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Life after football: Addressing mental health of former NFL players

Friday, December 29, 2023 11:38 AM

By Endeavor Health

The event panelists (seated from left to right): Dr. Ravi Bashyal, Dr. Hallie Labrador, Dr. Nicole Reams, Dr. Nirav Shah, and Dr. Walter Whang answering a question, along with moderator Dr. Julian Bailes.

The event panelists (seated from left to right): Dr. Ravi Bashyal, Dr. Hallie Labrador, Dr. Nicole Reams, Dr. Nirav Shah, and Dr. Walter Whang answering a question, along with moderator Dr. Julian Bailes.

When Endeavor Health recently partnered with two elite organizations to present a discussion on life after professional sports, the topic of mental health was discussed.

Off the Field NFL Wives Association an organization made up of the wives and significant others of active and retired NFL players, presented Cocktails and Conversations, a discussion about pain management, transition and life after football at the Hilton Magnificent Mile Chicago, sponsored by Endeavor Health and Hall of Fame Health.

In addition to the physical ailments that linger after a professional athlete leaves the game, retirement takes a toll on mental health and emotional wellbeing. As awareness for mental health challenges grows, it’s something that’s being talked about more.

Former Chicago Bear legend, Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Singletary currently sits on the board of Hall of Fame Health. He was the keynote speaker at the Cocktails and Conversations event. He’s a frequent public speaker at events such as these and talks openly about his own physical and mental health journey.

There’s an attachment to the game that players don’t recognize until they’re done, Singletary said.

“When you’re out of the game, it’s daunting if you don’t have a plan.”

When their football career is over, players and their families are often left scrambling to create a life and an identity for themselves, he said. “That’s the tough part that most people don’t think about. But it exists and it’s very real.”

According to Singletary, events like this help bring awareness to what players go through and what life after football can look like. Players can deal with physical pain and ailments because they’re conditioned from an early age to do so. Mental health is a different story.

“You’ve got to figure it out and you’ve got to be really intentional to get there,” Singletary said. “Otherwise, you’re going to struggle.”

Mike Singletary (center) with retired NFL players, including Jarrett Irons and Grant Irons (far left to right).

Mike Singletary (center) with retired NFL players, including Jarrett Irons and Grant Irons (far left to right).

Dr. Walter J. Whang, a psychiatrist and system medical director for Endeavor Health Linden Oaks Hospital and medical director for Linden Oaks Medical Group, praised Singletary’s speech.

“When people have their whole lives focused on being number one and getting to the pinnacle – and the NFL is the pinnacle – the loss of identity can be very crushing for any player,” he said.

“It’s really important to look at their strengths, including their natural resilience, drive and determination. The important things for NFL players to remember is to not lose sight of what got them there. That they are very passionate individuals and extremely hard workers and for them to get to the NFL showed a great deal of character. Just because they retired, they did not lose their character.”

One of the pitfalls former players will encounter is that they will start to isolate and lose their sense of purpose, he said.

“One of the important things for anybody who is retiring, from the NFL or any part of life, is you’ve got to re-find purpose and try to move toward that purpose,” he said.

Additionally, the loss of the bonds they have with fellow players can be a major life change. They miss the camaraderie.

“That loss of community is a huge issue,” he said. “It’s trying to find themselves with a new sense of community.”

Finally, former players might be tempted to self-medicate or abuse substances.

“Adding substance issues to someone experiencing a loss of identity can be extremely problematic and make the situation much worse,” he said.

Transitioning to life after football can be challenging. Players deal with loss of identity, loss of self and loss of the camaraderie of being on a team, said former Arizona Cardinals player Jarrett Irons.

“It’s a transition from something you’ve been doing since you were a little kid and gaining a lot of accolades from. All of a sudden that ends and you have to transition to life after,” he said. “The average career is three to five years. When you’ve done something for so long and can no longer do it anymore — there’s going to be a lot of anxiety and stress that comes from that.”

