When the game is over players need support to find their purpose

By John M. Williams II

“The two most important days in our life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

-Mark Twain

Purpose has been debated and argued by some of the greatest minds in history for centuries. Some believe our purpose is pre-destined, others believe that our lives are what we make of them through our actions and decisions. For some good many years, my belief was that the game of football had a large amount to do with my own personal legend. Now that I’ve been able to put some distance between myself and the game, the theme of purpose and identity have a much different appearance than they did as a young CFL athlete.

John M. Williams II

As part of the 2004 Toronto Argonauts championship team, winning a Grey Cup was the culmination of a dream that most of us who play this game start out with at an early age. As children, we play out scenarios of catching Hail Mary passes with no time left on the clock, and then doing snow angels in the mounds of celebratory confetti falling from the air. But almost seven years removed from playing a game that nurtured me from a child to well into my adult years, I can’t help but look at today’s players and ponder one question: What is next?

Born in Burlington Ontario, I was introduced to the game of football at the age of nine. It was not until I was thirty-two years old that I officially stopped playing the game. Having a Grey Cup champion as a father and a New York Jet as an uncle gave me plenty of incentive to pursue the “family business.” I graduated from Waterdown District High School before accepting a scholarship to the University of Rhode Island and then later transferring to Edinboro University. I was drafted by the B.C. Lions in the 4th round and subsequently played for Edmonton and Toronto before retiring with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2010. It’s been more than seven years since my days in a CFL uniform and fans still indulge me by telling me that I still look like I could play. My identity to them is a football player. Do they know that I am a husband? A Father? A counsellor? A filmmaker?

Many players are unable to adjust to life after football and find themselves lost. When players reach the end of their career, and suddenly find themselves “civilianized” it can be an extremely difficult transition. The end of a career can be a result of several things, including reasons that are out of the players’ control and happen earlier than the player had hoped or expected. Suddenly, instead of walking into a room and being recognized and acknowledged immediately, people don’t seem to notice you anymore. Psychologically, this can have a great affect on a player. The affirmation that you have received your entire life, is now over. Players, like any other person appreciate love, respect, and affection. At this crossroad in life, a player is forced to go out and find new ways to gain the love, respect, and affection they received from the game of football in order to fill the void that it has left. For players such as Henry Burris, Michael Pinball Clemons, and Doug Flutie who have made an indelible impression on the CFL and solidified their legacy, their transition to “civilian” life and the opportunities they are presented with post football might come a little more frequently than for a 3.2 year punt covering specialist.

We became football players at an early age and our identity and perhaps even our manhood has been wrapped up in the game. Former NFL’er Joe Erhmann now tours the US and speaks to crowds about this idea of false masculinity. Ehrmann says that masculine stereotypes are based on three fundamental lies in our society: Athletic Ability, Sexual Conquests, and Economic Success. For many young players, to achieve all three constitutes some form of prosperity in their minds.

SO WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE?

The NFL’s Player Engagement Department is the hub for a wide range of league-sponsored programs designed to meet the needs of players and their families in today’s NFL. Since it’s inception in 1991, more than 9,000 players have made use of programs administered by the department. Player Engagement Directors at each club work to ensure the programs are meeting the needs of players and reinforce the department’s commitment to support a culture that delivers a continuum of services to help active and practice squad players succeed in all aspects of their lives.

As a former CFL player that struggled with the loss of athletic identity and finding purpose outside of scoring TD’s, I can tell you that the CFL and clubs around the league would find real value in creating some kind of player development programming for it’s athletes. Identity loss is a real thing that must be addressed if a player has any hope of transitioning to the next phase of their life. Pittsburgh Steelers hall of fame head coach Chuck Noll said it best: “Football is kind of an interim between college and getting into your life’s work.” The old adage that every player has a shelf life which begins to expire the first day you step on the field couldn’t be more true than it is today. One has to consider that even if a CFL player is fortunate enough to play longer than the average 3.2 years, they still have their whole life ahead of them.

ENGAGEMENT

The opportunity for the League or a Club to employ a Director of Player Development is perhaps one if not the most important steps they could take in terms of supporting their athletes. Nowadays, this role is common place with just about every professional sports team and American university athletic department. Essentially, these individuals serve in the same capacity as a guidance counsellor would: educating players on what they will encounter on and off the field, lining up continuing education programs or internships, providing financial education, informing players about assistance programs, and various additional responsibilities. Most importantly, they serve as a trusted advisor and friend that players can come to when things get difficult. For this reason, many player development directors are ex players themselves. It’s the Player Development Director’s (PDD) job to check in and monitor how the athletes are doing. The CFL has an additional dynamic at work because of the ratio issue. American players, many of which are coming to completely foreign environments from which they have been raised and matured into professional athletes, are arriving in Canadian cities with no idea of how to navigate through them.

