For many of us, retirement is the metaphorical carrot on the string that we’re all chasing. Part of this has to do with the fact that we are not pro athletes, meaning the vast majority of us don’t spend our time working out and competing in a game for a living. Let’s be honest, people pay to play in recreational sports leagues, but nobody is going to pay to be an accountant (just one example of a non-athletic job).
But to most athletes, the game they play isn’t just a game, it is life. This is a large part of what separates most normal people from pro athletes. While most people have varying interests, many athletes devote absurd and impressive amounts of time and energy to their craft and it becomes a major part of their identity. This is partially why many athletes have some fear of retirement. In the case of many NFL players, they aren’t just men, they are football players, and that is what they have been since their youth. The adjustment to no longer playing can be rough, but in some cases, a successful player actually builds on what they did on the field and can become far more successful off the field.
While plenty of NFL players get normal jobs after retirement and float off into relative anonymity and others take broadcasting jobs, there are many cases of players on the extreme end of either side. Some manage to do incredible things in their retirement, while others make bad choices, suffer horrible states of existence, and generally hit rock bottom. Here are ten NFL players who were amazing, but whose lives fell apart after their retirement, along with five former stars who have been phenomenally successful since they stopped playing.
15. Hit Rock Bottom: O.J. Simpson
Sure, we all know this story, but it is an interesting and important one, so here goes. For the kids out there who haven’t seen his highlights or read his stats, O.J. Simpson is one of the greatest running backs in the history of the game. Of course, because people are negative and focus on the bad, we all remember him for (allegedly) murdering his wife and her friend, rather than the 2,000 yard season (in fourteen games, we might add) or the four seasons he spent leading the league in rushing yards.
While he was acquitted of those murders, he did end up on the receiving end of some justice in the aftermath of a robbery carried out in Las Vegas in 2007. He is set to get parole in October, 2017, having served nine years for his part in that armed robbery. Who knows what wacky shenanigans he’ll get into next.
14. Hit Rock Bottom: Chad Johnson
We’ll admit that Chad Johnson’s (or Ochocinco’s) hitting rock bottom isn’t quite as dramatic, but seeing a villain like him go through hard times must have been fun for some of his numerous haters. For six years he posted steady 1,000 yard seasons, earning himself numerous trips to the Pro Bowl along with All-Pro honours. His 2011 year with New England was just disappointing enough for him to temporarily retire. He of course returned to the CFL, where he did next to nothing and then got suspended for skipping training camp.
Off the field he’s been on a few reality TV shows and generally does whatever he can to stay close to the spotlight. In the past few years he’s pleaded guilty to domestic battery, got in some trouble for violating his parole, got sentenced to a month in prison for slapping his male attorney on the behind in court (while celebrating a ruling that would have seen him not serve any jail time). Finally, last year it was discovered that he was dealing with some financial hard times, as he was sued by his condo association over unpaid fees.
13. Earned Greater Success: John Elway
How do you improve on being a two time Super Bowl winning quarterback? Well, getting hired on as a General Manager helps. Back in the early 1990s, Elway was making an annual salary of just $1.45 million, about a full million less than the highest paid quarterback in the league, Joe Montana. While his salary did improve throughout the 1990s, the Broncos recently signed him to a five year deal as their GM, paying him $3.75 million per year, the highest number among NFL GM’s. With two Super Bowls as a player and another one as GM, it is undeniable that Elway has maintained his phenomenal success into his retirement. It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows however, as Elway reportedly got scammed out of $15 million in a Ponzi scheme that was discovered back in 2010.
12. Hit Rock Bottom: Travis Henry
Taken in the second round by the Bills in the 2001 draft, he had a couple of strong years in Buffalo, including two 1,000 plus yard seasons, and two seasons with 10 or more touchdowns. Henry would become the backup to Willis McGahee however, and eventually demanded to be traded, ending up with the Titans. He had a great 2006 season, averaging 4.5 yards per carry, and racking up seven rushing touchdowns. The Titans cut him regardless of his solid year, and he spent one final year with the Broncos who cut him the following year amid some drug suspension issues. Since his “retirement”, Henry has been in the news for two things: not being able to pay child support for his eleven (possibly more by now?) children with ten women, and for being sentenced to three years behind bars for drug trafficking.
