For NFL players, one daunting question looms

‘Now that I’m here, what do I do next?’

It was getting close to midnight on Sept. 2, 2008, when I noticed a billboard for DeVry University’s College of Business and Management from the back seat of a town car. My Nike duffel bag, stuffed with a couple of weeks’ worth of shorts and T-shirts, rested on my lap. My hands were stacked on it, supporting my cheek as I looked out the window. I was headed from the Atlanta airport to my new home, an extended-stay hotel in Flowery Branch, Georgia.

The day before, the Monday after our final preseason game, I was sitting in the DBs meeting room to hear the Week 1 game plan when someone poked his head in: “Fox, they need you upstairs.” I had spent the first three years of my career with the Broncos. Now I was being traded to the Falcons at the start of my fourth season—my contract year, the most important season in my life.

A day later, I boarded the plane. Over the course of that three-hour flight, an internal voice that had never risen above a whisper took center stage.

What the f— just happened?

If I don’t ball this season, I will be the least attractive free agent. I’m a union leader, a headache who hasn’t distinguished himself as a player. Why bother when you could get a quiet rookie for less of a cap hit?

And besides: How the hell am I going to shine on this s—-y team? They went 4–12 last season. Vick was in jail. Petrino quit. I wasn’t there for training camp, so I am at the bottom of the depth chart. I may not even get on the field.

This is the beginning of the end.

I’ll be out of the league next season.

What is this game doing to my body and brain?

What am I going to do next?

The next day, I woke up hours before my alarm. In the locker room ahead of practice, the mood was jovial. The stress of two-a-days and training camp was gone. The locker room speakers were blaring country music (white boy Wednesdays). It felt like the locker room after a win—for everyone but me. I was in game-day mode, headphones on, listening to Lil Wayne’s The Dedication. A career montage played in my head, hyping me up as I taped my wrist: back in ’05, when I earned NFL Rookie of the Week in my first start, against the Jaguars; my first start as a true freshman at Maryland, when we beat Clemson to win the ACC championship. They targeted me and I shut them down, earning Player of the Game. By the time practice rolled around, I was ready to kill these motherf—ers and take somebody’s job.

I headed to the field early, overflowing with confidence. Then an offensive coach shouted, “New guy!” and tossed me a scout team pinny to throw over my jersey. New guy? Scout team? The fragile confidence I had spent all morning building up was wobbly with just a few words. What was left of it got decimated that day by Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White. He cooked me.

After practice, I didn’t dive into my playbook. Thinking of that DeVry sign, I went straight to the bookstore and bought a GMAT prep book. But after a couple of hours doing test problems and trying to reteach myself math I thought I’d never need again, I realized I was in trouble. I felt dumb and alone. And trapped.

A majority of the league will, at some point, feel that same moment of anxiety I did. Maybe not stars like Odell Beckham Jr. or Jalen Ramsey—stars whose high-pressure moments have only on-field implications. But for the rest of us, the stakes riding on every practice, every game, every meeting, are significant—and most players don’t even realize they exist until it’s too late.

To become NFL players, these men have climbed to great heights, to what they thought was the pedestal, only to find out it’s a pedestal only for stars. For everyone else, at the top waits a balance beam. I was steps away from safely completing the walk when I looked down. And I was terrified.

So rarely do we know that we are entering a new phase in our lives—that we’ve reached an inflection point that will change everything. That night in Atlanta was mine.

Former NFL linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, a friend and college teammate of mine, told me that his came before his sixth season. Jackson, a 2006 Browns second-round pick, started in his first three seasons before injuries kept him off the field for most of the last year of his deal. Under a one-year contract for his fifth season, Jackson had a chance to prove his worth, but injury caused him to miss the entire year.

He signed one more one-year deal with the Browns and began preparing for the coming season at a Florida training facility, driving distance from the struggles of his upbringing in Largo, Florida, where drug abuse and prison stints tore at the fabric of his family.

