Georgia's Paul Oliver Network a good model for college, pro teams
Football is a particularly tough sport from which to transition.
Between the ever-more-apparent land mine that is head trauma to such a powerful self-identity to the fact that even great professional players retire young — see Patrick Willis, who reportedly left the NFL today at the age of 30 — it can be scary when the game gets taken away.
The dreams, the lights, the money, all gone. Often with health implications and no plans for the future, with decades and decades of life remaining.
Whether a player’s career ends after college or at some point as a professional athlete, it can be depressing or even debilitating trying to create a new life.
That’s why the program Georgia coach Mark Richt has implemented deserves such commendation. Named the Paul Oliver Network after the former Bulldogs standout who committed suicide after a five-year NFL career, the program held its second annual event during the weekend.
Billed as a mini-reunion, the get-together also includes a core group of businessmen Richt has recruited. According to the Macon Telegraph, Brandon Burrows, a three-star member of the 2010 class, is one of the early success stories.
A communication studies major at Georgia mostly because it sounded easy and wouldn’t get in the way of football, the PO Network set him up with a psychological evaluation that pointed him toward business and then through Richt’s core group, became part of a rotational training program for a commercial real estate company.
“It’s NFL or bust until it’s bust in its entirety, in every sense of the term,” Burrows said, according to the Telegraph. “And by then, it’s either too late, life begins now, and I (didn’t) really have a plan B.
“This is sort of an issue from a young athlete’s perspective that needs to be tackled from a national perspective. Your athlete’s attitude of NFL or bust isn’t unique to Georgia.”
To their credit, college and NFL teams give players vast amounts of resources to deal with non-football things from academics to nutrition to psychological counseling. But once a player is done, unless he retains a personal relationship with a coach, he’s on his own.
The namesake of the PO Network admittedly tugs at my emotions. I knew Oliver, at least in his professional life. I spent hours talking to him in the San Diego Chargers locker room. I can still picture his locker, his bald head, his calm, articulate answers.
Spending time with a few hundred NFL players, Oliver left an impression on me as one of the most intelligent, mature men, one who attended regular Bible studies and was known as a great guy both for the way he handled professional relationships like I experienced and for his life away from the team facility.
That he turned into someone who physically abused his wife and shot himself in front of his family is irreconcilable. It makes no sense, as Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote. (Later doctors found evidence of advanced CTE, a degenerative brain disease thought to be the result of trauma to the head brought on by football.)
Oliver reportedly was in good financial shpae, but struggled to find his identity outside of the game. I don’t know all the details of Oliver’s post-football life — he last played for the Chargers in 2011 and subsequently retired — and I’m not sure whether there’s anything anyone could’ve done to keep him from becoming someone completely different than the man many knew and loved.
But surely there are hundreds, even thousands, of football players and other athletes who could have better post-football lives with a little help and direction. Oliver’s story is tragic and represents an extreme, but the post-football struggle isn’t unique.
Coaches go into the homes of high school kids every year and promise parents that they’ll take care of their sons. Many offer lip service about that promise extending beyond college. But what Richt is doing with the PO Network does just that.
“I’m sure there will be guys that will be looking for opportunities, but there will be guys that have already gotten their lives going, and could hopefully help others along the way,” Richt said of the networking opportunities he’s facilitating. “The bottom line is whenever football is over, because football will end, what can we do help them transition into real life?”
If even one Burrows existed every year at all 128 FBS programs, a lot of families and communities would see the impact. Every college and NFL team should take a strong look at the program Richt has implemented at Georgia and consider creating one of their own.