“as strapped to a stretcher in the back of an ambulance, still in full uniform. Shoulder pads, helmet — everything except for my face mask. The trainers had taken that off while I was still lying on the field in front of 81,000 people at Lambeau. When we got to the hospital, the first room the paramedics took me to was freezing cold and the walls looked all rough and unpainted.
This didn’t feel like no hospital.
It felt like a morgue.
I wanted to yell, “Where are y’all taking me?” But I couldn’t. I was still gasping for air. It had been maybe 30 minutes since I had taken a hit from — You know what? I don’t even remember the guy’s name. I just remember his jersey number: 39.
So it had been maybe 30 minutes since I went across the middle and number 39 from the Browns hit me on the crown of my helmet, and I still couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move my neck. I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes. I was numb.
For a second I thought, Maybe this IS the morgue … maybe I’m actually dead.
Then a paramedic said something like, “Hang tight, Mr. Finley. This is just a detour. We’re taking you up to the ICU.”
I guess the media and fans knew which hospital I’d be going to — because Green Bay is such a small town — and some of them beat me there. The paramedics wanted to avoid the crowd at the emergency entrance, so they took me in through the basement.
After they got me up to the ICU, they cut my pants and jersey off with a pair of scissors, and then they brought in this machine — I don’t know what it was, but it was loud — to cut the shell of my helmet and shoulder pads off my body. And then I was just lying there, still stinking from the game, straight nude with a white sheet over me, like a dead body. I had no idea how severe my injury was at the time, but as scared as I was, I just kept thinking …
I’m gonna come back from this.
PHOTO BY JAKE ROTH/USA TODAY SPORTS
Four weeks earlier, in Cincinnati, I had suffered a concussion against the Bengals. I was running a route up the seam and when I stretched out for the ball, a safety came down and popped me while another guy rolled up over me from behind. I took a knee to my head, then my head hit the ground.
When I stood up, my body felt like it was on fire and everything looked blurry, like I was underwater. I looked to our sideline, and all I could see was my teammates’ yellow pants. No feet, no jerseys, no heads. Just bright yellow pants. It was like everybody had been decapitated. I tried to walk towards them, but I only made it a few steps before I went back to the ground. The trainers came out and helped me off the field, took me into the locker room, diagnosed me with a concussion and then took my helmet away. I was done for the day.
By the time I started to feel normal again and got to my phone, I had like 30 missed calls from my wife, Courtney. She and my son Kaydon, who was five at the time, had been watching the game at home on TV. I called her back and told her I was O.K., and then she put Kaydon on the phone.
“Daddy,” he said. “I don’t want you to play football anymore.”
I pictured my five-year-old son watching me on TV stumbling around, not even able to walk off the field under my own power. I pictured him crying to his mom, asking if his daddy was gonna be O.K. The whole thing hit me pretty hard.
But I’m a football player. So after the bye, which was the following week, I was back on the field. Nothing was gonna stop me from coming back — not even a plea from my son.
I’m not saying that to sound tough. That’s just how football players are wired. When you’re in the NFL, you sacrifice everything to play the game. Then, when you’re on the ground after a big hit and you can’t move, you think, Why do I do this to myself?
But then you get treatment, your body heals, and you get right back out there.
Right back to sacrificing everything.
PHOTO BY TOM LYNN/AP IMAGES
Most guys don’t get to decide for themselves when they’re done with the game. The game lets you know when it’s done with you.
I suffered five concussions during my football career. The first came when I was in college at Texas, then I had a couple early in my NFL career that were kind of — I wouldn’t say minor … you just wouldn’t have been able to tell by watching the tape. They kind of went under the radar. I suffered a fourth in 2012 during training camp, and the one against the Bengals in 2013 made five.
But it wasn’t even a concussion that put me in the ICU that day. When it happened, I thought it was just a stinger — one of those hits where you get popped and everything goes numb, or you get a tingling sensation … like that pins-and-needles feeling when one of your limbs falls asleep and the feeling starts coming back.
We call it “getting your bell rung.”
It usually goes away just in time for the next play.
So that’s what I thought had happened. It’s not like the guy blew me up or anything. It wasn’t a huge collision. I just saw number 39 coming and put my head down to protect my knees, and he just caught me on the crown of my helmet.
Immediately after the hit, I was conscious, but I let go of the ball because my hands stopped working. I lay on the ground because my legs went numb.