Ike Brown who played linebacker for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and is now the Director of Player Development for the University of Tennessee football team spoke about the importance of having a PDD in the CFL: “Having someone to help guys become better connected to the community would be a big plus. Whether its something as simple as where to get a haircut, or something as strategic as which clubs they should steer clear of. Player Development Directors have become an essential addition to any staff.”

Players will continue to make their own decisions away from the field but at least by having someone to guide them, teams can increase their chances of having players make smart decisions off the field. The tragedy that occurred in Calgary this year with Mylan Hicks losing his life to gun violence outside of a club, could have happened in any Canadian city. This incident occurred at a club with a checkered past. As a newcomer to this city (American or Canadian) how would a player have known this? This holds true with many bars and night clubs in CFL cities. The reality is that professional athletes whether they invite it or not, attract additional attention in social settings. Having a PDD could assist in guiding players away from places or activities that could have a negative affect on them. In addition to social activities, many players are also in the dark as it pertains to transportation, social services, public health or emergency services within the cities they play. A PDD could assist in making these connections for newcomers.

CFL clubs also tend to not consider the fact that racialized athletes can and do struggle with feelings of frustration and isolation due to lack of any kind of a support system outside of the coaching staff. As the producer and narrator of the CFL documentary Gridiron Underground, I can attest to being one of many black CFL athletes who found themselves playing in predominantly white Canadian cities. Constantly being approached by strangers on the street and asked about being an athlete may seem innocent enough, but for many of the players it also constitutes an underlining stereotype perpetuated by many. Making an assumption based on race and ethnicity only reaffirms that we still see colour before anything else (yes even here in Canada) and for the individual who is being labelled, who may already have some trepidation about themselves this assumption only validates that they are in fact collectively viewed as one thing. When the day comes for that individual to transition into the next phase of life it is very difficult because they’ve only existed as a singular identity. A Player Development Director offers these players daily support meetings and an opportunity to discuss their lived experiences and thoughts outside of football.

EDUCATION

Pinball Clemons was unlike most coaches I played for. He would always take time to discuss or explain the significance of why we were celebrating a particular holiday or observance. He recognized that many of the players on the roster had no idea about the history of Canada, who Terry Fox was, or why we celebrated Thanksgiving on October 10th. He understood that it was important to comprehend the back ground behind these events because playing in this league is less about a sport and more about a country. Pinball also understood that players had lives outside of the game and appreciated the importance of developing an athletes life skills in relation to their overall well-being.

Player Assistance Programs

During the season players are constantly balancing their professional obligations alongside their personal obligations. Many men leave their families to come to Canada to not only pursue their life long dream of playing professional football but also to help financially support their loved ones. Many men are also dealing with personal and family issues. A player assistance program would help the men and their families deal with personal issues. Encouraging players to try counseling by making it more accessible would also help to diminish the social stigma associated with counseling and improve the normative role of the process in relation to overall well-being.

Life Skills Seminars

Life skills seminars could be conducted once a week by clubs or once a month by the League for all active and practice roster players during the season. This would help to assist players in managing off the field situations. Player Development Directors could use club resources to facilitate topics such as finances, social media awareness, brand building, nutrition, relationship issues, DUI’s, Anger Management etc.

Continued Education

It has taken me almost 15 years to return to university and work towards finishing my degree. I had left five credits short of graduating in pursuit of a dream I had to play professional football. Although I was able to accomplish my goal, I look back today and wonder if I would have made the same decision again? A continuing education program would assist active players to either continue their education or complete their degrees. The Player Development Director would collaborate with colleges or universities to develop plans to allow players to return in their club cites, or original institutions, or through distance learning.

CFL-CIS Athlete Development Workshop

Athlete Development isn’t something sorely lacking in just the CFL. Canadian Universities are also light years behind when it comes to employing student-athlete (SA) development professionals. Virtually every competitive NCAA school employs an SA Development Director whose job it is to help holistically develop the player away from the field. With so many talented CIS football stars going on to play in the CFL, you’ve got to wonder why the league hasn’t been more proactive when it comes to helping the next generation of CFL athletes grow. Coaches and Administrators play critical roles in the athlete’s development process and having them both in a room to discuss challenges, goals, and future outlook, could produce new strategies to change lives.

EMPOWERMENT

From day one, football players live by the law of the schedule. They are told where they are suppose to be, how long they’re suppose to be there, and what they are required to wear. Essentially their wholes lives are written down for them. What happens when that day ends and they must now figure it all out for themselves? Having had the opportunity to work on the business side of a CFL club as the coordinator of community relations I understand that players are required to fulfill certain commitments. Some are done with the purest intentions and others are done out of sheer obligation.

