Simply put, the NFL is the ultimate destination. It is the Holy Grail, from which thousands of collegiate athletes hope to drink every year, and which only the most elite of the elite ever get to grasp. Sure, there are other outlets for the gridiron combatants who don’t make it to the big time—the Canadian Football League, the Arena Football League—but the National Football League and its 32 teams are the highest standard of success a football player can achieve. Not everyone who enters the league becomes a star, but to even have a chance to be part of the conversation hints at indisputable greatness.
But what of life thereafter? What of the day when the famous quarterback lobs his last touchdown, of when the vicious defensive lineman lands his final sack?
It’s no secret that the field life of a professional athlete is short, especially for those who compete in such a brutal sport as football at such a level as the NFL. These players only get so many seasons to earn the seven or eight figure salaries and to make their legacies. Once their time is up, whether by injury or declining ability or just knowing when the time is right, they must find a way to life without the game that has defined them since young adulthood.
Some move on to discover even further greatness, second careers in coaching, broadcasting, or even acting. Others meet life after football like a brick wall.
20 Fell Apart: Warren Sapp
Warren Sapp played for 12 years as a defensive tackle, for the Buccaneers and the Raiders. He was a first-round draft pick for Tampa Bay, where he would go on to earn a Super Bowl ring, seven Pro Bowls, and 77 sacks—the second most in the franchise’s history. He was a vicious, imposing player unafraid of a little trash talk. Four years after retiring in 2007, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, as well as receiving the honor of having his number-99 jersey retired by the Bucs.
But the road after football was often rocky for Sapp. Although working with NFL Network as an analyst, it was pocked with legal and financial trouble. He was arrested for domestic battery in 2010, causing a strain with the network, and was ultimately fired after being arrested for assault and attempting to solicit a prostitute in 2015.
All the while, he was going through various financial turmoil with the IRS over unpaid taxes, paying alimony, and owing personal debts to a variety of different people and business. He filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
19 Thrived: Cris Collinsworth
A prolific wide receiver with the Bengals for eight seasons, Cris Collinsworth retired from the NFL as a three-time Pro Bowler, posting 417 receptions for a career of 6,698 receiving yards and 36 touchdowns. His imposing height and speed made him an effective target for Cincinnati’s quarterbacks, but these are hardly the numbers of the elite of wide receivers, like Jerry Rice and Randy Moss.
He retired after Cincy’s Super Bowl XXIII loss, and almost immediately began his broadcasting career hosting sports radio programs in Cincinnati. Once he became a reporter for Inside the NFL in 1989, he began his rise to the top of the sports broadcasting world. Since then, he has broadcast several Super Bowls and Madden NFL video games, as well as even during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He has served as the heir to John Madden’s commentary role on Sunday Night Football, where he continues to this day.
18 Fell Apart: Luther Elliss
Luther Elliss had a respectable but not dazzling NFL career, posting decent numbers and serving as a reliable brick in the Lions’ defensive line for eight seasons and a single season with the Broncos. His career highlights are modest, including two Pro Bowl trips in 1999 and 2000, at the prime of his run.
Unfortunately for Elliss, he’s perhaps better known now as a player who lost all of their money after retiring. In just the last four years of his career, Elliss earned over $11 million, yet by 2010 had lost all of it, relying on charity to support his family.
17 Thrived: Peyton Manning
There are only two quarterbacks in NFL history to retire immediately following a Super Bowl win: John Elway and Peyton Manning. Manning is among the greatest comeback stories in the sport after suffering a career-threatening neck injury and missing the entire 2011 season while recovering from surgery. Despite the odds of this particular injury ending careers, he returned for another four seasons with the Denver Broncos, where he led the team to two Super Bowls and one championship.
16 Fell Apart: Chris McAlister
A three-time Pro Bowler and part of the 2001 team that won the Super Bowl, Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister is among those whose personal finances took a massive plummet after his professional career came to an end.
McAlister was a first-round pick for the Ravens in 1999, and in 2004 his intense defensive acumen earned him a $55 million contract with the team. His career would go on to include his peak in 2006, which included two interceptions returned for touchdowns, and he is most famous for an interception return for a touchdown against the Cowboys. His final few years in the NFL saw declining physical ability and eventually a release from the Ravens. He played one last season with the Saints in 2009.
15 Thrived: Phil Simms
Phil Simms spent a remarkable 14-year run as the quarterback of the New York Giants. His performance in Super Bowl XXI remains one of the best of all time, having landed 22 of 25 pass attempts and three touchdown passes. He would famously declare, after being named the Super Bowl MVP, “I’m going to Disneyland!”