11. Hit Rock Bottom: Terrell Owens
While he was the easiest player in the NFL to hate for several years, it sort of feels like an injustice that Terrell Owens has been snubbed by the Hall of Fame for two years straight. We understand the reasoning, and it mainly seems like his foul attitude and extravagant showboating are to blame. At the same time, he’s eighth all-time in receptions, second in receiving yards, behind only Jerry Rice, and third in touchdown catches. That seems to be more than enough to begrudgingly let him in.
But we digress, you came here to read about train wrecks. T.O. went broke after his football career ended, and despite earning over $80 million in his years on the field, his spending and some poor investment advice (by his own admission) quickly drained that amount. He has four kids with four women and several years ago was accused of missing or coming up short on child support payments. He’s done some modelling work and still gets the odd endorsement deal here and there, so he isn’t still on the bottom, but for a while there, things were very rough for T.O.
10. Earned Greater Success: Michael Strahan
Like we said regarding John Elway, it is tough to imagine someone like Michael Strahan doing better in retirement than he did when he was in the league, but looking at his career (at least financially) he’s done it. Strahan is one of the greatest defensive ends of all time, and currently ranks sixth in all-time sacks. Leading the league twice in sacks, and getting numerous All-Pro honours along with seven trips to the Pro Bowl, he was a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. Over the course of his fifteen season career he made about $60 million, but his current earnings in the world of television are very impressive. While he started out making about $4 million while co-hosting Live! With Kelly and Michael, that number more than doubled by 2015, and he is rumoured to be making close to $20 million now that he is on Good Morning America. Not to mention the fact that he is an analyst for the NFL and hosts The $100,000 Pyramid. As great as he was on the field, Strahan is killing it on TV as well. He’s jovial, funny, and the people can’t get enough.
9. Hit Rock Bottom: Art Schlichter
One of the most significant draft busts of all time, Art Schlichter’s tale is a sad and cautionary one. He was a four-year star at Ohio State and was in the top six in Heisman votes for three of his years there. He was drafted fourth overall in 1982 by the Baltimore Colts. He remained in the league until 1986, putting up atrocious numbers when he was actually on the field, before heading to the CFL, and later the Arena Football League.
He quit football altogether in the early 1990s as a gambling addiction he had developed in his youth was destroying his life. He was great at conning people out of their money and committing theft, and after he had gambled his own money away (which didn’t take long) he turned to fraud, forgery and numerous other felonies that have landed him in prison multiple times. He got his most significant prison sentence in 2011, when he pleaded guilty to several offences. The earliest release date possible for him is in late 2020.
8. Hit Rock Bottom: Chris McAlister
There was some light at the end of the “rock bottom” tunnel for Chris McAlister a couple of years ago, as he was doing some coaching for the Buffalo Bills, but we doubt these jobs did much to rebuild his life. The tenth overall pick in 1999, McAlister played cornerback for the Baltimore Ravens from that year until 2008, and then spent a year in New Orleans before retiring. He won a Super Bowl with the Ravens, and was selected to three Pro Bowls. He earned somewhere around $50 million over the course of his career, but by 2011 (note this is two years after the end of his playing career) he was in court trying to get child support payments lowered, as he was living with his parents and had none of his own money left.
7. Earned Greater Success: Jim Brown
This entry should make Cleveland Browns feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and remind them of the good old days while they prep for what should be another miserable season. Jim Brown is one of the greatest football players to ever hit the field. His nine years in the league never saw him miss a Pro Bowl and he won a single NFL Championship in 1964 with the Browns. Despite playing only 12 and 14 game seasons, Brown holds the tenth highest rank in career rushing yards among all running backs. Furthermore, he went out on top, choosing to retire after a career-high 17 touchdown year. He quit the NFL to pursue a career in acting, and while his football earnings are estimated at just short of half a million dollars, thanks to films, he has a net worth of about $50 million right now.
6. Hit Rock Bottom: Warren Sapp
In the last couple of years, former Buccaneers All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp has managed to rebuild to some extent. With a jolly personality like he has, along with his sense of humour, he’s a popular character to feature on reality shows regardless of whether the viewership includes football fans. He was terminated by NFL Network after allegations of soliciting a prostitute back in 2015, but prior to that things had already gotten bad for him, as he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2012 with less than $1,000 in his accounts, and debts that outweighed his assets. At that point he was unable to pay spousal support or child support, and had gone for some time without paying income or property taxes. While he’s dug himself out from financial oblivion to some extent, Sapp made headlines a few months ago when he announced he would be donating his brain to science upon his death, citing memory loss that he blames on head trauma.
