George Koonce, who played linebacker for the Green Bay Packers from 1992 to 1999, struggled adjusting to life after his football career ended, but says he hasn't had many side effects from a head trauma perspective. / Gannett Wisconsin Media
George Koonce was on top of the world when he played for the Green Bay Packers.
“Lambeau Field is a very, very special place,” said Koonce, a linebacker who earned a Super Bowl ring during his eight-year stretch with the Packers that ended in 1999. “I really appreciated the fans. I had a blast.”
But the good times didn’t last.
After playing for the Seattle Seahawks in 2000, Koonce’s NFL career was over at the relatively young age of 32 — but not by his choice. He wanted to keep playing, but teams weren’t interested enough to sign him to a contract.
Koonce became depressed. He questioned his self-worth. He contemplated suicide when he hit rock bottom.
“I didn’t know what my purpose was,” he said during an interview with Post-Crescent Media. “I started playing football when I was 9. And now I wasn’t leaving on my own terms. The ending in Seattle was really, really tough on me. Someone was telling me, ‘George, you’re not so good.’ It was hard to digest.”
But just when things were at their lowest, Koonce made a move that got his life back on track.
At the urging of his wife, Tunisia, he returned to college to pursue post-graduate studies, and he earned a master’s degree from his alma mater, East Carolina. Since then, he has served as a special assistant to the athletic director at East Carolina, director of player development for the Packers, senior associate athletic director for Marquette University, athletic director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and as a fundraiser for Marquette’s Urban Scholars Program — a position he holds today.
“I’m so blessed and so happy to be doing this,” said the 44-year-old Koonce, who credits his wife with turning his life around. In 2010, she died of breast cancer. Koonce is raising the couple’s two young children.
'I will let my son play football'
While Koonce’s playing days are long over, his ties to the NFL haven’t been severed.
He was asked to serve on the NFL Engagement Board, which assists former players in making the transition from the high-profile world of professional football to everyday life.
Koonce also has been outspoken about player safety in the NFL, which is a major topic in light of pending lawsuits against the league by more than 4,000 former players who are seeking compensation for suffering concussions and other head-related injuries over the years.
While some former Packers have sued the NFL, Koonce isn’t among them.
“Right now, I haven’t had a lot of side effects from a head trauma perspective,” he said. “I do get headaches from time to time. I didn’t think it was worthy of doing a lawsuit at this time.”
Koonce is confident the NFL will address the head injury issue in an effective, comprehensive way. He said it’s vitally important to teach the millions of youngsters in the U.S. to properly tackle and block because they eventually will fill NFL rosters.
“I think they’re going to make the game safer,” Koonce said. “They will do it in a very subtle way.”
While all the negative publicity surrounding concussions and head trauma at the professional level has prompted some parents to forbid their children from playing football, Koonce is confident that the sport has a bright future.
“I will let my son play football,” he said. “Football is part of the fabric for Americans. There’s no secret that it’s the No. 1 sport in the United States.”
Koonce said football teaches players and coaches the value of perseverance and teamwork.
“Football is good,” he said. “It brings families together and communities together.”
Life beyond football
Koonce is excited about serving on the NFL Engagement Board to assist players with adjusting to life without football. He said the average longevity for an NFL player is about four years.
“We have to realize that the NFL is a very short career,” he said. “And whether you want to believe it or not, you have to start planning for the future.”
Koonce also talks to players who are entering the league to stress the importance of getting a college education and contributing to society beyond the football field.
Making the transition from the NFL to everyday life can be a painstaking experience, said Andrew Brandt, a former vice president with the Packers and a nationally known expert in the business of sports.
Some players tend to “live in the moment” when they’re playing football and aren’t ready, financially or otherwise, to move on when their careers end or are cut short, Brandt said.
“It can be hard to be prepared for that,” he said.
— Andy Thompson: 920-993-000, ext. 257, or email@example.com; on Twitter @Thompson_AW