From the 1986 season onward, Simms’s career was spottier due to injuries and administrative shakeups in the Giants’ front office, although he continued to play with the team until 1993. He began working with NBC in 1994, becoming the lead announcer for the network’s football broadcasts almost instantly—including Super Bowls XXX and XXII. He has also leant his voice to several Madden games and dabbled occasionally in acting on the shows 'As the World Turns' and 'Elementary'.
14 Fell Apart: Ray Rice
Not all the players on this list have met hardship through circumstances beyond their control. In 2014, video emerged of Ray Rice hitting his then-fiancee in a hotel hallway, for which he was arrested under charges of aggravated assault. The Ravens were slow to react, but eventually terminated Rice’s contract later the same year. The league suspended him indefinitely until he appealed the decision and had it overturned in court.
However, it is impossible for any team to sign him; the PR fallout would be atrocious, as the brutality of Rice’s attack on his now-wife has left an unforgettable mark on the public consciousness. He has attempted to amend his status since, vowing to donate his entire salary to domestic violence charities were he to be signed by an NFL team, but he is virtually untouchable by any team.
13 Thrived: Sean Payton
Sean Payton was a true journeyman of professional football as a player, having gone undrafted in the 1987 NFL draft and then hopscotching between two AFL and one CFL teams in the span of a single season. He briefly played for the Chicago Bears during the 1987 players strike, posting regrettable numbers (8/23 passes, 79 yards, 0 TDs, 1 interception) in three games.
After a single season in the semi-pros over in the UK, Payton traded in his cleats and helmet for a headset and clipboard. He began as an offensive assistant for the San Diego State Aztecs and various other college teams before being hired as the quarterbacks coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1997, a decade after the end of his on-field career.
12 Fell Apart: Eric Naposki
A nine-year veteran of professional football, Naposki spent three fairly unremarkable seasons with the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, and four seasons with the Barcelona Dragons of the World League of American Football. Although he posted decent numbers in the latter, Naposki’s career was mostly obscure. He would have disappeared into the annals of professional football history had it not been for his 2009 arrest.
He was arrested in Connecticut for a murder that he committed 15 years earlier on the other side of the country, in California, and was convicted in 2011. He was convinced to commit the murder by the victim’s girlfriend, who was seeking to collect life insurance money and share it with Naposki—she would later on be convicted as well.
11 Thrived: Jason Garrett
In 1989, the New Orleans Saints signed Jason Garrett as an undrafted free agent, but waived him later that season. He spent the next few years working as a coaching assistant at Princeton, his alma mater, and playing for the World League of American Football and Canadian Football League, never achieving much success in either league.
He was eventually signed to the Cowboys’ practice squad in 1992, being promoted to third-string quarterback in 1993 behind Troy Aikman and Hugh Millen. Although he holds two Super Bowl rings from the Cowboys’ victories in 1993 and 1995, Garrett was never a first-stringer for the franchise and was eventually released. He would hop between the Giants, Buccaneers, and Dolphins before retiring in 2005.
10 Fell Apart: Aaron Hernandez
Aaron Hernandez, along with Rob Gronkowski, was an explosive asset at tight end for the New England Patriots, but in 2013 he was indicted for the murder of a friend, Odin Lloyd, a crime for which he was eventually found guilty. The Patriots cut Hernandez from their roster within hours of his arrest, and he currently resides in a Massachusetts prison serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.
9 Thrived: Howie Long
A Super Bowl champion as well as an eight-time Pro Bowler, Howie Long is among the greatest defensive ends in NFL history. He played with the Raiders for the entirety of his career, amassing 91.5 sacks and an eventual Hall of Fame induction in 2000.
Since retiring, Long has appeared as an actor and a broadcaster, beginning his onscreen ventures with the action film Firestorm in 1998. He would also appear in films such as Broken Arrow, 3000 Miles to Graceland, and That Thing You Do!, in addition to various television commercials.
8 Fell Apart: Johnny Manziel
One looks at Johnny Manziel and can’t help but think of what could have been. His prominence as a player ranges all the way back to when he was recruited from his high school team to Texas A&M, where he passed for over 3,000 yards in his freshman year; he was the first freshman in NCAA history to do such. Later that year, he would lead A&M to a Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma.
After being awarded the Heisman Trophy in 2012, Manziel became a national figure; he was the first freshman to win the award. Football fans eagerly awaited the day they would see Johnny Football on an NFL field. A first-round pick for the Cleveland Browns, Manziel ultimately could not translate his early college success to the pros. His first start came in a shut-out against the Cincinnati Bengals and things did not look up from there.
Manziel was cut by the Browns after a disastrous 2015 season in which he posted 7 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, but during which his personal foibles began to sully his in-game ability. He was dropped by two agents and his marketing team, due to his tumultuous drug and alcohol abuse.
