If you haven't read Dave Birkett's story on former Detroit Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson, you should definitely head over there and read it. Birkett's examination of the former Lions' defensive end is entirely engaging, but the supplemental piece, written by Jackson himself, is something completely eye-opening and captivating. Both Birkett and Jackson's stories highlight the struggle of a former athlete adjusting to life after sports.
When we talk about the career trajectory of a football player, the focus tends to be on either finances and/or physical health. We all know there is a widespread misconception on the lucrativeness of being a professional athletes. We've seen with our own eyes the mangled fingers and the permanent limps manifested upon our former heroes after years of service upon the gridiron. And with the veil finally being lifted from the NFL's pervasive concussion issue, we've seen the tragic results that repeated brain trauma often results in.
But Jackson's story helps unearth a perspective of the professional athlete that many haven't considered: the mental health trauma. It can be difficult to parse between the physical anguish and the mental one, as more and more research on CTE links the two to one another. Jackson, having suffered at least two concussions during his football career, could very well be dealing with a physiological problem in his brain. Where research gets muddied however, is linking brain chemistry to actions. The brain is so unbelievably complicated and individualized, it's nearly impossible to correlate physical trauma to personal choices.
What is clear, however, is that Jackson is suffering from emotional distress; as much as his football career took a physical toll on his body, his mental health also began to deteriorate. The former first-round pick faced impossible expectations both from himself and from fans. When he failed to live up to the hype created by both, the perceived failure was devastating to Jackson. "Disappointment ensued. Depression soon followed. Everything I wanted and dreamed of disappeared. After pouring everything into football, I was left with the scraps and not a feast," Jackson said in his Detroit Free Press piece.
Many fans dismiss the emotional toil because of the extreme financial benefit of playing professional sports. Although highly uncommon, Jackson was lucky enough to come out of his career with, in his words, "millions of dollars" in his account. But to Jackson -- and I imagine most professional athletes -- financial success does not equate to personal success. After a lifetime of dedication, hard work and commitment, Jackson's professional career was over after just five years. The whiplash of his career coming to an abrupt stop was overwhelming:
With football, I put all of my eggs in that basket. I wasn’t playing the game for the money or the fame. I was playing for a purpose. Needless to say, my basket hit the road, and my eggs were frying on the ground in front of me.
Jackson hadn't just lost a job, he had lost his purpose.
And that's when Jackson fell into a spiral of depression. He became less passionate of personal interests, he withdrew himself from others and allowed suicidal thoughts to creep into his head.
To the NFL's credit, they have -- at least marginally -- aided in players' post-football lives. Jackson admits using the NFL Life Line, a 24/7 hotline that gives former players, coaches and family members dealing with personal crisis access to trained counselors. Though the organization is not funded by the NFL, they received a grant from the league back in 2012 to help establish the program. Additionally, the NFL introduced the NFL Business Academy this year; a program intended to help both current and former players prepare for life after sports by providing them education on successful entrepreneurship.
But like most actions taken by the NFL, the progress has come in attempt to repair rather than preemptively take action. Too many players have already found themselves unfit to live in a world without football and instead have fallen into poverty, are faced with depression like Jackson, or take their own life as a way to solve their problems. Even today, our focus tends to hang on the careers of superstars like Peyton Manning, who will have a relatively easy retirement by comparison. But with more and more players like Jackson coming out of the shadows to share their stories of grappling with the emotional turmoil that life outside of the League provides, and the NFL slowly accommodating the employees they had previously neglected, there is hope that the short-term employees of the NFL will get the attention and care they finally deserve.