In the summer of 2006 a burly ex-NFL lineman sought counseling – again. I came to learn that he had repeatedly availed himself of any and all help he could get over the years, as his life continued to unravel piece-by-piece. Through the process of the weeks and months we spent in our weekly sessions this gentle giant wove his story.
Anyone who achieves one of the few coveted positions in a major sports league is, by definition, set apart from the average person on the levels of physical superiority and sheer force of will, at the least. Though he was depressed, anxiety ridden, financially poor, close to hopeless and clearly disabled, the greatness and power of spirit that had taken him to uncommon achievements all those years ago still shined through. That was clear to me. Unfortunately, at that point he had no conscious awareness of anything redeemable about himself or his life. It was as if his view of himself was that of a worthless shell of a man, with his only contributions consisting of memories so distant that they didn’t count. Worse, he was painfully unable to incorporate those past brilliant accomplishments into the essence of his current being: They were but an agonizing reminder of how far he had fallen, making them more a deficit than an asset.
You see, all of the glory and resilience had been knocked out of him. It was not the repeated head injuries or the numerous other physical wounds he incurred playing football that robbed him of his will to live. What tightened the vice and caused him to turn on himself in nothing short of self-loathing was that his condition was not validated. He was, in truth, ignored and maligned for his symptoms by the NFL – the very organization and sport he had loved and devoted himself to.
I am completely convinced that had he received compassion, validation, continued inclusion, and emotional and financial support from the NFL that the years-later visit to my therapy office would have been with a different man, one with a fraction of the pain that he had endured.
Contrasts provide some of the richest drama of our lives. To accomplish applauded prominence and be treated with deference, only to later watch helplessly as your physical and mental prowess slips away and your strongest advocates turn their backs on you, often with disdain, is to be traumatized. At least half of the suffering of those years, if not more, was completely unnecessary and avoidable.
If you are the family member of an NFL or AFL player who has suffered football related disabilities, his all too often tortured journey has been yours as well. It does not have to be this way. The answer is not in bitterness and resentment toward the NFL, which only compounds the damage already done. The answer is not in a humiliated silence.
The answer is in a collective effort to pursue emotional and financial restitution. Through DAF you are being presented with an opportunity to be an integral part of a healing organization that will advocate for nothing less than the restoration of lives. Everyone benefits enormously from a transformed NFL that honors ALL of its members, past and present. Let DAF be there for you by joining with them. Together we can connect with each other to help players and their families take their lives back and restore solidarity.
Terry Lowey, MFT