Bryce Paup was an NFL star and had it all.
He was the league’s defensive player of the year in 1995 and a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker. During 11 seasons with four different teams, including the Green Bay Packers, Paup earned enough money to set himself up for life.
But his retirement following the 2000 season was anything but easy.
“It’s great for the first six months until you figure out, you know what, this isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” said Paup, who spoke about the difficulties pro athletes face in retirement at last week's Sport & Society Conference at Lambeau Field, which was co-sponsored by St. Norbert College and the Packers. “You need to have a passion to get you out of bed in the morning.”
Unlike a lot of professional athletes who mismanage their wealth and go broke, Paup learned the value of saving money while growing up in a farming community where he earned $5 an hour. But financial security doesn’t buy happiness.
“It’s tough,” said Paup of his transition into retirement. “For most of us (players), people have only known us as a superstar. All of a sudden you walk out the door, it’s no longer part of who you are. And you search for an identity and there’s a grieving process and you’ve lost something that you never get back.”
Paup estimated it took him three to five years to adjust to life after football.
Playing the game was always his primary focus, and he struggled in school with reading and writing.
“That was one of the vehicles that kept me kind of in prison in my transition (out of football) because I didn’t feel confident in who I was or what I could do,” he said.
About seven years ago Paup made the stunning discovery that he had dyslexia, a learning disability. He was never tested in school and assumed he was simply a poor student.
“Everybody just kept pushing me through,” he said. “I couldn’t read and couldn’t spell like anybody else. I was made fun of my whole life.”
When he was diagnosed with dyslexia, Paup also found out his IQ was in the superior range. “My whole life I’m told I’m stupid and I find out I’m anything but,” he said.
Paup is the head football coach at Green Bay Southwest High School and teaches a life skills class in the community. His struggles have motivated him to reach out to others.
“I’m here to help people get past the garbage I had to go through, and I’m hoping that they can get there a whole lot quicker than I did,” he said.
Paup also feels for former NFL players trying to find their way in retirement. The recent suicide of NFL superstar Junior Seau was one more indication that fame and fortune don’t guarantee satisfaction.
“It’s very sad that it came to that, that he wouldn’t reach out and humble himself and say, ‘I’m struggling, I need help,’” Paup said of Seau. “That’s the issue with most of the players, why they crash and burn. They aren’t willing to reach out and ask for help because they’ve never needed it in the past.”
NFL players are trained to be self-made, self-sufficient gladiators. They have learned to will themselves into peak performances in the midst of injury and adversity. In retirement, it’s hard to shake that mentality.
“We think we’re invincible,” Paup said. “We’re never going to get hurt, we’re never going to come to the end of our careers and that’s not going to happen to us. Then we’re afraid to ask (for help) because our egos are too big. … No one can see us depressed. What are people going to say or think if they know I’m crashing and burning emotionally?”
Ahman Green: In search of another passion
Ahman Green is the Packers’ all-time leading rusher and has been out of the NFL only since 2009. He admits he’s “early in the process” of dealing with retirement. In fact, the 35-year-old Green recently said he would like another chance to play.
“I’m going through the changes Bryce is talking about,” said Green, who appeared at the Sport & Society Conference with Paup. “When you wake up at 9, 10 o’clock, what am I going to do right now? It’s a luxury, but then it’s like, you’ve got to get moving.”
Green said everyday life doesn’t provide the thrills a player experiences on the field.
“It’s really hard to get that feeling back, making a sack or scoring a big touchdown,” he said.
Green is following the advice of former Packers fullback William Henderson. “He just told me to stay busy,” said Green, who like Paup has made his offseason home in Green Bay since his playing days.
Green has plans to open a workout facility in the area. He did some student teaching at De Pere High School and has dabbled in TV work at local stations in the state. He also participated in an NFL-sponsored Hollywood boot camp, which exposes players to film industry personnel. He also keeps up with his children’s sports activities and has made appearances on behalf of the Packers organization.
As Green describes it, he’s trying to get his feet wet in any avenue he can.
“Right now I’m keeping my options open in terms of where I’m going to land,” he said. “I’m still kind of freelancing everywhere, taking it one day at a time. It’s not easy, but I’m enjoying my time as it is.”
Green hopes to eventually find another passion beyond playing football.
“You’ve got (to have) that passion when you get up in the morning,” Green said. “You wake up and like to go get it. Have a good day at work or wherever that may be. Make sure you’ve got something that will get you out of bed. That’s something I’ve been pushing and working toward.”
Paup's message: 'Ask for help'
Most players wouldn’t trade their NFL experience despite the difficulties they face in retirement, including the effects of injuries and concussions, and the search for purpose and self-worth.
Paup is no different.
“I can’t really bash the game because it was so good to me,” he said. “It was my only way out to get to where I wanted to get to.”
But Paup wants players — and people in general — to learn from his experience.
“The only thing I would have done different is gotten rid of my ego quicker and asked for help in areas I needed help in,” he said.
Paup cited a statistic that the retirement community of Sun City, Ariz., has one of the highest suicide rates in the country.
“Because people, when they retire, most of them just die — not physically, but emotionally,” said Paup. “Who they are just dies if you’re not careful. That’s what happens to a lot of players — who they are and what their worth is. And if you can’t figure that out, then they struggle. That’s why a lot of them end it.”
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, according to Paup, despite what the football culture teaches.
“A man wrapped up in himself is a pretty small package,” he said.
“Ask for help. It’s the only way you’re going to get past this stuff.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.