Life's not easy when stars realign
Brett Favre is among many franchise icons who have struggled to adjust to new teams
He'd watch the sun vanish around 5:30 p.m. and feel the temperatures cooling while he pondered everything he missed: his wife, Katina; his three children; the life he'd left behind in Miami, where he'd spent the previous 11 seasons serving as the face of the Dolphins with his teammate, friend and brother-in-law Zach Thomas.
This was supposed to be an exciting time for Taylor, whom the Redskins had acquired in a July 2008 trade. Instead, he struggled to find happiness without the presence of Thomas -- who had moved on to the Dallas Cowboys -- and everything else he'd appreciated in Miami.
"I remember Zach and I both being excited about having a chance at a new start," said Taylor, who returned to Miami this offseason. "We were both motivated by having a chance to prove ourselves all over again. But then I started thinking about how I grew up with the Dolphins. And that's when it started to become hard."
Taylor's revelation is something that every longtime star should understand: Starting over after being the heart and soul of a franchise is rarely a simple process. After all, it's not as if players with Taylor's résumé -- he's a six-time Pro Bowl defensive end and the recipient of the 2006 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award -- enjoy ordinary careers. They become accustomed to being franchise cornerstones while their less heralded teammates come and go. So when it comes time for these stars to move on, they suddenly learn what it's like to no longer be the coolest guys in the room.
These players have to deal with new cities, new teams, new expectations and new demands on their families. They also realize what it's like to feel vulnerable for the first time since they were rookies.
"You have to learn a new freeway system so you can get to work. The locker room culture is different. And you've got to get used to new coaching styles. It's more mentally exhausting than it is physically exhausting. You have to be able to put everything aside and focus."
Gonzalez and Taylor aren't the only big names who recently have had to adjust to life in new cities.
Fourteen-year veteran safety Brian Dawkins left the Philadelphia Eagles for the Denver Broncos during free agency. Dallas Cowboys inside linebacker Keith Brooking moved out of Atlanta after 11 seasons with the Falcons. The New England Patriots also dealt defensive end Richard Seymour -- a player who had helped that team win three Super Bowls in his eight seasons -- to the Oakland Raiders a week before the regular season.
Then there's the case of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre. He wound up with the New York Jets last season following a trade from the Green Bay Packers, and he never really fit with that franchise. At least one Jets player anonymously blasted Favre for his aloof nature and even claimed the quarterback hung out in a private room while other players were milling in the locker room. If that wasn't bad enough, former Jets running backs coach Jimmy Raye, now the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator, said Favre's late arrival to the Jets also hampered the entire offense.
Of course, it's a different story for Favre in Minnesota. He has led a team that is currently 3-0 going into a Week 4 home game against the Packers on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" (8:30 ET). He's thrilled by the circumstances surrounding his latest return from retirement. He's playing in the same offense he had during his 16 seasons with the Packers (the West Coast) and he's playing for two good friends (head coach Brad Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell).
Childress recently praised Favre's assimilation into the Vikings -- "He's a consummate team guy," Childress said -- but there's little question that familiarity has helped Favre's transition.
"I spoke with Brett about this and he said that being with the New York Jets always felt foreign from the start," said Fox Sports NFL analyst John Lynch, who played 11 seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and four more in Denver. "And I think he was being genuine about that. Now that he's in Minnesota, it just feels right. That really is a big thing. You have to go by what feels comfortable to you."
Chris Maher, a sports psychologist who teaches at Rutgers University, added that many stars can have a hard time coping once moved out of those comfort zones.
"When a player has been in one place and been productive for a long time, he's going to have very specific routines, whether you're talking about how to get to practice or games or what to do after games," said Maher, who works with the Browns, Indians and Cavaliers in Cleveland. "But once they leave for a new team, that change can distract them to the point that they start [thinking] 'What if?' Like 'what if this doesn't work out?' Or 'what if I can't perform?' They start thinking about results and expectations instead of processes and routines. And while some end up adjusting, others can end up struggling."
Dealing with life in a new city tends to be the most common challenge for longtime veterans on the move. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released Lynch following the 2003 season, he grappled with the thought of where he would move his family. Then one night his wife, Linda, pulled him aside and said both she and the kids would be happy wherever he landed.
"Before she said that," Lynch said, "I was really struggling with that decision."
Gonzalez realized how much the people of Kansas City missed him when he returned for a recent charity event. As soon as he walked into the banquet hall, fans and media mobbed him in ways that reminded him of how nice it is to be loved. Those same people didn't know how hard it was for him to find a new pediatrician for his 1-year-old daughter in Atlanta or to navigate his way from his suburban home to the Falcons' facility. They also didn't know that his wife, October, once joked that she might buy drinks for women at local bars just to make new friends.
These might sound like simple challenges to the average person, but NFL players often mature differently. When you grow from being a 21-year-old millionaire looking to have fun to being a 30-something man with a family, the burdens of daily life can sneak up on you. The trade that sent Seymour from New England to Oakland was a perfect example. Though Seymour didn't arrive in Oakland until almost a week after the transaction -- "I was blindsided by this whole event," he told the Boston Herald -- his reluctance to report wasn't solely the result of shock.