The official diagnosis was a spinal cord contusion. The hit shocked my spine and left me with a two-centimeter bruise on my spinal cord. A couple of weeks later, I had surgery to fuse together the C-3 and C-4 vertebrae in my neck, and after about six months of rehab, I was cleared by my doctor to resume football activities.
I had a $10 million disability insurance policy in place — thanks to my agent, who talked me into getting one. So if I wasn’t able to play football again because of my neck injury, I could collect $10 million, tax-free. That was more than I would get in guaranteed money if I signed a new contract, especially coming off a serious neck injury.
But the game of football was like an addiction. I worked my butt off to come back, even though I knew that if I signed with a team and stayed for a certain number of days — I think it was around 14 days, or two games’ worth — I would become ineligible to collect the $10 million in insurance money. And if I did that, there was a very real possibility that I could reinjure myself the next day, get cut and wind up with nothing. I was basically one hit away from never walking again.
But all I wanted to do was play football.
I had teams interested, too. The Patriots, Giants, Steelers, Seahawks — I had options. Good options.
I was basically one hit away from never walking again.
The first team I worked out for was the Seahawks, because John Schneider, their general manager, had been in Green Bay with me when I came into the league. He really wanted me, and the Seahawks were ready to offer up a pretty lucrative deal. But I failed my physical. The Seahawks doctors said that my neck hadn’t fully healed yet, so John told me they couldn’t sign me.
Here’s the thing about failing a physical: It follows you around the league. After you fail one, a lot of teams won’t even bring you in because they’ll see it as a waste of time — that if I wasn’t healthy enough for the Seahawks, I wasn’t going to be healthy enough for their team, either.
So I waited — for my neck to heal, and for the phone to ring. I made some visits, but training camp came and went, and I still hadn’t been signed. The weeks went by, and nobody called.
Then Week 7 came around. It was October 19, 2014. A Sunday. I was watching football on TV. Normally, I would be wishing I was out there, thinking I should be out there. But that day, I wasn’t. It had been a whole year since my injury, and something just kind of came over me that day. I was sitting at home, completely content and comfortable, and I said to myself, O.K. I’m done with it. I’m gonna retire. So I made it official.
I eventually collected the $10 million from my insurance policy, basically setting myself and my family up for life, which was a blessing. But I was saying goodbye to something I had worked my whole life for. It’s not how I wanted to go out, but most guys don’t get to decide for themselves when they’re done with the game.
The game lets you know when it’s done with you.
PHOTO BY MIKE MCGINNIS/GETTY IMAGES
I started this article by talking about concussions and the injury that ended my career mostly because if you followed my career or knew anything about me, that’s probably where my story left off for you — that moment when I was taken off the field on that stretcher and I was no longer available for your fantasy team.
But that was just Part 1.
Part 2 is everything that happened next.
That’s the story I’m really here to tell.
I had already seen my personality start to change after the neck injury, but after I officially retired, it got even worse. I would wake up every morning grumpy and agitated. I became really quiet. Sometimes Courtney would try to talk to me and I would just get irritated. Every now and then I’d snap at her, but most of the time I would just walk away or take a long drive. I wasn’t angry, I was just … awkward. Even with people around town. It was like I forgot how to talk to people.
Courtney would ask, “What’s going on with you?” And I would just walk away. Mostly because I didn’t have an answer. I had no idea, no reason, no why.
It was like I didn’t quite know myself.
I started driving around a lot. It was an easy way for me to be alone, and it helped me avoid those awkward interactions with people.
Then one day, I went out to my truck to go for a drive, and I had to go back inside because I forgot my keys. That started happening a lot. It got to the point where sometimes I’d have to go back inside two or three times because I had forgotten my keys, then my phone, then my wallet. Some days, when I’d go to pick my kids up from school, I’d get halfway to their school and have to turn around because I forgot to put the car seat in the car, even after Courtney had reminded me.
One night, we went out to dinner, and after I paid the bill and walked out of the restaurant, Courtney came up behind me with my wallet in her hand, waving it at me. I guess I had left it on the table.
“This is the third time I’ve had to pick up after you today,” she said. “What’s going on?”
I wasn’t gonna call somebody for help. I was gonna own my shit and work it out myself.
I didn’t have an answer for her.
Over time, I grew more isolated and more distant from Courtney and the kids — from everybody, really — while I tried to sort myself out and deal with whatever the hell was going on with me. I thought a lot about the way I was acting, and I just chalked it all up to being fresh out of the NFL and not being in tune with “real life” yet. I figured I was just in a funk because I missed the game, and everything that came along with it. I’d snap out of it … right? I mean, I loved the game of football, and now it was gone.
