Developing a new game plan
Stacy Robinson, a wide receiver out of North Dakota State, played for the Giants from 1985-90. But for more than a decade he has been working for the NFL Players Association, trying to ease the transition to the real world when the cheering stops.
Robinson has a wonderful phrase -- "a teachable moment" -- that captures the difficulty the union has in convincing its players that life after football requires planning and a big mental adjustment.
"The NFL has realized that when a guy like Mike Webster or Barret Robbins gets in trouble the first thing you see in the headlines is 'ex-NFL player.' It's not good for the image, so there's clearly a usefulness in continuing to aim resources at the problem. These guys are the best in the world at what they do, and they still need a coach. What makes us think they don't need a coach in life? It's an ongoing battle for us to be creative in making the transition easier for them."
Active players can take advantage of a number of joint NFL-NFLPA programs, such as continuing education and career internships. If a player wants to complete an undergraduate or master's degree, the union will reimburse his tuition. Recently, 12 active players and 12 former players interested in coaching took part in an NFL Europe internship program in Florida.
The league and union are exploring an entrepreneurial program that would link active players with experts in their chosen field.
"We're discussing it with the Wharton School of Business," Robinson said. "It's for guys interested in running their own businesses, like a restaurant. And here's the beauty of it: Not only will they learn the ABCs of owning their own business, but the greatest thing is the networking they'll be part of."
Ken Ruettgers, a former Green Bay Packers offensive lineman who received a masters in business administration during his 12-year NFL career, struggled to find a niche in his post-football life. After coaching high school sports and volunteering with non-profit organizations, he took a job an assistant to the president of a publishing company, learned the ropes of office politics and quickly moved up the ladder from the ground floor.
"It didn't matter that I had faced the best pass rushers the NFL had to offer or that I earned my Masters in Business Administration, I was anxious about taking the next step in life," Ruettgers wrote in his recent column on Wandering through the fog
">GamesOver.org, the Web site of the company he created to help professional athletes tackle post-career adjustments. "Would I measure up? What did corporate America expect? What did my boss expect? What did other people think about an ex-pro-ball-player working with them? How would my wife and kids react to the idea of me having to go off to work every day after being home for so long? Could I really work 50 weeks every year for this little money?"
Ultimately, he found out the answers to all those questions.
"I learned a lot about myself and about corporate America -- something I couldn't buy with cash," Ruettgers wrote. "I used what helped me succeed in the NFL -- hard work, commitment, and consistency."
The NFLPA also has to work harder, Robinson said, because the high schools and colleges seem to be providing less of a foundation that players can build upon once the cheering stops.
"One of the things that happens," he said, "is that once these guys are identified as special athletes at a much younger age now. They're treated in such a way that's not conducive to their growth in other areas. So it's become increasingly more difficult for us."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Greg.Garber@espn3.com.