Koonce certainly came across post-football success stories in his research; former Packers defensive end Willie Davis earned his MBA at the University of Chicago after his playing days were over, then took over a struggling beer distributorship and turned it into a successful business.
But the majority of players Koonce talked to admitted having trouble in transition.
Perhaps the most extreme example Koonce cited in his work was an unidentified former player who dressed in a suit and left the house holding a briefcase every morning, then came home every night, making it seem to his family like everything was OK. As it turned out, he spent those days sitting in a parked car. The player eventually killed himself and his wife, Koonce said.
“From a very early age, you have this idea of being a tough-man mentality,” Koonce said. “And when you are vulnerable, like so many of us are when we leave the game, that’s when you go into isolation. That’s when you want to go off by yourself and try to figure things out. But it’s tough when you’re not talking to someone.”
To help players avoid such issues in retirement, Koonce says coaches and administrators must do a better job of emphasizing education. Koonce acknowledges this is easier said than done, given that coaches are paid mostly to win games.
“I’m not trying to put blame on the NFL Players Association or the NCAA or the NFL as a whole,” Koonce said. “But there are some things that need to be done that I think can be implemented to help those once-heroes in transition.”
Two former players in charge of post-career programs, NFL Vice President of Player Engagement Troy Vincent and NFL Players Association Senior Director of Former Player Services Nolan Harrison, say progress is being made in helping former players adjust to life after football but acknowledge there is room for improvement.
Koonce says that the responsibility ultimately falls on players themselves, who must do a better job of recognizing and taking advantage of potential business connections that could help them down the road.
“You have a chance to interface with some of the top, most influential people in that state, in that community,” Koonce said. “But if you’re so engulfed in playing the sport that you’re playing, it really doesn’t make any different. There are opportunities that are going to pass you by that you really didn’t embrace when you were on that campus or when you were in the NFL. You’re so engulfed in the next play, the next quarter, the next half, the next game, the next season.”