By Vince Agnew, Player Engagement Insider
There are three ways to exit the game of professional football—cut, injured or the luxury of announcing retirement. With the third option being the most desired, yet the least common, players must be proactive in equipping themselves with the tools to build durable success beyond the gridiron.
Two recently retired players, Zac Stacy (Rams, Jets) and Ryan Harris (Broncos, Texans, Chiefs), are in attendance at the NFL’s Sports Media Boot Camp in Bowling Green, Ohio and each left the game of football as a result of a polar-opposite set of scenarios.
Harris and Stacy were selected in the NFL draft in 2007 and 2013 respectively, but that is where the similarities cease.
Stacy was an explosive running back compacted into a five-foot, eight-inch frame by way of his home state, Alabama. Harris is a Minnesota native with the prototypical size crafted to protect the blind side of franchise quarterback.
Growing up in Bibb County, Stacy was a young boy who witnessed many of his peers wandering down the wrong track. But his love for athletics combined with a desire to have a positive influence on his two brothers, motivated him to break the mold.
However that young boy was not able to act his age for long. When he was six-years-old, his younger brother, Justin, was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome, something that was hard for him to understand initially.
“I wasn’t able to go to Chuck-E-Cheese or go to the movies like everyone else,” he shared. “My mom had to work two jobs to provide for us and I was taking care of my brother. I had to grow up quick.
“But, having that background helped to shape me into who I am today and I just want to impact other kids who may have had similar situations,” he said.
Stacy spoke about coming home from school to take care of his brother and preforming the tasks of an everyday parent—feeding, bathing and changing his brother’s diapers only a few years removed from wearing them himself.
With the idea in mind of wanting to make his brother proud, Stacy went on to excel in athletics and receive his degree from Vanderbilt in Special Education.
Harris spoke about how fortunate he was to have parents and an outstanding support system around him that made staying on the straight and narrow more of a demand than an option. He recalled the numerous people throughout the years that have contributed in countless ways to keep pushing him.
The success he experienced throughout his adolescent and teenage years carried over to a successful football and academic career with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. He received two degrees in political science and economics and policy. His competitive nature combined with athletic prowess landed him as a third-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos.
Harris explained his desire to always take the time to identify his passions and priorities after experiencing so many years of not reaching his athletic goals—the same philosophies he strives to share at home with his two children.
After 10 seasons in the league and a historic win in Super Bowl 50 with the team who drafted him, a ride off into the sunset of retirement delivers a feel-good story for Harris.
Stacy’s NFL exit was not quite as glamorous. In the same season that Harris hoisted the Lombardi trophy, Stacy was making a strong campaign in his fourth year when devastation struck on a nationally televised Thursday Night football game.
Stacy’s New York Jets were facing the Buffalo Bills when he was rolled on in a tackle, breaking his leg and dislocating his ankle. He went through a process of 10 procedures and three doctors that all resulted with the same heartbreaking news being delivered.
There would be no more football.
“I invested almost 21 years into this game and had it taken away,” he somberly said. “It was tough and I was in a very bad place at the time.
“I spent months on the couch depressed, eating nothing but Chick-Fil-A, but I had to go on to the next chapter and use my story to help others in this transition,” he said.
One injured. The other retired.
Regardless of their fortunes, each have experienced exceptional achievements because of their willingness to endure. The two now sit side-by-side at the boot camp joined by 17 other attendees to forge meaningful relationships with peers of their past and future careers.
In the last month since announcing his retirement, Harris has been gaining experience and working full-time on the radio in Denver.
“I want to continue my passion of spreading knowledge and encouragement,” Harris explained. “I see sports radio as a way to help educate fans about the game and interact with them. I get to educate others about the game that I love so much.”
Stacy recently become an ambassador for National Down Syndrome Society as well as getting involved with several other initiatives to advocate for individuals coping with the same genetic disorder as his 21-year-old brother. He is now feeling his way into journalism and using the camp as a way to identify another passion.
“There are a lot of things I can do to stay in the realm of the game and that is why I’m here,” he said. “I want to make sure that whatever I do, that I love it—that when I wake up to do it, I am excited about it.
“This boot camp has been great, I’ve enjoyed every aspect of it,” he said.
Though there are few similarities between their journeys, one thing is consistent. The former players understand the importance of capitalizing on the unique opportunities that they are being peppered with this week.
Boot camp joined a mixture of rare talents in two deeply intertwined fields. Many walks of life and sets of experiences came together to represent the diversity that sport can promote. The players understand the power behind each of their stories and they are now learning ways to effectively communicate them.
“Every morning I wake up and breathe, I’m winning,” Harris said with a smile. “I want to be a good husband, father and serve my community. If that is through speaking on the radio, that is what I want to do.”