When The Cheers Finish, What Next?

FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2000 file photo, Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair rolls out of the pocket during the second quarter against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. McNair, who led the Tennessee Titans within a yard of forcing overtime in the 2000 Superbowl and led the Baltimore Ravens to the playoffs, has been shot and killed on Saturday, July 4, 2009. Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron confirmed that police were called to a residence and found McNair and a woman shot to death inside. Aaron said authorities don't yet know the circumstances of the shooting. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
AP Photo/Ed Reinke
Tony Mandarich was the second player selected in the 1989 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers. He now co-owns Mandarich LLC, a national Internet marketing services company.

In 1992 when I retired - or should I say got my walking papers - from the Green Bay Packers, my transition into normal life was fraught with difficulties.

I drank and numbed myself with prescription painkillers so I wouldn't have to feel the pain of the fall from stardom. Four years earlier, I had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, touted as the possibly the best offensive line prospect ever. What I had become was an alcoholic and a drug addict, without the tools to handle the ups and downs of `real life.'

I spent the ensuing 3 years as an unemployable, miserable wreck, full of self-pity and unable to do anything to help myself of the quagmire I had created.

In 1995 I got sober. Eleven months later, I signed with the Indianapolis Colts. A nagging shoulder injury precipitated my retirement in 1998; that time, I knew I was finished playing football for good. However, the transition into the real world was considerably smoother the second time; I had built a foundation of support around me with friends, Alcoholics Anonymous, and my spiritual life. It could have been different, though.

The three years I spent with the Colts were awesome - the thrill of playing with Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and other greats on Sunday afternoons is a natural 'high'. The difficulties arise when you leave the stadium, filled with 80,000 screaming fans who adore and support you. You drive home and you walk into your house - and then what? That's where your athlete faces the real acid test.

For me, though, the second time around was different - I was comfortable in my own skin. I loved the support of the fans, but I had come to realize that I didn't need it for survival. I enjoyed the recognition of being a pro athlete, but it didn't define who I was as a person. I would think to myself, how grateful and lucky I was to have played the game. Having created such a disaster of my life after leaving the game the first time, I was grateful to have the knowledge and tools to do it right the second time, and I was even more grateful to have a second chance.
So when my professional football career ended in 1998, I closed that chapter and moved on to the next.

Many professional athletes have a hard time adjusting after retirement. We become spoiled by the attention and adoration from the fans, and don't know where to get our self-worth when we are no longer in the limelight. After having been seen as such a 'superior' specimen, it is almost impossible for a former pro athlete to ask for help from anyone. We can't bring ourselves to admit that we aren't strong enough to be able to handle the extreme changes without help. After all, we have earned millions of dollars by being the strongest, the fastest, the best - who is out there that can help us? Or so the dysfunctional mindset goes.

Eddie George commented that Steve McNair had a tough time adjusting to the real world after retirement. Unfortunately, he doesn't have that problem anymore. It is heartening, and ironic, that a solid support system is already being built around the family McNair left behind. Perhaps the professional athletic community will take this tragedy to heart, and put more money and effort into the fledgling programs that have been created to help the transitioning athlete.

It is gratifying to be recognized for our athletic accomplishments, but it's the adversities that we face - and overcome - that define us as human beings.

Condolences to the McNair family; you are in my prayers.

By Tony Mandarich
Special to