The offseason can be a long drawn out period where players depending on how wise they were with their finances can spend it one of two ways. Either preparing for the season by working out and doing the occasional club community program. Or like myself (due to the fact that I just didn’t make enough during the season) my offseason was spent in the glamorous role of stocking shelves at hardware stores or selling shoes at sporting good outlets. Early in my career I never once gave any thought to seeking out employment that might help me in establishing my career post football. Having the chance to make those social deposits while building a player’s social capital is imperative.

One of the most valuable experiences you have as a professional athlete is the opportunity to meet and connect with different people of different professions. Internships, job shadowing, or placements will give the athlete an option to make some money while gaining actual life experience. It also allows players to become better informed, and civically engaged in the club community. Many players are also due to make community appearance money in their contracts. Why not develop opportunities for them to earn what is promised while at the same time having them engage in a professional career opportunity they’re already interested in? It just makes sense. In doing so players are now more accustomed to the requirements of the job market as it exists outside of football while also gaining practical skills in preparation for employment options at the conclusion of their career.

I understand that a great deal of players aren’t thinking about what they will be doing after football ends. Hell, when I was 23 years old I could barely decide on what to have for breakfast. But guys have to understand that the time is now. The longer they are out of the game the tougher it becomes to do these things.

Football can be a tremendous vehicle in life if you use it properly. Some coaches are of the mindset that anything that takes a players focus off of the field is essentially a bad thing. But personally, I believe that if you develop a better man, you develop a better athlete. The more you minimize an individual to one identity (i.e.: just a football player) the more you marginalize their true identity. We are all multi layered. The key is focusing on whatever space you’re existing in. If it’s at home as a father or husband then exist in that space, if it’s as a student or entrepreneur then exist in that space, if it’s as a football player at practice or in a game then exist in that space.

As a former player finding that same focus and drive that I had as an athlete is extremely tough. I’m just starting to find it in some of the things that I’m doing. But to hit that go button the way I could when I played is extremely difficult to replace. I believe that throughout your career it is important to have multiple interests that you develop over time. Have friends that are outside athletics that will help you look at the world through another lens. And for the league and CFL Clubs, a more direct focus on the athlete as a person will not only assist in the development of their character and values but will also serve in the growth and success of our league for years to come.

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9 Comments on When the game is over players need support to find their purpose

  1. Well articulated.

  2. A very intelligent look at a too often ignored issue, and one not limited to football or to professional leagues. From university athletic departments to the elite leagues perhaps teams will recognize the need, and provide programs to help players through this transition.

  3. Outstanding.

    I’ve always wondered about what players do after they leave the game. To find some players working for minimum wage or commission and just scraping by after attending university and having the exposure of the CFL is disheartening. I love hearing how some players retire and excel in their field of study in addition to becoming ambassadors to their team, league or community, and I truly wish that was the rule and not an exception.

    Mr. Williams well-reasoned and thoughtful article could set a trend towards excellence after football. I really hope it does.

  4. Solara2000 // March 18, 2017 at 12:03 pm //

    A great story enriched by someone who has been there. So many pearls of wisdom yet it is all about looking beyond ‘game day’ and seeing the person under the helmet. It also spoke to the simplicity of coaching – a trait shared by the good and the great coaches in any sport – and the ability to connect (love the Pinball story – no surprise people in and out of football gravitate to him).

  5. Would love to chat and offer support for some of your ideas

  6. No doubt one of the best articles ever written on this site. Thank you, John, for your insights and suggestions. I would only add (though I apologize if I missed it) that, for not a few of us, to flourish (prosperity) is to serve (subordinate self to others).

  7. Jennifer // March 18, 2017 at 3:28 pm //

    An amazing inside look from someone who knows what it’s like to transition himself. Your passion for the game of football and more importantly the people who play the game shines through. It looks like you have uncovered a huge gap here and you have the knowledge and experience to fill the gap.

    Best of luck getting the word out and supporting athletes throughout their careers beginning to end. Very well done Mr.Williams.

  8. moncton ticats fan // March 18, 2017 at 9:05 pm //

    Now there is a man/former athletic who has his head on straight. Good for him. Many others haven’t figured out life after football quite as easily. His message is an important one for all athletics, who as stated, very often have very short careers, before having to “move on”. A great job by Mr. Williams, and very uplifting.

  9. skinpiglet // March 21, 2017 at 10:11 am //

    Excellent article. Thank you for sharing your insights and experiences John.

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