“I didn’t have a lot of money,” he remembers. “I was recently divorced, and I didn’t even have a degree.” For the first time, Jackson considered the possibility that his NFL career wasn’t going to be as long and fruitful as he had expected. “I looked at my account,” he says, and he realized he wouldn’t be able to live off it for long, and it became clear that outside of football, he didn’t have many options. “I went into a dark place.”

According to Jackson, the extended adolescence that football afforded him ended right then. “That’s when I became a man.” With the help of a psychiatrist, Jackson pulled himself out of the darkness and focused on a simple plan. Jackson had an outstanding season and signed a substantial four-year contract with the Browns. He played 11 NFL seasons before retiring in 2016.

But most stories don’t end like Jackson’s. The median NFL career lasts only about three years. Most players aren’t high draft picks. Their do-or-die moment can come as early as their first training camp. For them, the preservation of the future they’ve imagined is perilously teetering on every game, every practice and every play, from day one.

Playing pro football is the product of a series of decisions, most made well before adulthood and years before the 18- to 22-year-olds making them are capable of making well-reasoned decisions. That’s why asking a 20-something NFL player about his decision to continue to play pro football is kind of stupid. By that time, he’s spent years focusing on football—not realizing how many other doors are being closed off.

Football is a long, dangerous highway that, to make a career out of it, players get on as children. As they go further and further, there are fewer and fewer off-ramps. Professional sports is unique in that way. If your goal is to be a Supreme Court justice, the things you must learn and accomplish on that journey are valued in countless fields. Even if you never come close to the bench, the longer you stay on that highway, the more potential exit ramps there are. For a football player, the opposite is true.

While our classmates were selecting majors that set them up for a career, we picked majors that worked with our football schedules. When they were going to on-campus events, we were studying playbooks. When they were participating in résumé-building extracurriculars, we were at practice. When they were doing summer internships, we were working out.

We were chasing our dreams. Following our passions.

But for some of us—for me, at least—the pressure supersedes the passion. Football is no longer fun.

I had loved football from the time I was 6 years old, watching with my dad. I needed it. Football focused me.

But the deeper I got into this, the more I could see it for what it actually is—a transaction. Football isn’t immune from the laws of societal physics—nothing in life is without cost.

Players get plenty from football. A boost to the top of the social hierarchy, a shortcut to meeting women, a college scholarship, varying levels of celebrity, some money. At every level, players can take more and more. But the cost also gets greater and greater. The more you play, the more you take—the more you will pay.

As the death of Jordan McNair at my alma mater reminds us, football can cost players their lives. It can cost the use of limbs. And even casual fans are aware of the repercussions of CTE on players. But the opportunity cost can be debilitating too.

By the time I got to Atlanta, I felt like football was my only professional option. That terrible night with the GMAT prep book did nothing but solidify that fear.

I wasn’t playing for on-field glory—it was for the type of life I wanted going forward. I knew my performance on the field had the chance to reverberate through my bloodline for centuries. In a world where nothing is more determinative of your outcome than where you start, I wanted to be able to send my kids to the best schools in the country, which meant they would be more likely to go to the best colleges and have the best careers. They’d get an inheritance and a substantial life insurance payout when I die. And then my kids’ kids will have access to the best schools and opportunities.

With that at stake, it’s not hard to understand why so many players still subject themselves to the repetitive head-rattling collisions that research suggests will result in brain damage. By the time you reach the NFL, the substantial risks seem easier to ignore when you consider the possible rewards. And with so many other doors closed off, it feels like subjecting yourself to brain damage is the prudent thing—yes, as contradictory as that sounds.

The brain of a football player is often considered only when discussing its deterioration. But in reality, the brain of a professional football player is a spectacular decision-making machine. Processing information and making decisions in fractions of a second. Constantly weighing risk versus reward throughout a game, and throughout a career.

As this season begins, many players are so close to reaping returns worthy of those decisions—of their life’s investment. But many will not. For some, it’ll be because they just aren’t good enough, or they suffered a significant injury at an inopportune time. For others, it’ll be because their production is too low to warrant keeping, even at a minimum salary that creeps up with their years in the league. Some will be ushered out without a big payday because they were unlucky enough to play for bad coaches or with inept teammates.

Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneels during the anthem with the support of teammates prior to the game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on September 17, 2017 in Seattle, Washington.

Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Or they could find themselves out of the league because they believe it important to draw the nation’s attention to inequality, like Eric Reid. Despite being a starting-caliber safety, Reid, like Colin Kaepernick before him, appears to have had his career ended for kneeling during the anthem.

Reid’s situation illuminates an added dilemma for players in 2018. It’s not as simple as to kneel or stand during the anthem. It is more generally a question of how true one can be to the man he is becoming, and how much space and resources players feel they have to react to stresses they experience from inside and outside the profession.

The culture of football is accepting of only a limited range of thought and behavior. If you don’t act like a round peg, your career will be short. Stars are afforded a bit more leeway, but even they don’t stray far from the accepted archetypes. The result is that some players have to contort themselves to fit what is expected—or risk having their dream stripped from them. That effort is an added emotional tax for the closeted gay players on NFL rosters; the players who are offended by being referred to as “inmates” by the Texans’ CEO; the players suffering from mental health issues; the players who see football as their job, not their life.

That’s why it’s no surprise to me that former stars like Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins and future Hall of Famer Steve Smith Sr. felt comfortable to speak up about mental health only years after their careers were over. Many players currently suffering won’t speak up because that’ll impact their ability to get the next deal. Of course, ironically, the drive for that next deal might be what causes some of the issues—it was for me.

I don’t know if I was depressed in Atlanta back in 2008. But for the entirety of that season, I was deeply unhappy. The gravity of football crushed everything else in my life. Simple things that used to bring me joy felt frivolous. I could not enjoy TV or movies. After a big win, my teammates took me to the famed Atlanta strip club Magic City. I made up an excuse and drove home after about 15 minutes. I was living a dream but feeling a nightmare.

It is with the perspective of that experience that I watch football now. I understand when I see players crying after suffering an injury, or snapping on coaches, teammates or fans after a game; they might be carrying a weight heavier than the final score.

Despite my unhappiness, despite my fears, despite the circumstances—I had probably the best season of my career that year in Atlanta, and I look back at that team as fondly as I do any with whom I’ve ever played. I was with them for only five months. But it was the most pivotal period in my life. And as much as we like to think that a player’s performance is solely a reflection on his ability and work ethic, it is not. For me to be a coveted free agent, I needed to be great on a good team. And despite my fears on the plane headed to Atlanta, we were.

That was in large part thanks to my teammates. I couldn’t have played well without communication from safeties Lawyer Milloy and Erik Coleman and pressure from John Abraham. We aren’t a playoff team without an outstanding season from the offensive line and running back Michael Turner. Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan’s surprisingly successful season might be the single most influential factor. (Which is why when I saw Matt before last season, I awkwardly thanked him. I’m sure it never crosses his mind, but in a weird way, Matt Ryan is the reason I could buy my parents a house, rescue family members from foreclosure and give my children access to resources I didn’t know existed when I was their age.)

We went 11–5 and made the playoffs, losing in the wild-card round to the Cardinals. Whatever disappointment I felt after that loss was drowned by the flood of relief I experienced. It was over. I had put together 11 weeks of exceptional left cornerback play. I was healthy. Now nothing stood between me and a new reality.

A couple of months later, I was again in the back of a town car. This time, I was in a suit and tie, again looking out of the window. In almost unbelievably poetic fashion, I rode past my elementary school and the fields where I first played Pop Warner football for the Randallstown Panthers. This time, I was headed to sign a $27.2 million contract with the Ravens.

A torn ACL ended my football career in Baltimore just a few years later—sooner than I had hoped. Suddenly, I was a free agent again, this time with an account balance that would allow me to do anything—or nothing.

Naturally, I went to business school.

Liner Notes

A version of this story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Sept. 10 NFL Preview issue. Subscribe today!

Domonique Foxworth is a senior writer at Andscape. He is a recovering pro athlete and superficial intellectual.