As I sit here today waiting on a series of marginal bowl games to be played, I thought I would take a moment to quickly pen some thoughts on an issue that we have seen resurface over and over again in sport.
What happens to the professional athlete after their playing days are over? How do they adjust to “normal” society? No big deal you say? I beg to differ… lemme 'splain.
I was fortunate enough to catch yet another ESPN 30 for 30 series episode called: “Still Standing: The Earl Campbell Story.” For those us who may be late thirty somethings or forty somethings we remember Campbell for his hard-hitting, punishing, super-human running style… so much so that some of us (me specifically) wanted to “be Earl Campbell” in the football game at recess during the late 70’s and 80’s.
In the 90’s Campbell’s health took a turn for the worst and it was widely believed that football was the cause. After watching the ESPN story all speculation of that misnomer were laid to rest by Campbell’s doctor and the football legend himself. Campbell suffers from a degenerative nerve disorder called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy or for us tongue-twisted mortals --> CIDP. It wouldn’t have mattered whether he played football or not, he most likely would have suffered from this condition… did football accelerate the process? Perhaps...perhaps not.
This condition caused Campbell to slowly lose strength and function in his arms and legs… what’s worse he had three previous back surgeries which were terribly executed riddling the former superstar with crippling pain and discomfort. In his chronic state of pain, use of pain killers and alcohol to survive and due to the fact that his super-human body was now failing him, Campbell could have taken a road most recently traveled by some of our more beloved NFL retirees. Instead he did what he had done throughout his life and career… FIGHT.
Here’s where the adjustment to life after the game comes in –
After the crowd stops cheering and the game continues to live on in the mind and in the body how does one turn it off? Is it simply that there were too many blows to the head or is there something deeper perhaps psychological that manifests itself in places the naked eye can’t see.
I’ve often said there are many similarities between professional athletes (specifically football players), soldiers and prisoners… yes prisoners. Before you condemn me for putting the three in the same sentence consider the following similarities:
All three wear uniforms
All three are usually aggressive in nature
All three use numbers for identification
All three have a hierarchy of command
Their agendas are usually set by someone else.
There are stiff penalties for breaking the rules (in some cases death)
There is no easy transition into “normal” society once “your time is up”
I’m sure the list could continue, but why belabor the point. Life is a fight… each day presents new challenges and as Campbell so profoundly said at the end of his episode: “Please America don’t feel sorry for me… because you’ve never seen a human being have more fun on a day to day basis than I do.”
As someone you inspired as a young boy by the power and strength you showed as a player, Mr. Campbell you continue to mentor and motivate from afar as you crash through the defensive walls of life's challenges. I’m truly proud that you are… still standing.