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The Afterlife

No, not the one of those with certain religious convictions.

The one that professional sports athletes lead after their playing days are done.

Sadly, the death of Junior Seau on Wednesday has many of us wondering if the void created when the games are done is ever really filled. That is one thought that comes to mind. The other, which is the bigger one, is the overwhelming sense of loss that has to envelop the Seau family and close friends of Mr. Seau, as they try to wrap their heads around how any of this could have happened.

An analytical mind may wonder if it were really at all possible for him to have even taken his own life as authorities say all evidence points to, and demand an investigative team immediately be formed to question the original findings surrounding Seau’s death—such are the feelings of disbelief that tragedy such as this brings.

The afterlife of a professional athlete and especially one who has enjoyed a long and successful career, is not one that should be taken for granted when it comes to smoothness of transition or in the satisfaction or lack thereof, that is derived when their playing days are finally finished forever.

Oftentimes, many of these athletes did not get the full benefit of a complete education. For recent history, we need look no further than the University of Kentucky’s NCAA championship basketball team starting five, and their opting for the NBA draft. I’m not placing judgment here…just pointing out that in many instances these athletes have been playing their sport since a very young age, they try to hit pay dirt and lucrative contracts while their bodies and primes permit, and the thought of what happens after they are through playing, is largely ignored.

Woody Allen said 90 percent of life is showing up, but we would be naive to rely solely on almost perfect attendance as we go through life, to ensure some measure of success. I suggest life is also about preparation and practice—both something that professional athletes know much about, but typically only display in their respective sports of choice. If they haven’t prepared for life afterwards in some fashion, whether it be obtaining secondary degrees, completing original degrees they left school early for or just committing themselves to the understanding that although nothing will take the place of playing the game they love, they can still feel whole, satisfied and fulfilled as they enter their non-playing days.

When I was growing up, I enjoyed baseball’s various tributes to its retired players in the form of Old-Timer’s Day Games and Old-Timer’s Day All-Star Games. As a young boy, it was thrilling to see the game’s older stars who were no longer active, but who I read so much about—not caring one bit how they appeared one step slower or how they sometimes filled out their uniforms awkwardly, compared to their playing days. To watch Joe DiMaggio come to the plate and wield a bat, to hear the thunderous applause as Mickey Mantle approached the batter’s box for his turn—created excitement, fun and a sense of connection for not only the fans, but the old players themselves.

For former NFL stars, the start of the football season, during perhaps a team’s first home game, is a time when retired players can reappear at team hall of fame tributes and the like. They are not actually playing games again, of course. But it’s a chance, however briefly, for these former warriors to revisit the gridiron successes of their youth. They get to share stories with current players and also once more are able to enjoy the roar of crowds that appreciated them in their youthful splendor, as they are introduced pre-game or at halftime ceremonies.

Perhaps now that Bounty Gate has been settled and the season is set to begin fresh once more, maybe, just maybe, the NFL executive team, its team player representatives, team management officials and union leaders can also begin anew and commit to a fresh focus on what happens to its players in their afterlives.

The NFL is a money machine. For every one of its players that sees a seamless transition to a career in the booth as an analyst or play-by-play guy, there are too many instances of players that struggle with their direction and life afterwards. The NFL has the resources, can, and must, do a better job for the many that could use a helping hand, as they transition the afterlife.

 

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