NFL prepping players for second life

Donovin Darius thought he was ready for life after football.

He was wrong.

Darius had kept an eye on the future during his 10 seasons as one of the NFL’s top safeties. He heard about the importance of long-term planning while serving as NFL Players Association vice president. He was aware of the programs offered by the NFL. He tried to mentor younger Jacksonville Jaguars players to start thinking about what they would be doing for the rest of their lives while still enjoying the wealth and other trappings that come with being in the league.

After injuries ended his own NFL career in 2007, Darius returned home to start a new chapter. Only the page was blank.

Darius admits he suffered bouts of depression stemming from the frustration of not knowing what profession he wanted to pursue or how to fill the void created when the football routines and culture he was immersed in his entire adult life ended at age 32.

“I was a guy who was at the top of the top and now I began to feel and experience some things that I didn’t understand,” Darius told FOX Sports in a telephone interview. “How do I start over? Where do I put that passion and energy? What is my purpose in life now? Are my best days behind me?”

If this could happen to someone who had actually contemplated his post-football days while still an active player, imagine the struggles for those who don’t – especially if they are battling depression or potential effects from concussions suffered during their NFL careers.

The league hopes to better address this concern through a new initiative. Darius was recently certified as one of 12 “transition coaches” who will be working with former and current players toward preventing some of the problems that frequently surface after their last snap.

For the past eight months, Darius and 10 other former players — Lavar Arrington, Mike Haynes, Dwight Hollier, Freddie Scott III, Keith Elias, Irving Fryar, Gary Cobb, Tony Stewart, James Thrash and Troy Vincent — underwent extensive training and certification as transition coaches. Darius said the topics covered included career transition, mental health, suicide intervention, conflict resolution and relationship-management skills.

Vincent, who is the NFL’s vice president of player engagement, oversees the program.

“One of the big issues is the emotional attachment you have throughout your years playing football, the locker room camaraderie and environment that is built and developed,” said Hollier, a former NFL linebacker who is now the league’s director of transition and clinical services.

“There’s a natural support system. When you retire or leave the game, you don’t have that same support system around you. In some ways, this is about trying to recreate that.”

The NFL is one of the few entities trying to help current employees prepare for when they are working elsewhere. Several services were already available for thousands of current and former players before the advent of transition coaches (a complete listing can be found here.)

There are multiple offseason “boot camps” that provide a taste of other professions ranging from business management to the entertainment world. The league will hold another Transition Assistance Program in Boston in June designed to help retired players find employment while providing a primer for the wellness services the NFL offers. About 30 ex-players are expected to attend.

It was through an earlier TAP session spearheaded by ex-NFL defensive back Leonard Wheeler that Darius began formulating the path that led to him becoming a trainer and motivational speaker as well as creating a charitable foundation in Jacksonville.

The NFL, though, felt even more was needed as a sizeable number of retirees continue to deal with the financial, domestic and psychological stresses that often follow a football career. This renewed commitment came following the suicides of two prominent ex-players in Dave Duerson and Junior Seau.

Another motivating factor may be the class-action lawsuit filed by 4,000 former NFL players claiming they are suffering from improperly diagnosed brain injuries and concussions.

The transition coaches will be assigned to work with current and former players from all 32 NFL teams as well as participate June 24-29 in the Rookie Symposium that is mandatory for incoming draft picks. Although they will be tied closely with the player engagement directors on every club, the transition coaches will work autonomously. Darius said this is to create stronger trust because — whether fair or not — some players don’t believe those directors have their best interest at heart as team employees with ties to the coaching staff.

“If you feel like you don’t trust in them, you won’t fully jump in,” said Darius, who will be working with current and former players from Miami, New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.

Another purpose of the transition coaches is to change the “machismo” jock culture that sometimes keeps those struggling with a mental-health issue from seeking help because it would be perceived as a sign of weakness.

Ex-Detroit Lions wide receiver Titus Young may be an example of that. Young, who played two seasons with the Lions as a 2011 second-round draft choice, faces time in prison after getting arrested on multiple occasions this offseason.

Yahoo! Sports reported that Young declined treatment by the NFL when approached with concerns about his behavior during his time in Detroit at the behest of a friend. FOX Sports reported that Young is still eligible for free counseling should he want it. Young’s father told the Detroit Free Press that his son’s destructive behavior may stem from a concussion that he believes wasn’t properly diagnosed during his rookie season.

“We want mental health not to get looked at as a taboo topic but one of overall health,” said Robert Gulliver, who is the NFL’s chief human resource officer.

Part of that strategy is having former players share their personal stories with others in hopes they can avoid the same hardships.

Hollier is another example of someone who thought he was doing all the right things to get ready for post-football life. He completed a master’s degree in mental-health counseling from Nova Southeastern University while playing for the Miami Dolphins in the 1990s. A year after his final NFL season with Indianapolis in 2000, Hollier began working as an outpatient therapist with an emphasis on adolescents and families.

Even with the groundwork he laid, Hollier admits he “still struggled tremendously and in some ways fell flat on my face.”

“I missed the game. I missed the camaraderie,” Hollier said. “I felt isolated. I had a supervisor who was five years younger than me but with five years more experience than I had. Adjusting to that took a lot of humility. It also took a lot of humility to accept the change in finances.”

Hollier said it wasn’t until 2007 that he truly felt comfortable in his post-football life and career.

“There’s a period of time where I liken it to being shoved off a cliff,” Hollier said. “A lot of guys don’t have a parachute. Some are able to pull the cord right away and glide easily into transition, but a lot are going to be like me where you have trouble finding that cord. You’re going to fall and fall and it’s going to be a rougher landing for you.”

That’s what makes it so important for transition coaches to help NFL retirees avoid a post-football crash.

“The longer you play, the worse it is for you as far as making the transition,” Darius said. “You’re further away from using your degree. More people are coming out of college with more experience than what you have. And the older you get in the NFL, you start to hear, ‘You’re too old. You’re no good. You’re dried up.’ You believe it because you’ve only been in that culture. You start to ask, ‘Are my best days behind me?’

“What we’re trying to do is get those players to understand that isn’t the case. The NFL was a platform, a stepping stone for the great days ahead of you. You need that knowledge and understanding but you also need a mentor, someone who has walked where you’ve been before. An NFL transition coach is there to encourage you, walk with you and tell you how to take one more step.”

Ideally, future NFL retirees will only be taking steps forward rather than having to initially head backward like Darius and Hollier.