7 Thrived: Carl Weathers
Carl Weathers only played one season in the National Football League, as a linebacker for the Oakland Raiders, and three seasons afterward in the CFL. During the offseasons of his professional career, he pursued a B.A. in Drama from San Francisco State University, and pursued a career in acting after retiring in 1974.
Two years later, he would land the role that would define his acting career: Apollo Creed in Rocky, the fearsome opponent to Sylvester Stallone’s eponymous boxing champion. He would reprise the role in the next three Rocky films. He also appeared significantly in other success films, such as Predator and Happy Gilmore, as well as a parodic version of himself in the TV series Arrested Development.
6 Fell Apart: Darren Sharper
Although he spent most of his NFL career with the Green Bay Packers, Darren Sharper would find his greatest success as a member of the Super Bowl-winning 2009 New Orleans Saints, where he played for the last two seasons of his career. After injuries and a lack of interest from other teams sent Sharper into retirement, he attempted to make a career in broadcasting with NFL Network.
However, Sharper was fired from his NFL Network job when he was charged with multiple counts of a rape committed in 2013 and 2014 in California. After his initial arrest, more allegations of rape and sexual assault were leveled against him, including in Louisiana, Arizona, and Nevada. He eventually plead guilt to most of the charges and is now serving up to 20 years in prison for the crime.
5 Thrived: Bill Goldberg
After an unremarkable five years as a professional defensive tackle—during which he played for the Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Falcons, and the CFL’s Sacramento Gold Miner—Bill Goldberg failed to gain traction in professional football. He decided to try his hand at professional wrestling, after being convinced to do so by wrestlers Lex Luger and Sting.
What followed was one of the most wildly popular runs of the 90s and 2000s, when professional wrestling was experiencing a massive mainstream boom. Wrestling simply under his surname, Goldberg became one of the must-see attractions of World Championship Wrestling’s Monday Nitro, amassing a year-long undefeated streak and numerous pay-per-view main events.
4 Fell Apart: O.J. Simpson
What is there to say about O.J. Simpson that hasn’t already been said? He is perhaps the poster child for how violent crime can, rightfully, dispel any goodwill a player has amassed during a professional football career. Were this a different reality, Simpson would be in constant conversation as one of the greatest to ever play running back, and even to play the game in any position.
Instead, he is one of America’s most notorious criminals. Nearly 20 years after he retired from football, Simpson was arrested and tried for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Although ultimately acquitted of the charges—a controversial ruling at the end of a lengthy trial—Simpson was later found liable in a wrongful death suit filed by the victims’ families.
3 Thrived: Marshawn Lynch
On February 7th, 2016, Marshawn Lynch tweeted a photo of his bright green football cleats hanging from a telephone wire–perhaps the Marshawn Lynch-iest way of announcing his retirement that the monstrous running back could have conceived. After a storied career for the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks, the latter of which won him a Super Bowl ring, he retired on the day of the big game itself, after missing most of the 2015 season.
Lynch is one of the most bizarre and polarizing players of recent NFL memory. His disinterest in speaking to the media—“I’m just here so I won’t get fined,” being his most famous response—was hilarious to some and enraging to others. Nevertheless, he is one of the most recognizable faces of football in recent years.
2 Fell Apart: Rashaan Salaam
In 1994, Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam received the Heisman Trophy, setting the stage for great expectations when he was drafted in the first round in 1995 by the Chicago Bears. Twenty-two years later, Salaam was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, having lived in depressed seclusion for over a decade in Boulder, having failed to live up to the expectations thrust upon him so early in life.
Unfortunately, his career in the NFL was something of a shadow of his college success, having sputtered out due to injury and inconsistent play after only four seasons. He would pursue contracts in the XFL, CFL, and one last attempt at playing in the NFL in 2002, when he was cut from the 49ers before the season began.
1 Thrived: Michael Strahan
To end things on a positive note, let’s look at Michael Strahan. He is among the greats of defensive ends in NFL history, having played for the New York Giants for 15 years and won a Super Bowl in his final season. He holds the league record for most sacks in a regular season, at 22.5 from 2001, and was selected to the Pro Bowl seven times throughout his career in New York.
After retirement, Strahan became one of the most recognizable faces in all of media. Fresh off the 2007 Super Bowl upset over the Patriots, during which he played phenomenally, he began serving on the panel of Fox NFL Sunday and other studio coverage of the NFL for the network. He has gone on be Regis Philbin’s replacement on Live! with Regis and Kelly, the show being renamed to … with Kelly and Michael, and eventually became a full-time part of Good Morning America, where he currently works in addition to Fox NFL coverage. He has also won two daytime Emmys and appeared in many different ad campaigns.
Strahan is still relatively young, being only 45 years old, and so we can expect him to continue to be an active broadcaster and television host for years to come.
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