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Life after football can be terrifying prospect for ex-players

SAN DIEGO -- Former San Diego Chargers and New York Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson, fresh off speaking at last weekend's memorial service for soon-to-be Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, publicly conceded his football career is at its end. Tomlinson hasn't officially retired but he's planning the next step. Some broadcasting -- maybe. Some of this or that -- maybe. Nothing concrete.

Tomlinson's segue into "real" life is fresh since he still might come back if the right offer surfaces. There's still that unknown, though, which is terrifying to a lot of players at the tail end of their careers. It affects those who were stars like Tomlinson and also grinders who couldn't focus on anything but football because, if they did, they could be replaced.

Life after football is terrifying because a lot of players never really thought about what's going to happen until reality strikes. Those are their thoughts.

"What really gets you is it's from 60 miles per hour to zero like that," said Chargers linebacker Takeo Spikes, who's entering his 15th season. "Now what? We're used to and programmed to be doing something football related year round. We've all done it probably for more than 20 years. Then it's cut off. That's the toughest thing former players deal with, especially in that first year."

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The Saints bounty scandal, concussion lawsuits against the NFL and an overall atmosphere of player safety has generated a perfect storm of dialogue this season regarding the post-career lives of NFL players. Seau's suicide heightened the crescendo. No one knows why he did it. Only that he did.

Multiple players, former players and coaches I spoke with wouldn't bother to guess, other than to say that the assumptions of brain damage or other medical concerns might have been premature -- although they could also be accurate. More than health, though, it's the sudden drought of not playing ever again that deals the wickedest blow.

The family members and friends these players supported tend to disappear when the revenue streams are curtailed. That creates a variety of emotions, including ones of failure that the player can't help support a sibling anymore. There is caring for a family instead of just providing. There is the physical toll, which every player knows is part of the deal. They absorb and inflict. There is boredom.

There is the unknown.

Most painful, some players say, the game goes on without you.

"It's tough because you've been on a pedestal most of your life," Spikes said. "Then there's not even a pedestal."

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Spikes, who is highly respected by his peers, said it's common talk in the locker room among players about what they're going to do when they're done playing or that they hope they won't need knee replacements. The substance behind the conversations tends to be pretty hollow, though, he said.

"You live in the moment and the moment is not only at that time but, 'What can I do to be successful next year, the next week, the next practice in order to succeed in the next game,' " Spikes said.

To Spikes' point, the NFL and the NFL Players Association offer programs to players in the offseason to heighten awareness to post-career opportunities. Players can attend collegiate programs to learn about business opportunities or other ventures. Some teams partner with corporate sponsors to offer internships to players.

A lot of those players take advantage of them. Former Falcons and Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney did and, after going back to school when his career was over, he's somewhat of a Wall Street businessman venturing into entrepreneurship. A lot of other former players get into coaching and scouting, positioning themselves as players by expressing those desires to coaches and execs while they are playing to try to open doors.

There are hundreds of other success stories for those that turn tragic. Yet, not everyone takes advantage of what's offered to them because, as Spikes said, they live in the moment. So many of them think once they're done they'll just step right into the analyst's chair of a local or national television network and stay in the game that way. Those jobs are few and far between, and the money that comes with them is a fraction of what they got paid playing.

The real world, as an executive explained to me, is so different for the pro athlete. They reach their goals and career nadir when they're 28, 30 years old. Most of us at that time are still climbing the occupational ladder, hoping to land that desired job by our late 30s, early 40s. By then, most professional athletes have been former professional athletes for 10 or so years, with a lot of them trying to build the networking connections a lot of us made in our 20s while watching them on Sundays.

It's somewhat odd how so many of them want to be like us in middle age and we wanted to be like them when we are in our 20s, isn't it?

While at Seau's memorial service, more than 100 current and former players walked around, cried, joked and chatted like the reunion this unfortunate event turned out to be. Veterans like legendary Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts, and Seau's teammate in San Diego, Billy Ray Smith, seemed healthy and sharp and quite successful in their post-football careers. There weren't many, if any, guys limping or on crutches or physically impaired to the naked eye.

One team official said one thing that is kind of an unspoken secret is that a lot of players enter the NFL with a little mental or physical instability. And while they're playing they are supervised and cared for, but once their careers are over they are on their own. That is also when problems can arise.

Not every former player is a mess. That was a point that was driven home to me repeatedly. However, some guys are. Nobody I talked to suspected Seau was tormented in any way to go to the extent of taking his own life. Athletes grow up learning to mask pain, mental and physical. That's why Fouts urged people having any doubts or depression or pain to seek help.

"This is so unfortunate," Spikes said about Seau. "What it has done for all of us, though, is it made us and everyone else understand that we are human."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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