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.

hide

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.’’

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

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 Communit 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.''

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Toronto - LP: D. Hutchison 2 FINAL
NY Yankees - WP: M. Tanaka 5
Washington - WP: S. Strasburg 2 FINAL
Miami - LP: N. Eovaldi 1
NY Mets - WP: J. deGrom 10 FINAL
Atlanta - LP: E. Santana 2
Boston - WP: J. Kelly 3 FINAL
Baltimore - LP: M. Gonzalez 2
Milwaukee - LP: W. Peralta 0 FINAL
Pittsburgh - WP: V. Worley 1
Chicago WSox - WP: J. Danks 10 FINAL
Tampa Bay - LP: N. Karns 5
Cleveland - WP: C. Kluber 7 FINAL
Minnesota - LP: A. Swarzak 2
Detroit - LP: R. Porcello 2 FINAL
Kansas City - WP: J. Guthrie 5
Seattle - LP: H. Iwakuma 3 FINAL
Houston - WP: C. McHugh 8
Los Angeles - WP: C. Perez 8 FINAL
Chicago Cubs - LP: J. Turner 5
Texas - WP: S. Tolleson 2 FINAL
LA Angels - LP: H. Street 1
Philadelphia - LP: M. Gonzalez 6 FINAL
Oakland - WP: S. Doolittle 8
San Francisco - LP: R. Vogelsong 2 FINAL
San Diego - WP: I. Kennedy 8
Arizona - LP: W. Miley 3 FINAL
Colorado - WP: C. Bergman 8
Cincinnati - WP: A. Simon 7 FINAL
St. Louis - LP: L. Lynn 2
San Diego 22 FINAL
Buffalo 10
Dallas 34 FINAL
St. Louis 31
Washington 34 FINAL
Philadelphia 37
Houston 17 FINAL
NY Giants 30
Minnesota 9 FINAL
New Orleans 20
Tennessee 7 FINAL
Cincinnati 33
Baltimore 23 FINAL
Cleveland 21
Green Bay 7 FINAL
Detroit 19
Indianapolis 44 FINAL
Jacksonville 17
Oakland 9 FINAL
New England 16
San Francisco 14 FINAL
Arizona 23
Denver 20 FINAL
Seattle 26
Kansas City 34 FINAL
Miami 15
Pittsburgh 37 FINAL
Carolina 19
Chicago 7:30 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 9/25/14 7:25 PM
Washington
Columbus 4 FINAL
Carolina 3
Buffalo 0 FINAL
Washington 1
St. Louis 3 FINAL
Columbus 4
Calgary 1 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Edmonton 0 FINAL
Calgary 1
Old Dominion 45 FINAL
Rice 42
Troy 0 FINAL
(12) Georgia 66
Georgia Tech 27 FINAL
Virginia Tech 24
Eastern Mich 14 FINAL
(9) Michigan State 73
Iowa 24 FINAL
Pittsburgh 20
Bowling Green 17 FINAL
(19) Wisconsin 68
Maryland 34 FINAL
Syracuse 20
Tulane 13 FINAL
Duke 47
Hawaii 12 FINAL
Colorado 21
Marshall 48 FINAL
Akron 17
North Carolina 41 FINAL
(23) East Carolina 70
Army 21 FINAL
Wake Forest 24
Virginia 33 FINAL
(20) BYU 41
(6) Texas A&M 58 FINAL
SMU 6
Rutgers 31 FINAL
Navy 24
Central Mich 10 FINAL
Kansas 24
Utah 26 FINAL
Michigan 10
Florida 21 FINAL
(3) Alabama 42
Louisville 34 FINAL
FIU 3
Fla Atlantic 19 FINAL
Wyoming 20
Indiana 31 FINAL
Missouri 27
San Jose St 7 FINAL
Minnesota 24
Texas State 35 FINAL
Illinois 42
Massachusetts 7 FINAL
Penn State 48
Georgia State 14 FINAL
Washington 45
Appalachian St 20 FINAL
Southern Miss 21
(14) Miss State 34 FINAL
(17) LSU 29
Northern Ill 14 FINAL
Arkansas 52
Middle Tennessee 17 FINAL
Memphis 36
Utah State 14 FINAL
Arkansas State 21
Miami-Ohio 24 FINAL
Cincinnati 31
Idaho 24 FINAL
Ohio U 36
Ball State 23 FINAL
Toledo 34
(13) So Carolina 48 FINAL
Vanderbilt 34
(4) Oklahoma 45 FINAL
West Virginia 33
Ga Southern 28 FINAL
South Alabama 6
UNLV 14 FINAL
Houston 47
Miami-Florida 31 FINAL
(21) Nebraska 41
New Mexico 38 FINAL
New Mexico St 35
Clemson 17 FINAL
(1) Florida State 23
California 45 FINAL
Arizona 49
San Diego St 7 FINAL
Oregon State 28
(2) Oregon 38 FINAL
Washington St 31
Louisiana 9 FINAL
Boise State 34
Texas Tech 9/25/14 6:30 PM
(24) Oklahoma State
Appalachian St 9/25/14 6:30 PM
Ga Southern
(11) UCLA 9/25/14 9:00 PM
(15) Arizona State
