- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 5, 2012

MILWAUKEE (AP) - George Koonce holds several years’ worth of work in his hands, his voice booming as he reads from one of its 200-plus pages.

First comes an acknowledgment that it’s difficult for regular people to have sympathy for wealthy former NFL players who have a hard time handling the end of their careers. Next comes a plea to coaches and administrators.

“The message being sent to players at an early age, in middle school, high school, and on the professional level, needs to include information on the afterlife,” Koonce reads.

In this case, the former NFL player isn’t using the term “afterlife” with a religious connotation. He’s talking about life after football.

“The pursuit of a quality education, and diversification of interests, needs to be top priority for these young men,” he continues. “Football must be secondary. From the perspective of great teachers and philosophers, it is demeaning and foolish to reduce people to just their athletic prowess.”

Having found out firsthand that a member of a Super Bowl-winning team isn’t necessarily wired for instant success off the field, Koonce used his own struggles _ which included depression and even a suicide attempt _ to fuel a dissertation on the issues former players face in retirement, one of the final steps toward earning his doctorate in philosophy at Marquette University. Koonce knew he wasn’t alone, a point that was driven home in innumerable conversations with fellow former NFL players during his research.

Then again, tragically, on May 2.

That was the day Koonce turned in his dissertation. Then he returned to his office.

“That’s when I saw the news flash about Junior Seau,” Koonce said.

Koonce calls the former star linebacker’s suicide heartbreaking _ but perhaps not shocking, given that Koonce nearly met the same fate.

After eight seasons with the Green Bay Packers _ playing a critical role in the team’s run to the Super Bowl after the 1996 season _ and one with the Seattle Seahawks, Koonce found himself out of football after the 2000 season. At first, he just kept working out and waiting for the phone to ring. Surely, another team needing a linebacker would be calling.

Koonce said it took about two years to realize that call wasn’t coming.

“I wasn’t used to that,” Koonce said. “Because I was the best at everything I did. Now, I’ve been, the academic term, `deselected.’ Cut.”

Koonce’s voice grows louder and more deliberate as he talks about the sense of rejection he felt.

“Waived,” he said. “Told, `We don’t need you anymore.’ That was tough for me to live through that. The first time I’ve ever really been rejected.”

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