter, Koonce’s agent called to tell him that the Packers wanted him to “renegotiate” his contract. Before the 1999 season, Koonce had signed a four-year, $10.75 million pact that was considered quite lucrative for a middle linebacker. Now the Packers were asking him to restructure the deal—a euphemism for a pay cut. The team was contractually obliged to pay Koonce his negotiated salary for the upcoming years, if he remained on the roster. But remember: NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed. If a player is released, his contract is void. A request to restructure a contract usu- ally carries the implied threat that if the player doesn’t agree to decreased compensation, he’ll be released, and there will be no compensation. Koonce and his agent opted for the downscaled contract. This wasn’t the first time he’d been asked to renegotiate a deal. The Packers had cut his salary under similar circumstances in 1997 after he underwent surgery for a torn ACL.

About three weeks later, Koonce got another call from his agent: “On March 15, the Packers are going to release you.” Suddenly, Koonce wasn’t a Packer. “When I got the phone call I was using the Packers’ facilities for my rehab and treatment. I was getting ready for next season. When I got the phone call I was no longer allowed to use the facilities. So I went back to North Carolina.”3  Injured, without a job, virtually without a home, Koonce never considered retiring. He headed back to ECU, where, as a courtesy to a valued alum, the athletic department allowed him to use their training facilities and trainers.

Koonce had been close with his agent; they spoke almost daily for nine years. They were fellow ECU alums, friends as well as business associates. He said he would put out the word across the NFL that Koonce was now available. Koonce also contacted his former teammate Johnny Holland, a Seattle Seahawks coach at the time: “I reached out to Johnny and he knew my situation that I had been released from the Packers. . . . I asked him to put in a word with Ted Thompson [Seattle director of player personnel] and Coach Holmgren [head coach and general manger of the Seahawks].” Then, for months, Koonce and his agent waited.

I didn’t hear anything. The only concrete conversation or information that I got was from my friend Johnny. He said he was going to talk to Ted Thompson, and he was going to give a message to Coach Holmgren. Coach Holmgren called me in June and asked me if I wanted to be a part of their organization. Coach Holmgren said, “George, I’m going to give you the veteran’s minimum.”

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