Middle Tennessee 9/26/14 7:00 PM
Old Dominion
Fresno State 9/26/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico
Texas-El Paso 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(25) Kansas State
Tennessee 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(12) Georgia
Vanderbilt 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Kentucky
Wyoming 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(9) Michigan State
Northwestern 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Penn State
TCU 9/27/14 11:00 AM
SMU
Iowa 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Purdue
Tulane 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Rutgers
So Florida 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(19) Wisconsin
Colorado State 9/27/14 11:30 AM
Boston College
Western Mich 9/27/14 11:30 AM
Virginia Tech
Maryland 9/27/14 12:30 PM
Indiana
Akron 9/27/14 12:30 PM
Pittsburgh
Bowling Green 9/27/14 2:00 PM
Massachusetts
Arkansas 9/27/14 2:30 PM
(6) Texas A&M
Kent State 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Virginia
Western Ky 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Navy
Minnesota 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Michigan
Wake Forest 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Louisville
FIU 9/27/14 2:30 PM
UAB
(1) Florida State 9/27/14 2:30 PM
NC State
Miami-Ohio 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo
Colorado 9/27/14 3:00 PM
California
Louisiana Tech 9/27/14 3:00 PM
(5) Auburn
Texas 9/27/14 3:00 PM
Kansas
Temple 9/27/14 3:00 PM
Connecticut
(16) Stanford 9/27/14 3:15 PM
Washington
TX-San Antonio 9/27/14 4:00 PM
Fla Atlantic
South Alabama 9/27/14 4:00 PM
Idaho
Cincinnati 9/27/14 5:00 PM
(22) Ohio State
Rice 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Southern Miss
Missouri 9/27/14 6:00 PM
(13) So Carolina
Boise State 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Air Force
North Carolina 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Clemson
Central Mich 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Toledo
Troy 9/27/14 6:00 PM
ULM
New Mexico St 9/27/14 6:30 PM
(17) LSU
Memphis 9/27/14 6:30 PM
(10) Ole Miss
Duke 9/27/14 6:30 PM
Miami-Florida
Texas State 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Tulsa
Washington St 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Utah
(8) Notre Dame 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Syracuse
(7) Baylor 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Iowa State
UNLV 9/27/14 7:00 PM
San Diego St
Illinois 9/27/14 8:00 PM
(21) Nebraska
Oregon State 9/27/14 9:30 PM
(18) USC
Nevada 9/27/14 9:30 PM
San Jose St
Chivas USA 0 FINAL
Toronto FC 3
Toronto 40 FINAL
Brt Columbia 23
Edmonton 23 FINAL
Hamilton 25
Calgary 15 FINAL
Montreal 31
Ottawa 32 FINAL
Saskatchewan 35
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 preseason     
Aug 8 - vs. Oakland 7 pmX10-6
Aug 16 - vs. Arizona 7:30 pmX30-28
Aug 23 - at Kansas City 7 pmX30-12
Aug 28 - at Tennessee 7 pmX19-3
2014 regular season     
Sep 7 - at St. Louis NoonX34-6
Sep 14 - vs. New England NoonX30-7
Sep 21 - at New Orleans Noon
Sep 28 - vs. Atlanta 3:25 pm
Oct 2 - at Green Bay 7:25 pm
Oct 12 - vs. Detroit Noon
Oct 19 - at. Buffalo Noon
Oct 26 - at Tampa Bay Noon
Nov 2 - vs. Washington Noon
Nov 9 - Bye
Nov 16 - at Chicago Noon
Nov. 23 - vs. Green Bay Noon
Nov. 30 - vs. Carolina Noon
Dec 7 - vs. NY Jets Noon
Dec 14 - at Detroit Noon
Dec 21 - at Miami Noon
Dec 28 - vs. Chicago Noon

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Grade the Vikings offense

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close