Life after the NFL: an interview with Justin Smiley
With the untimely death of future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, and the recently released reports of his suffering from CTE, the sports world is abuzz with topics of player safety and concussions. The evolution of football has made it bigger, stronger, and faster. Players today grew up idolizing icons like Lawrence Taylor, Deion Sanders, and Bo Jackson: game changers who brought speed, power and agility to what had previously been thought of as a game of oafs.
Rules changes have been made to try to protect football players from both themselves and chronic head trauma. For the 2012 season, the kickoff was moved up to the 35 yard line to prevent returns. There is even talk of eliminating the kickoff from football all together. No longer will linebacker sized players run full speed ahead at the person who is the fastest player, but certainly not the biggest, on the opposing team.
While we were watching football a few weeks ago, my 6 year old son said, “I decided I don’t want to be a quarterback anymore. I want to be a receiver so I won’t get hurt.”
It’s hard to explain to a child that young that at some point, if he plays any position in football, he WILL get hurt.
It’s nearly impossible to find a professional football player that hasn’t suffered at least one, if not multiple concussions. In the news, we only hear about the worst of the worst; case after case of former NFL players suffering from degenerative brain diseases. The media is quick to report tragic deaths, suicides and early onsets of Alzheimer’s.
But what about the everyday player who finishes his career and just wants to move on?
What struggles do they face to live a normal life when the pads are off?
I recently had the opportunity to find out just that. I sat down with Justin Smiley, a Mike Dubose recruit to the Alabama Crimson Tide and 8 year veteran of the National Football League. The 6’3”, 310 lb guard talked openly with me about what life has been like for him since his retirement.
“At first, it was really strange. I was used to being on a schedule – having someone else tell me where to go and when to be there. Practices and games were so structured. My life was planned for me. It was a dramatic change to be able to do things when and how I wanted. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself. I had devoted my entire life to football. When I wasn’t playing anymore, I had moments where I just sat there and thought ‘Well… now what?’ “
Drafted by the 49ers in the 4th round in 2004, Smiley also played for the Dolphins and Jaguars, then retired from the Raiders organization in August of 2011. After leaving from the NFL, Justin’s “Now what?” question was answered with a move back to Tuscaloosa to complete the degree he started in 1999.
He knew it wouldn’t be easy and was soon made aware of the difficulties he would have to overcome as a result of head injuries he received during his playing years.
Smiley began playing football at age 5. Doing some quick (and rough) estimation, if he played 10 games a year from age 5 to age 30, that’s 250 football games – not including practices. I asked Justin how many concussions he believed he had suffered over his career.
“It’s hard to tell,” Smiley said. “No one really called them ‘concussions’ for a long time. You just kind of ‘got your bell rung’, then shook it off and went back in. In all honesty, I probably got hit really good at least once every game. Maybe more than that.”
While movies like the teen comedy Varsity Blues make light of concussions (“Billy Bob – the man’s holding up some fingers. True or false?”), there’s nothing funny about the real effects of brain injuries.
“I got headaches all the time, and sometimes would get dizzy too. I also have trouble with short-term memory stuff,” says Justin. “I remember lots of things from childhood and high school and so on, but I might not be able to tell you where I had lunch yesterday.”
He paused, then said with a quiet laugh, “Nope. Don’t remember.”
“It was especially hard when I first started classes,” he continued. “I hadn’t been in school for a long time. Suddenly I was back in the classroom not only trying to adjust to being a student again, but trying to deal with remembering all the things I was supposed to remember. It was hard.”
Smiley made a point of sitting up front in all of his classes – something most athletes tend to shy away from. He recalls, “I wanted the professors to know who I was; to know my name. I wanted them to know how badly I wanted to be there.” Even so, “The first test I took was a disaster. I couldn’t remember half of the answers and even left part of the test completely blank. It really showed me that I was going to have to work even harder that I thought.”
The first thing Smiley did was create a schedule. This reminded him when to go to classes, told him when to study, and helped him feel more “normal”. Any time his professors had extra study sessions or available office hours, Justin was there – asking questions, clarifying things that had been said in class, and working on memory tricks to help him retain all of the information that was being thrown at him. He attended every single class, completed every assignment, took classes during every available course period, and studied almost constantly for an entire year.
All of his hard work paid off. In December of 2012, 13 years after he first walked onto campus as a freshman from Ellabell, Georgia, Justin Smiley graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama.
He sat up straighter and grinned. “I’m prouder of my degree than of anything else I’ve ever done in my life. I worked hard playing football, but I worked even harder to graduate.”
“I’m actually really lucky,” Smiley told me. “The major problems I deal with that resulted from football are physical. My knee is a mess and my body has taken a beating. But the longer I go without playing, the better my memory is getting. I’ve been working on ways to help me remember things better and it’s going really well. There are a lot of players, guys I was friends with for a long time in the league, who aren’t doing as well.”
Because he knows firsthand how often – and seriously – football players suffer from both physical and brain-related injuries, I had one final question to ask:
Would you let your 2 own sons play football?
“Yes,” Justin says. “I’d absolutely let them. I wouldn’t push them into it, but if they told me they wanted to, I’d support them.”
He leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment, then tilted his head and said quietly, “I think a lot of dads push their boys into playing football because it’s their way of living out the dreams they never accomplished. I don’t have to do that. I lived my dreams. I played for the University of Alabama. I had a successful NFL career. And I finished my college degree. I’ve done everything I set out to do up until now.”
He smiled and said, "The rest of my life…well…I guess we’ll all have to just wait and see.”
(Editor's note: Due to a technical issue, this article was previously attributed to Lori Kelly. The byline has been corrected.)