His brother Grant Irons, who played professionally with the Buffalo Bills and the Oakland Raiders, agreed. “It’s a total lifestyle change. You’re used to playing from elementary school, junior high, high school and college and then professional — you’re used to everything being so structured. And when that stops, it stops abruptly,” he said. “For us, we want to help in any way that we can and lock arms with different organizations. There are so many good ones out there.”

Their father, Gerald Irons, set an example by earning a master’s degree while he was still playing professionally, Jarrett Irons said. Both brothers earned post-graduate degrees as well.

“We were set up to be successful with life after sports — we were taught that. Even with that, it was a big transition, no matter how prepared you are. That’s why it’s good to have organizations like this,” Jarrett Irons said. “Athletes in general, we have a lot of ego. No one wants to ask for help when they need help or when they’re in pain. They want to tough it out.”

Nirav N. Shah, MD, an anesthesiologist and pain specialist with Endeavor Health, said there is a significant adjustment period once a player’s career is over and they’re moving on to a new phase in their lives.

“There is such a thing as an adjustment disorder where you have anxiety and depression that come from not being able to cope with change in your life. Some people need therapy, but in this country a lot of people don’t pursue that or they sweep it under the rug or they deny it because they’re too proud or culturally it’s not acceptable,” Dr. Shah said.

“That’s changing slowly, which is good. But I think a lot of people, players particularly, may deal with these injuries from a career of wear and tear. Or maybe these injuries are what ended their career. There’s probably a bit of psychological trauma that comes from that. Loss of identity and coping with that. And there’s the aspect of, what do I do now? Did they get a college degree? Did they financially plan well? These are all stressors … and I think their wives play a big role in all of that. They have to work together.”

The Off-the-Field NFL Wives’ Association representatives (from left to right): Amber Staples, Sherice Brown, Amy Cramer (Hall of Fame Health), Michelle McElroy, Tamiko McKenzie and Ashley Brown.

The Off-the-Field NFL Wives’ Association representatives (from left to right): Amber Staples, Sherice Brown, Amy Cramer (Hall of Fame Health), Michelle McElroy, Tamiko McKenzie and Ashley Brown.

Ashley Brown is a founder of Off the Field NFL Wives Association and wife of Ray Brown, a 20-year NFL veteran and former NFL coach. She’s very familiar with life after football. “I think the transition for us was still a little difficult because you’re used to that camaraderie, you’re used to being at games every Sunday and the other events that go on within the teams. No matter how long you play, there’s still a transition period that has to take place,” said Ashley Brown.

She is on the board of directors and chairs the sponsorship committee. On the Friday before the Super Bowl, the organization hosts a fashion show fundraiser. This year’s event will be in Las Vegas.

Ashley Brown’s organization frequently partners with Hall of Fame Health for presentations in several cities.

“Events like this are meant to educate our families and tell them about services and options that are available for them,” she said.

 The outreach is ongoing. Off the Field NFL Wives Association collects all the email addresses for the players and sends out pertinent information that players might otherwise let languish in their inboxes, she said.

Sherice Brown is another co-founder of Off the Field NFL Wives Association. She is the wife of Tim Brown, who played for the Oakland Raiders for 16 years and is a Notre Dame graduate and Heisman Trophy winner.

“Our organization prides itself on being a sisterhood in the NFL organization. We provide resources and support that someone else might not be able to give because they wouldn’t be able to relate to the same situations or circumstances that you would experience. We’re there first and foremost as a sisterhood, but we also support our NFL communities. Each year at our Super Bowl fashion show, we choose a national and local charity to benefit. And those charities are normally women and children’s charities,” said Sherice Brown.

Life after football can be challenging because it is such a transition. “But most of the guys are going into their second business or they’re still very much related to the game by appearances and showing up to be a support to the new members of the team,” she added. “It’s always awesome to see how they go back and support the team.”

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