Seymour later told the paper that he had to relocate his wife, children and a 15-year-old cousin for whom he serves as guardian.
"It really isn't easy to just go find a house in a new city and get your kids settled," said quarterback Jeff Garcia, who's now looking for a seventh team after the Eagles released him when his second stint with the team ended Tuesday.
"And for Richard to have to do that in that situation -- after he's finished training camp and settled in for the season -- is even harder. You're talking about having to live out of a hotel and then go look for housing on the one day off you get during the week [in the regular season]. I've done that before and you don't want to be dealing with instability as you get older in the league."
Taylor can relate to what Seymour went through a few weeks back. In 2008, the Dolphins traded Taylor so late in the summer that he ultimately left his wife and children in Miami to avoid disrupting their schedules. He embraced the challenge of moving to a new city but soon found out he wasn't up to it.
"Once you've been established in one city for a long time, you really do take a lot of things for granted," Taylor said. "You have to find out where FedEx is. You have to figure out where Whole Foods is. I never used my navigation system when I was in Miami. But I used it all the time in Washington and I still got lost."
Taylor added that coming home to an empty, 12,000-square-foot home didn't sit well with him, either.
"You start spending more time at work or you stop to get food on the way home because there's really nothing there waiting for you," he said. "And I lived about 25 to 30 minutes from the training facility so I had a lot of time to sit in traffic and think about my life. I realized that the majority of what I'd done in my career until then had been about me. It was time for me to be about my family."
Taylor's situation wasn't helped by the lack of success he had on the field. He struggled with injuries early and the Redskins also lined him up as a strongside defensive end in their 4-3 scheme. For a player who was accustomed to dominating from the weak side of defenses, Taylor was lost when facing tight ends and right tackles. He finished the 2008 season with just 3½ sacks after arriving in Miami with 117 for his career.
But that type of change is also part of what longtime veterans have to handle.
For every player like Dawkins -- who is excited about playing safety for a Broncos team that didn't see him as just a valuable locker room presence -- there is one like Thomas, who eventually discovered that he didn't really like being a 3-4 inside linebacker in Dallas after 11 seasons of being one of the NFL's top middle linebackers in Miami. Gonzalez also said that his biggest challenge in Atlanta was learning a new playbook. After so many years of knowing what to expect from the Chiefs, he set aside an extra 30 minutes every night in the offseason to master the Falcons' offense.
One NFC personnel director, speaking on the condition of anonymity, added that perennial Pro Bowl players who switch teams late in their careers also have to check their pride.
"A lot of these players you're talking about are 'Pro Bowl' guys but that's a term that gets used way too much these days," said the personnel director. "The fact is that many of these players end up changing teams because it's hard for [them] to accept lesser roles with their [old] teams. And it's usually easier for them to do it elsewhere."
Brooking is an example of what can happen when older stars are well-prepared to deal with change. He has his two children enrolled at a preschool similar to the one they attended in Atlanta. He flies relatives in to help his wife, Holly. Brooking also has quickly fit into the Cowboys' locker room. While Taylor admitted that he needed two or three months just to learn everybody's name in Washington, Brooking has let things happen organically in Dallas.
"I just treated [the Cowboys] like any other locker room that I've been in," said Brooking, who played his high school and college football in Atlanta before joining the Falcons.
"I tried to let guys see my work ethic and I tried to lead by example. Hopefully, it was easy for them to see how important football is for me. I wanted it to come in a natural way. Some guys show up in a new locker room and sort of press it. That always seemed fake to me."
According to Maher, the kind of support that Brooking enjoys in Dallas is crucial for players who are starting over in new cities.
"The most important thing these guys need in these situations is a transition plan," Maher said. "They need to identify what their support system is going to be and they have to have a checklist of things that they have to take care of, whether it's finding housing or getting schools for the kids or whatever. Any transition brings a lot of stress with it and the more that stress can be spaced out, the better it is for the person involved."
Added Lynch: "Any player who's been the heart and soul of his team for so long is usually pretty good. But you can also get idealistic when you're in that position. Even though you see guys like Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith and Junior Seau change teams, you think you're not going to be that person. But those are usually the guys who've invested a lot not just in the team but also in the community. And that's what makes it tough when you start over."
That's why Taylor is so happy these days. The Redskins released him during the offseason -- after he met with owner Daniel Snyder -- and Taylor eventually signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins. Last summer, he couldn't wait to get away from the team after clashing with Miami president Bill Parcells. Now Taylor realizes there are more important things to worry about than a rocky relationship with a team executive.
Taylor can see his kids whenever he likes instead of every weekend or every other weekend, as he did in Washington. He also can devote more time to his charitable foundation and his other business interests in South Florida. Taylor basically understands that starting over isn't all that easy for men who've had his level of success in the NFL.
So there's nothing wrong with accepting that coming back home is a worthwhile move, if it's possible.
"It just feels right for me to be back here again," Taylor said. "It's like that old baseball cap that you keep around for years and still feels good when it's on your head. That's what the Dolphins are to me. I found out that this is where I really belong. And I can tell you this much: I'm never leaving here again."
Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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