There are a couple of ways by which a professional football player's life can "fall apart" after they retire. Speaking to the vast majority of cases, most athletes either suffer from health problems, familial disasters or run out of money. The medical and health concerns that result from physical contact on the football field are largely beyond their own control. The breakdown of families are a group effort but in most cases, the player is significantly at fault.
Finally, the money. Oh, good ol' money. They say money isn't happiness, but money is a one-way route to freedom and freedom is very close to happiness. No matter what, a copious amount of cash is a good start if you're looking to be happy. This shouldn't be news to anyone. But moving back to the topic of NFL players and their finances, while these athletes are great at making money, many have shown themselves to be very poor at keeping it. Talk to any financial expert, they will all tell you that equally important to making money is keeping it.
Keeping money is completely within anyone's scope of ability. It takes some discipline and a bit of education, but time and time again it seems that football players lack these two things. Between financial disasters, destroyed health, being abandoned by their families and other poor luck/decisions, here are some former football players whose lives completely disintegrated after their retirement.
20 Deuce McAllister
19 Luther Elliss
Before we get to the real tragedies and stories of devastating post-football lives, we'll share a few more feel-good, "oh maybe they'll turn it around" stories. Former Lions Pro Bowl defensive tackle Luther Elliss had a very solid ten year career after being drafted out of Utah in the first round of the 1995 Draft. He had made around $11 million, but spent all of his money on businesses that never really took off. While a few guys on this list had vices, Elliss was a decent guy, charismatic and charitable. He just didn't keep careful track of his money and ended up losing a couple of houses.
18 Andre Rison
A five-time Pro Bowl selection, Super Bowl winner (Packers in '96), and 10,000 yard receiver, Andre Rison spent his twelve year NFL career with seven different teams. He retired in 2000, after his performance had dipped consistently for three years. His life after football hasn't been a complete nightmare, but he has blown a lot of money. He started a football school and has coached at both the high school and collegiate levels, but throughout these ventures, he has spent more than his investments have yielded, which is definitely a way to lose everything.
17 Chris McAlister
16 Bernie Kosar
The long time Cleveland Browns quarterback and arguably the last decent franchise quarterback they had (okay, Vinny Testaverde and Tim Couch had two and three decent years in Cleveland). He led them to more post-seasons since Otto Graham, who led the team in the 1940s and 50s. Remember that time when the Buffalo Bills were doing well but just kept losing Super Bowls? Well, Kosar's one year with the Dallas Cowboys saw him win a Super Bowl ring as a backup to Troy Aikman.
15 Travis Henry
Taken from Tennessee in the second round of the 2001 Draft by the Bills, Travis Henry quickly developed a reputation as a mean runner, earning the starting job in his rookie season and achieving over 4,000 yards from scrimmage in his first three years with the Buffalo Bills. He went on to play for the Titans and Broncos but ultimately his career was cut short due in part to injury and a couple of drug related suspensions.
14 O.J. Simpson
This is one of the most well-known NFL post-retirement stories for all the wrong reasons. Don't get us wrong, he had a few decent years there. He was a broadcaster, had an acting career that wasn't anything to mock, but he had some memorable roles. We all know what happened, his wife was killed (probably by him) and while he was acquitted, he sold off everything he had to pay the resulting civil suit. He's been sued a few times by Ron Goldman's family since then and he was arrested a few times throughout the 2000s even before he was convicted of his now-notorious robbery/kidnapping in Las Vegas back in 2007. He's been a pariah since the early 90s and now he's in prison. He may get out in 2017, but that remains to be seen. People know what he's all about, life will probably be tough.
13 Dexter Manley
One of the most feared defensive ends of the 1980s, Dexter Manley won two Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins in 1983 and 1988 and became the poster boy for the stereotype of the dimwitted student athlete. After his career ended he admitted, rather notoriously, that he was basically illiterate, despite having taken four years of university level schooling.
12 Ryan Leaf
The most notorious draft bust in NFL history has usually been a title reserved for Ryan Leaf. We'll have to revisit the "biggest draft bust" debate in the near future depending on what happens with Johnny Alcohol Manziel. Oh, it was Johnny Football? Sorry, I guess I forgot that, pardon me.
But getting back to the trainwreck in question, Ryan Leaf was drafted second overall back in 1998 by the Chargers. He looked like something very special with Washington State in 1997, but was an absolute wasted uniform in his three years of NFL play with San Diego and briefly with Dallas.
11 Terrell Owens
Here's a feel good story for those of you who want to marvel at the misfortune of one of the NFL's greatest ever villains. T.O. remains one of the greatest receivers ever to play the game, but his style on the field, between the incessant trash talk and touchdown dances, was one of a kind and earned him as many haters as fans.
10 Warren Sapp
An absolute warrior of a defensive tackle, Warren Sapp was a cornerstone of that ruthless defense that led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win in 2003.
