Koonce’s own struggles fuel study of ex-players

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Koonce said that led him to excessive drinking, inactivity and eventually an attempt on his own life.

“I think a lot of guys feel like, `That was my purpose, to run around and tackle people,’” Koonce said. “It was tough. It was a culmination of drinking, and I was in a very dark place.”

Koonce tried to kill himself by driving his car off the road in 2003.

“And that’s when things turned around,” Koonce said.

With the support of his wife, Tunisia, Koonce got counseling, became more involved in his church and got serious about moving on to the next chapter of his life. She asked what he wanted to be; a college athletic director, he answered.

How was he going to get there? He had no idea.

“And I thought I had prepared,” Koonce said. “But I didn’t really have a plan.”

He enrolled in a sports management program at East Carolina, graduated, and eventually became the athletic director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2009. But Tunisia died from breast cancer later that year, and Koonce resigned in 2010.

Today, Koonce works in fundraising at Marquette. Earning his doctorate is a tribute to his late wife.

“I was very fortunate to have a wife like Tunisia who got me involved in church, got me involved in school,” Koonce said. “And I’m very thankful for everything she did for me and for my family. She literally pulled me out of the ditch.”

Through his research, Koonce hopes to help the next generation of players avoid that ditch entirely by better preparing for the transition away from football.

Koonce says he began his research by talking to current and former players informally to identify adjustment issues. He narrowed it down to formal interviews with 21 players, some of whom requested anonymity.

“The game is gone _ and, in a lot of ways, you’re gone,” Koonce said. “A lot of guys that I talked to said that when they left the game, it felt like they were going through a divorce. It felt like a piece of them died.”

Koonce found that emotional issues are common. Seeking support is not.

“Now you’re lost,” Koonce said. “Now you’re depressed. Now you start self-medicating. You’re drinking. Doing cocaine. Taking pain pills. Trying to do some things to try to numb what you’re going through. Because you can’t talk to anyone. Because your whole life, you were taught that, `George, your ankle, we’re going to tape it up.’”

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