By Cynthia Zordich, Player Engagement Insider
If you have ever loved something or someone unabashedly - these words will cut you to the core.
If you have ever played a game you loved and stopped - you know the pain of letting go.
We raise our youth on America's fields: football, baseball and soccer fields. Enthusiastic young parents drive their kids to play because they believe that organized sports build character, teach adversity, and develop leadership skills. Oh, and it's fun!
Many of their kids will go on to play high school football, some will play in college, a handful will play at the highest level - the NFL.
What they all have in common is that one day they will have to let go. The lucky ones will stop by choice. For others, it may be a roster cut, an injury or mother nature herself that makes the final call. When it isn't your choice, no matter what the level, letting go is a transition process, not a switch. There are factors that dictate how the transition plays out. Emotional and societal factors that athletes and families should be aware of and acknowledge.
A few years back, I produced a series of images for an art exhibit featuring former Pittsburgh Steelers.
I had transferred my Steelers player portraits on to old sports pages of the Pittsburgh Press. Player portraits accompanied by player quotes that questioned post NFL life and served as precautionary tales for future players.
"What do you do with the rest of your life when you can no longer do what you were born to do?" Ron Wolfley '95 St. Louis,'92-93 Cleveland, '85-91 St. Louis/Phoenix
"Before I knew it the game was over. I was retired and now my past has run away from me faster than any running back had ever done." Walker Lee Ashley, Jr., LB, 1983-88 Minnesota, 1989 Kansas City, 1990 Minnesota.
"My ego couldn't accept being just an average player. The reality was clear to me - you aren't what you were. The game had been so good to me. I had too much respect for it to just settle for collecting a paycheck from it." Bill Fralic '93 Detroit, '85-92 Atlanta
"I couldn't exist without football." Mike Ditka, '88 Hall of Fame'69-72 Dallas'67-68 Philadelphia'61-66 Chicago
"This isn't like any other good-bye you'll ever say. People who never played can't understand it. This isn't something you just turn off. It's not like closing a door." Tommy McDonald, '98 Hall of Fame,'68 Cleveland,'67 Atlanta, '65-66 LA Rams,'64 Dallas,'57-63 Philadelphia
The artwork was displayed on rusted steel. My intention was to provoke current and future players to confront their inevitable destiny. To confirm the one thing that all players have in common: that one day they will be done. Outside of player impact, I also hoped to open the window of player transition to Steelers fans, as well.\
Keeping the Steelers unnamed was intentional. Each year, in every sport, we revere the athletes on the field. When they're replaced, it's one easy swipe on the chalkboard. In no time, the new guy is wearing their number. Fans are quick to dismiss. But, the NFL is not like the days of the gladiator. Though out of the limelight, players live on. They are men with families... and futures. I wanted people visiting my exhibit to think about that as they traveled from one piece to the next and realized that many of these players, the same guys they cheered for each Sunday, were as forgotten by them as the old Pittsburgh Press clippings beneath them. It is a 'go away' mentality that stems from fans not wanting to acknowledge their own mortality. They get angry at the veteran for losing a step. Everybody's a bum. It is a viscous cycle that perpetuates the confusion of transition.
In response, still stinging from an inglorious exit, many players seem conditioned to play-down their field achievements. They are consciously overly humble about their 'glory days'. The world wants them to 'let go' and 'move on' without having any idea of how difficult the process is. A transition process that holds true for all athletes - at all levels.
Excerpt from When the Clock Runs Out, 25 Former Players Share Their Stories of Hardship and Triumph in Letting Go of the Game, Bill Lyon, Cynthia Zordich, Triumph Books
Bill Lyon/Dr. Joel Fish on the stages of transition
"The first thing that occurs is that your identity dies. ‘There is an undeniable, unavoidable grief process,’ says Dr. Joel Fish, a sports psychologist. ‘The reason that the emotional trauma is far greater for a football player than for other athletes is that football is different in terms of the toll on your body and the rhythms of the sport. There is bonding and there is the competitive rush, just as there are in other sports, but what separates football is the building to a crescendo once a week.’
‘The formula changes depending upon the player’s circumstance. Is the retirement forced? Or is it planned? It’s far different for a John Elway, for example, who chose how he would go out, than it is for someone who is cut and then goes unclaimed by any other team. One does it voluntarily, if a bit reluctantly. The other feels total rejection.’
‘What adds to the mix is that for most of them, football is a profession more than it is a job. A job is something you know you have to get up and go to every day. It’s how you pay your way. A profession sustains you on several levels, not just financial. That’s why it’s always easier to retire from a job than it is from a profession.’
Dr. Fish is director of the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia. He has done work for all four of the city’s teams: the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers and Flyers. He agrees that football players seem to suffer the keenest withdrawal pangs. Whether they leave the game voluntarily or are pushed out the door, they face the same five-stage emotional catharsis as, say, a cancer patient who is given six months to live.