9 Lawrence Taylor
With over a thousand tackles, 132.5 sacks, two Super Bowls, ten Pro Bowls and an equal number of All-Pro designations, L.T. is a popular choice for the title of "greatest NFL defenders of all time." The outside linebacker was a feared tackler and a threat to put a quarterback on the turf every play.
8 Shane Dronett
While it may be kind of funny to read about rich people metaphorically vomiting money on nonsense and bad business ideas until they run out, the stories to come can be difficult to read. We're into the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) part of the list, wherein we see the nastiest way that retired football players' lives can be destroyed. Bankruptcy, family problems and crime are nothing compared to a gradual mental disintegration.
There are quite a few victims of CTE to go, but our first is defensive end Shane Dronett. Taken in the second round of the 1992 Draft by the Denver Broncos, he remained in the league until 2003. His career was respectable but unremarkable, as he could pass rush and stop the run adequately, but never with enough dominance to be called a star. He suffered a few significant injuries throughout his career, including an ACL tear that ended his career, but took a number of hits to the head that ultimately led to his demise. He last played in 2003 and seemed perfectly normal until around 2006 when, according to his wife, Dronett started to lose his mental faculties. He would wake up in the middle of the night with delusions of people attacking his property, he attacked people in public without provocation, and had severe paranoia and irrational thoughts. In 2009, he shot himself.
7 Paul Oliver
While it took Shane Dronett about six years after his retirement to reach a state of misery that caused him to take his own life, former defensive back Paul Oliver, who played five years in the league, four of them for the San Diego Chargers, took his life just two years after his career ended.
6 Terry Long
A guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the mid and late 1980s and the early 90s, Terry Long missed out on the golden years of the Steel Curtain (mid to late 70s) and played on a very average team for most of his career. He violated the league's substance policy early in the 1990s and was suspended. He attempted suicide during this period. He served his suspension and re-signed with the team but was released a year after.
5 Dave Duerson
If you watched last year's Concussion, featuring Will Smith and Luke Wilson (why he was chosen to play Roger Goodell, we may never know), you may have been given the wrong impression of former Chicago Bears All Pro safety Dave Duerson. He is presented as aggressive, condescending, and insulting toward Bennet Omalu (the doctor played by Will Smith who discovered the prominence of CTE among NFL veterans). His family has claimed that Duerson was nothing like his portrayal in the movie and that he was unfairly targeted as a villain by filmmaker Peter Landesman.
4 Andre Waters
Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters couldn't have much more in common with Dave Duerson. Roughly the same size (200 lbs, about 6' tall, prototypical 80s safety), they both played on solid defenses, both racked up tons of tackles and hit hard (Waters had several seasons with 100+ tackles). They had a slightly different style of play and while Duerson received more accolades in terms of All-Pro designations and Pro Bowl selections, both served as important pieces in elite 80's and early 90's defenses.
3 Justin Strzelczyk
2 Junior Seau
Every CTE story is a sad one thus far and this one is no different. While the symptoms of CTE (such as depression, insomnia and so on) can be treated to some extent, the gradual degeneration of the damaged brain tissue is a process that can't be stopped after it has reached a certain stage. Some guys can hide the war going on inside their head, others can't. Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau was a God when it came to hiding his problems.
Much like the positive, passionate, never-give-up type of character he was on the field, he maintained his outlook well in retirement. Seau's life off the field had been rocky, with a couple of divorces, but not quite as high profile as others around the league. After football however, friends thought he was dealing with a gambling addiction. One friend, a Marine named Jay Michael Auwae, said that Seau owed large amounts of money to casino owners but said that there was never any indication that he was in any sort of emotional distress.
1 Mike Webster
We've mentioned a few stories in this article that may have offered up a laugh or two and have detailed some tales that have been unfortunate and mildly upsetting. The finer details of Mike Webster's post-NFL life are in a class all their own. The seventeen season center (fifteen with the Pittsburgh Steelers and two with the Kansas City Chiefs) was the definition of "warrior" within the world of American football. The nine-time Pro Bowl selection and seven-time All Pro is a Hall of Famer but that honor came at high cost.
We've already talked about Seau, Duerson, and a few other notable gents whose later lives were destroyed by CTE, but Webster remains one of the most notable poster-boys. Jovan Belcher too, but we didn't mention him here because his very tragic murder-suicide took place while he was an active NFL player.
Webster, on the other hand, was feeling the effects of CTE before retirement, but had a very steady and tragic mental degeneration until his early death in 2002. He spent most of his later life living in his truck or in train and bus stations and briefly lived with his kid. His wife left him in early 2002 and he died in September of that year. If you want a (fairly accurate) Hollywood version of Mike Webster's final days, watch Concussion, but consider doing so with a bottle of whiskey nearby, it's a tough flick to take in if you like football players and want them to enjoy later life.
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