Tackling the post-football void

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 24, 2012 - 11:14 PM

Once players retire, they can face depression while struggling to leave behind a game they've played all their lives.

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Former Vikings linebacker Pete Bercich, who now works in broadcasting, missed being in the locker room. “You get used to that atmosphere. And then you have to go sit in a cubicle somewhere, in a corporation? It’s so different.’’

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He was a former NFL star with every reason to live.

But for George Koonce, retirement brought a sense of depression that he now believes commonly affects players leaving a unique and treasured job.

And so, one day in North Carolina in 2003, Koonce got drunk at a beach and drove home, taking a curve at 75 miles per hour and flying into a ditch.

"Whatever happens, happens," Koonce said of what he now knows was a suicide attempt. "I didn't care."

The former linebacker played eight seasons in the NFL, seven with the Packers, and had a Super Bowl championship ring. He had a loving wife, no money issues, and two "wonderful" children.

But after retirement ...

"I was totally numb," Koonce said. "It took me to a dark and lonely place. I was embarrassed to talk with friends in the league. I envied them."

Koonce's story has a bittersweet ending. His wife, Tunisia, made sure he got help -- "She pulled me out of that ditch," he said. He sought counseling, returned to church, went back to his alma mater, East Carolina, for a master's degree.

From there he went to Marquette, working as a fundraiser for the school while completing his doctorate in interdisciplinary studies last June.

He studied what he had lived; his dissertation was about the problems former NFL players face in retirement.

But Tunisia was not there to see it. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed away in 2009.

Still reeling from that devastating loss, Koonce defended his dissertation in May. Then he walked back to his office, logged onto his computer and saw Junior Seau had committed suicide.

"My heart was broken, absolutely broken," Koonce said.

With talk of brain injuries dominating the NFL landscape, there is a rush to look only there when confronting depression in retired athletes.

"It boils down to the general penchant in our country for blaming various outside threats or stressors or injuries like that for some of our mental health issues," said Dr. Thomas Schwenk, who studied the issue at the University of Michigan.

But discussions with retired players painted a picture of a difficult transition. As Koonce found, from talking to hundreds of former athletes, when a career ends, there is a void. And many aren't ready for it.

"I know we're all tough," Koonce said. "But we're all human, too. If you need help, please seek it. Go get it. This is happening too often. One is too many."

Starting over

To Pete Bercich, the NFL locker room is one of the greatest places to be, and a place he misses. A lot.

"All people care about is whether you're there on game day, if you work in practice," he said. "There is a brutal amount of honesty that goes on in there.''

Bercich played five seasons at linebacker with the Vikings. His career ended in the NFC Championship Game following the 2000 season. On the opening kickoff of the Vikings' 41-0 loss to the Giants, he went down to bust up the wedge, was knocked out, and never played another down.

It wasn't necessarily the adulation he missed upon retirement. It was that edgy locker room, the intensity of the game.

"You get used to that atmosphere," Bercich said. "And then you have to go sit in a cubicle somewhere, in a corporation? It's so different. You can't be honest all the time. Suddenly, you need filters. ... When you quit playing the game, there is a void. And there's nothing to fill that."

Former Vikings center Matt Birk, now with Baltimore, is nearing the end of his career and he's already wondering what will come next.

"Football's a hell of a way to make a living," he said. "It's such a high. You can be sure of one thing, whatever comes next is going to be different, and I don't think it will measure up. I think about it, a lot."

Uncertainty looms

Former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, transitioning into a career in the media, misses the regimented schedule of the game.

"It's not like I felt I lost an identity [in retirement], or that I always thought of myself as a football player," he said. "For me it was, I'm such a creature of habit the void of not having a daily schedule, it was tough. Tougher than I expected.''

Ken Ruettgers played tackle in the NFL for more than a decade. By the time injuries in 1996 forced his retirement he had a master's degree, had saved his money. But he struggled with depression.

"I had thoughts like, 'What do I have to look forward to? Is the best part of my life behind me?'" he said. "Depression is a tricky thing. You might not think you're depressed. Then you find yourself sitting on the same couch for a week, you haven't shaved and you're not getting out of bed until noon."

Ruettgers wrote a book on role models after retirement, parlaying that into a job with his publisher. He worked 9-to-5 for the equivalent of a per diem check, feeling bogged down by the business environment.

Ruettgers returned to school, got a Ph.D. in sociology and is now a professor at Central Oregon Community College.

In 2001 he started GamesOver.org as a resource to help athletes transition into retirement. Ruettgers likens the process to that of grieving, one that begins with denial and ends with acceptance.

Money, health issues

A University of Michigan study of retired players found that nearly 16 percent of the 1,617 subjects were found to have dealt with moderate to severe depression. Players dealing with career-related pain and medical issues suffered the most.

Schwenk, the lead author of the report, is now dean of the University of Nevada School of Medicine.

"Retirement is a harsh transition," he said. "Sometimes it's a money issue, more often it's a self-esteem issue. 'Who am I? What am I going to do?' Health issues can make things worse."

Of course, the process itself is painful.

"You're waiting to be recruited, to be entitled, to be supported, to be insulated, and nobody is there to do that for you any more," Ruettgers said.

Bercich is now a part of the Vikings' radio broadcast team and finds being connected to the game a blessing.

"But what you do on the field makes it hard off of it," he said. "It's such a shift. As a player you're out there running around with your hair on fire; I used to sprint downfield and break up wedges. Then it's over and you say, 'What now?' "

Koonce heard it over and over. For some, when the career ended, "a part of them died."

"Nothing you can do after football can fill the void of running through that tunnel, having those fans screaming your name,'' Koonce said.

Former Vikings lineman Chris Liwienski's career ended after stints in Arizona, Miami and Jacksonville. He is back in the Twin Cities, working in medical device sales.

"I miss that challenge," he said. "The physical, drive-yourself-to-the-limit challenge. You line up, and you believe in yourself. That is awesome. There is nothing like that.''

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