First, there is denial: Hey, come on, I can still play. What do they mean, I’ve lost it? I’ve got at least a year left, maybe two if I really take care of myself. Dr. Fish: ‘The ability to objectively evaluate yourself is compromised. You feel the same. You look in the mirror and you don’t see any appreciable difference. Maybe you haven’t even lost a step, but at that level only a minute slippage, maybe even two to three percent, is enough.’
Then comes anger. Why me? I can still bring it. I keep myself in shape. I work out all year. I eat right. I don’t deserve this. ‘Dr. Fish: ‘The fairness issue. I’ve held up my end of the bargain. I’ve given my all for my whole career. So don’t I deserve better? Where’s the justice?’
Then comes the bargaining. All right, I’ll quit feeling sorry for myself. But I need one more game. I’ve had a great career. If it’s time for it to end, OK. But is it asking too much for me to go out on my terms? Dr. Fish: ‘God, let me play just one more year. Even just one more game. I’ll do anything. You bargain with God, with your coach, your general manager, your agent. You try to strike some sort of deal that will keep you around. I once had a pitcher tell me: ‘I’d cut off my right arm to pitch one more game.’ And he was right-handed.’
Then comes depression. It really is over, isn’t it? No more practices. No more camps. No more games. No more hangin’ with the guys. I’ll never pull on the colors again. The only way I’ll ever be in a locker room again is if somebody invites me. And even then I’ll still be an outsider... Dr. Fish: ‘Reality arrives and it is stark and undeniable. You can no longer ignore that it’s over, so there is a certain coming-to-terms, and with that comes a measure of regret. I didn’t really appreciate it when I had it. I wish I’d known then what I know now. The second phase of depression is grappling for a sense of identity. Now who am I? It’s like a three-legged chair that’s had one leg pulled out. You look at other men your age, maybe thirty or thirty-five, and they’re still on the upswing. And me? I’m going to old-timer’s games. There’s a tendency to mourn wasted opportunity.’
Finally, hopefully, there comes acceptance. It’s time to move on. Snap out of it. You’re a football player, for God’s sake. Enough with the sniffling. Get a grip and get up and get a move on. You could always get up from a hit, you can get up from this. Dr. Fish: ‘This is my reality and I have to deal with it. No more wasting energy on regret. It’s time to think in the future, on what will be and not what was. You may never reach one hundred percent closure, but it is possible to reach the point where you think about it only if someone starts asking you about it, and even then it’s not a fixation.’ The tricky part is realizing that one ending can become a new beginning. ‘The Chinese,’ noted Dr. Fish, ‘use the same word for crisis and for opportunity.’"
From crisis comes opportunity. With a new understanding of the legitimacy of transition, the NFL Bridge To Success Program was implemented by NFL Player Engagement in 2015. This October, more than 150 former NFL players gathered in Grapevine, Texas for the four-day transition workshop. Emphasis at Bridge To Success is not in letting go, but reminding NFL players who they are and what they have accomplished. It is about taking those same skills and applying them to new fields. It provokes the question - why let go of something that defines you? In the words of Ricky Watters, "For who? For what?"
HOLD ON. Hold on to the very skills that brought you to the highest level of your playing field.
HOLD ON to your competitive mindset, your discipline, your team focus. Hold on to your faith, your brotherhood, your confidence. Plan and prepare for each day the way you prepared for each game. Study your opponent, know his strengths and weaknesses. Know your own strengths and weaknesses. Represent your team, your town, your family, the shield. Remember that you wear your name on your back - forever. That your family carries your name - forever. That you are an athlete - always.
HOLD ON to who you are and feel the honor of what you have done.
Players at the Bridge to Success are instructed to stop undermining their achievements. They are reminded that they are one of the 1% who played at the highest level. They are warned that transition is not the time to crawl into a black hole, or underplay their success. It is not the time to lose confidence or be modest. It is the time to apply the same effort that got you in the league to a new field of play. It is a bold message that offers clarity for the former player: It is not who you were - it is who you are.
FIELDS CHANGE - PEOPLE STAY THE SAME.
The Bridge to Success is an annual event to assist players and spouses to successfully transition from the NFL toward the rest of their lives. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or check out this video https://vimeo.com/user15638781/review/145408865/727fca2ab9 .
Cynthia Zordich is the co-author of When The Clock Runs Out and the founder of THREAD, a private platform for NFL women. She is the Wife of Former NFL Safety/current UM DB Coach, Michael Zordich and the Mother of Former Fullback Michael Zordich (Carolina Panthers), Former D-1 QB Alex Zordich and Daughter Aidan Zordich (Production Assistant, Funny or Die).