Blue Bomber Report Record: 3–15–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

RRSPs don't cover this type of retirement

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Denial has finally run its course. For the first time in the last 15 years of my life, professional football went about its daily business and I didn't have a damn thing to do with it.

For much of this off-season, two questions I entertained from fans were, "Why don't you play one more season and finish in the new stadium?" and, "How does it feel to be done playing professional football?" Naturally, due to the delays, the first question isn't asked in earnest anymore, but up to this point, I've answered the second by saying that I will have to wait and see once training camp kicks off and I'm not a part of things.

Well, that day of reckoning has come and gone -- as at least 7,500 of you know -- and quite frankly, no matter how prepared you think you are, it was an empty and detached feeling. Now I know why many say that football players die two deaths. One, at the end of their playing careers, and the other, when life finally concludes. The death metaphor always seemed ridiculous, until you finally experience it and a part of your fabric of being is lost.

While I was never a big fan of training camp and will not miss it, it does signify the start of what used to be a lifestyle change, and I think I can finally now put in words why it is so difficult to retire.

It is simply a void that cannot and will not be filled by anything else. Joe Poplawski, one of the most respected and successful former players I have come to know, told me when I first started contemplating the idea of retirement, that it would be the hardest thing I ever did, because it was the hardest thing he went through.

When you break down football to its most basic elements, it is in many ways a primitive, almost primordial game. You are running in one direction, I am running in the other, and when we collide you find out more about a person than you ever could if you spent a year interacting with them. While you can enhance your physical talents by being smart, cunning, deceptive or strategic, there is only so far the cerebral approach can take you and only so much physical disparity that mental prowess can overcome.

Attempting to explain it will inevitably take you down the path to clichéd lore of gladiatorial combat. For the game is as much about how strong, physical, explosive, durable and athletic you are, as how precise your schemes and exploitative your game plans can be. Everything is a test and battle of wills. It's debate club without the speeches and critical thinking.

Once you retire, you find yourself in a world where your most prized and sought-after abilities are virtually useless or unnecessary. Of course, the lessons you learn in a tenured football career are assets in almost any industry. These athletes compete for employment like no other, they know how to operate as part of a team, they have experience working under intense stress and pressure, and acquire years of experience working in a field that is explicitly results-oriented. It's also beneficial to any profession to be physically fit. And that is the chasm that envelops you between the game and real life.

Some players take the time to identify and hone other skills and talents, while playing, that they transition to and earn a living from, but can their sense of accomplishment ever be as rewarding or as immediate?

Professional football players are respected in some circles because of how their traits differentiate them from others. They are modern day denizens of combat. They shrug off what would incapacitate most and eagerly run into potentially life-altering collisions with little regard but for the colours they wear and the brethren they play with.

How do they find that satisfaction again when they leave the only game where their primary skills made them special? How can they ever represent a city in a vocation that can move people to tears and jettison them from their seats in such dramatic fashion?

This realization is no excuse, or anything that comes close, to explaining why many players of late (the most recent, Junior Seau) took their own lives while transitioning from the game. Yet it does make you understand that a life of professional football is a badge of honour, accomplishment and achievement that you proudly wear while you play. But the game never lets anyone keep that badge. We all must turn it in at some point and watch from afar as others take their turn.

Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.

Twitter: @DougBrown97

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2012 D3

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