The NFL is launching an initiative designed to change the “out of sight/out of mind” reality that many players face once their football careers end, FOX Sports has learned.
Troy Vincent, the NFL’s senior vice president of player engagement, told FOX Sports that the goal of the NFL Legends Program is to help alumni better reconnect with each other and their former teams while further emphasizing some of the league-sponsored resources available to them.
The effort will be assisted by 19 ex-players who are being brought to league headquarters in New York City on Monday and Tuesday for orientation sessions that include an address by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. That player group – which includes Pro Football Hall of Fame members Rod Woodson and John Randle as well as other big names like Chad Pennington, Warrick Dunn and Aeneas Williams – will serve as liaisons between the league and retirees from five regions across the country.
Vincent said the NFL Legends Program should ideally make former players “still feel appreciated for their contributions to the game.” The program will include bolstered outreach to NFL alumni for team and league initiatives like homecoming festivities, community events and the “Heads Up Football” initiative with USA Football that was created to teach proper tackling techniques to youth players.
The NFL Legends Program also is another avenue for the league to better assist ex-players who are experiencing difficulties adjusting to their post-football lives as the spotlight fades away.
The NFL and NFL Players Association already have taken steps as the physical, psychological and financial troubles of some retirees received greater media attention in recent years. The NFL and NFLPA approved a joint $620 million “legacy fund” for increased pension benefits as part of the 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement adopted in 2011. There also are NFL- and NFLPA-sponsored programs whose scope far eclipses those offered to retired players from other professional sports leagues.
Such efforts, though, haven’t solved all of the problems.
The NFL is being sued by more than 4,100 former players who claim they are suffering the effects of improperly diagnosed head trauma during their NFL careers. Brain damage may have led to the well-publicized suicides of several ex-players in recent years, including former stars like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson.
Not every player leaves the NFL with mental-health ailments, but some have struggled after being immersed in the all-encompassing football culture for so much of their lives. Earlier this year, Goodell said the league is examining whether teams can make roster cuts “more humane” for players forced to face an uncertain future following their release.
The NFL Legends Program is another step toward addressing the issue using what Vincent calls a “peer-to-peer” model that emphasizes player relationships.
“Nobody wants the game to leave them,” said Vincent, who played 15 NFL seasons as a defensive back before retiring in 2007. “We all understand our bodies have an expiration date. Many of us want to still be associated with the game but there are very few opportunities and places where that can exist.
"Ray Lewis still wants to be a part of Baltimore Ravens history. He still wants to be a proud Raven even though he’s not participating any more. I think every player feels that. The connection of still being associated with the sport and having the opportunity to be active contributors is the hope and genesis of this Legends Program.”
Vincent also said the NFL Legends Program will continue to stress the medical assistance offered by the league to retired players. Obesity and the long-term effects of injuries suffered from football are among the issues the NFL and NFLPA have tried to help address through both free health screenings and increased pensions (a complete listing of services can be found here).
The other ex-players participating as directors and coordinators in the NFL Legends Program are Hardy Nickerson, Mark Bruener, Ron Rice, Leonard Wheeler, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, Jay Novacek, Will Shields, LaVar Arrington, Keith Elias, Patrick Kerney, Ed Reynolds, Donovin Darius, Mike Rucker and Mark Brunell.
“We have to take care of each other like we did on the field,” Vincent said.