5. Hit Rock Bottom: Mike Webster
While we can poke fun at guys like T.O. and Ochocinco who went broke but are still alive, the case of Mike Webster and the whole brain injury controversy is a painful reality of loving this sport. We can’t produce an article about NFL players suffering hard times after the end of their playing careers without mentioning a case or two of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). For those who haven’t watched football or kept up with the news for the last two decades, researchers have finally figured out that getting hit in the head dozens of times every week can have a nasty effect on brain activity, and this condition is linked to the early and sad deaths of quite a few NFL players.
A few of the most prominent player deaths associated with CTE are Junior Seau, Justin Strzelczyk, Dave Duerson, Jovan Belcher, and possibly most notably, Pittsburgh Steelers center “Iron” Mike Webster. Webster was a warrior of the gridiron if there ever was one. He played through it all, including what doctors would later describe as the cumulative effect of thousands of car crashes, that built up every time he took a blow to the head. His mental state degenerated quickly in retirement and he wound up living in his truck and having to be cared for by family members in his 40s. The 2015 film Concussion documents the end of his life, which ended at age 50 from a heart attack.
4. Earned Greater Success: Roger Staubach
Although Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach was drafted in 1964, he didn’t actually debut for the Dallas Cowboys until 1969, making him a rookie at age 27. He was required to complete four years of Naval service after his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy. He served in Vietnam during that time and then completed his service in the United States. His career with the Cowboys was a phenomenal one, for those who need a history lesson, and his scrambling and unpredictable play earned him six Pro Bowl selections and helped his team to two Super Bowl victories, one of which saw him named the MVP.
After his retirement in 1979, he started his own real estate business, which grew over the following thirty years to be worth several billion dollars. Staubach sold the company in 2008 and these days his net worth is usually estimated at just over $600 million.
3. Hit Rock Bottom: Lawrence Taylor
There are athletes who play the game, and then there are athletes who change it. Lawrence Taylor is the latter of these two. Talking about his talent here doesn’t do him justice, but we’ll try anyway. He was one of the most vicious pass rushers in the history of football and revolutionized the linebacker position, making would-be blockers look foolish and causing coaches to rethink how offensive line blocking schemes would work. But behind all the talent there were demons, and those demons involved a lot of substance abuse and some poor spending habits. The Giants icon had to declare bankruptcy in 1998, and has since been open in terms of talking about his alcohol and drug habits, which went back to his rookie years, along with his own poor management of money. He also pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct and patronizing a prostitute, getting six years of probation after paying a sixteen year old girl for some “favours”.
2. Hit Rock Bottom: Keith Wright
Defensive lineman Keith Wright, who played end and tackle during his college career at Missouri, was taken at the end of the sixth round in 2003 by the Houston Texans. He never ended up doing anything worth writing about in the NFL, floating around from practice squad to practice squad and briefly playing in NFL Europe. By 2006 his career was over. Five years went by with little news about this man, but in August 2011 he was arrested for numerous robberies and home invasions carried out in Sacramento. Wright was never a star in the NFL, but his fall from what little grace he did have was nasty. In 2012 he was sentenced to over 230 years in prison for numerous charges including sexual assault, robbery, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and burglary.
1. Earned Greater Success: Jerry Richardson
The picture above is of a much younger Carolina Panthers founder Jerry Richardson. Many people think that Roger Staubach has had the most successful post-playing career among retired NFL players. He’s done well for himself, but many fans forget that Carolina Panthers owner/founder Jerry Richardson is a former football player. He was drafted in 1958 and played just two seasons for the Baltimore Colts, winning the team’s rookie of the year award in 1959 and caught a touchdown pass thrown by Johnny Unitas in the 1959 NFL Championship game. He left the league due to a contractual dispute after the 1960 season and started a restaurant business that grew to include multiple brands and over 3,000 restaurants. He founded the Carolina Panthers in 1993 and subsequently retired from his business career in 1995. His net worth is over $1.1 billion and he is the second NFL player, after George Halas, to own a franchise (Halas being the founder of the Chicago Bears).
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