I missed the adrenaline rush you get from playing the game and all that, but more than anything, I think I just felt abandoned. I played in the NFL for six years, and every day I was being evaluated. Coaches, trainers, teammates, fans — I was constantly being judged for my performance on Sundays and during the week in the classroom and weight room.
Now, all of a sudden, nobody was paying attention.
I started working out three, sometimes four times a day just to validate myself. But I also craved that outside validation, and it just wasn’t there. Because nobody was watching anymore.
That’s a loneliness that’s tough to describe.
I basically lost my closest friends, too. Sometimes I’d call up one of my old teammates on a Friday night like, “Hey, what are you up to?”
“Uhh … we got a game Sunday, so … film study, game prep … you know.”
Then they’d ask me what I’m up to, and I’d have to figure out a way to sound like I’m busy — like I had something going on.
But I didn’t.
Most of the time, I was just trying to find a way to slow my dadgum brain down. I was used to waking up every morning and having a schedule and a ton of stuff to do. Now, I had nothing. My days were wide open, and I had to try to find a way to fill them.
So I was depressed because I felt like my identity as a football player had been taken away from me, I was lonely because I felt abandoned by the game and my friends, and I had anxiety because my entire future felt like an empty calendar that I had to fill up somehow.
I was 27 years old and I was retired.
I had no idea what to do with myself.
I thought these feelings explained my behavior, my attitude — even my forgetfulness. And the same way I would have never run to a trainer after a big hit and asked to be checked out for a concussion, I wasn’t gonna call somebody for help. I was gonna own my shit and work it out myself.
Suck it up and get back out there, you know?
PHOTO BY TOM HAUCK/AP IMAGES
I honestly believe that if it weren’t for my wife and my kids, 10 years from now, I might have ended up one of those former players who put a bullet in his chest.
It was Courtney who finally gave me my wake-up call. Somebody had told us about a clinic out in California that some former players had been going to. It was like a neurological clinic where guys who were struggling or having some issues were going to get their heads checked out and do tests and get therapy and all that stuff.
I thought, Clinic? I don’t need no clinic. I got this under control.
But I didn’t. And Courtney got pretty frustrated with me when I told her I wasn’t going to go. She pushed me and pushed me, but I wouldn’t budge.
Then, one morning, she started talking to me about how distant I had been. She said to me, “Jermichael … I need you here.” Normally, I would have walked away or gone for a drive, like we had gotten used to me doing. But she had this pain in her face. I can’t really describe it … but it got my attention.
Then, for the first time, she said something that made me snap out of whatever funk I had been in.
“You need to be here for the boys.”
That hit me pretty hard. I don’t know why, but I started thinking about some of the former NFL players I had heard about who were really hurting — you know, the older guys — and I wondered if the stuff I was going through was just the beginning. I wondered if it was going to get worse over time, like it probably did for them. The mood swings. The memory loss. That wasn’t the way I wanted to live, and that wasn’t how I wanted my three boys to see me.
Then I thought about the former players who had committed suicide.
Was that in my future?
COURTESY OF JERMICHAEL FINLEY
That’s when I finally caved.
“I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll go to the clinic.”
I thought the clinic would be like a hospital or something, or maybe someplace cold and unpainted like the hospital basement the paramedics took me through back in Green Bay. But when I got there, it was totally different. It felt like a resort. The building was really nice and there were palm trees everywhere — you know, it was California. It felt like I was on vacation. And when the staff greeted me at the door, it was like they were so excited to have me there. Everybody made me feel so welcome. They made me feel … safe.
But they also let me know right away that I was there to work.
They interviewed me about all the big hits I had taken in my career — the stingers, the knockouts, the neck injury. Then they hooked me up this machine that monitors the activity in the brain to figure out which parts of my brain were working and which weren’t working as good as they should. They basically made a map of my brain.
The doctors told me that when you get a concussion — and remember, I had five — it can have long-lasting effects on the way certain areas of the brain work. By looking at the map of my brain, they identified those areas, and then they put me on a program that stimulated them to improve brain function. They basically reset my brain to get the different parts working together again the way they’re supposed to.
Just having that discussion with them was huge for me. I had been thinking that this whole thing was something that would pass over time. That it was temporary. I’d figure it out.
Now, for the first time, somebody was telling me, This isn’t your fault. Something is doing this to you. And we can fix it.
They had all kinds of neuro training exercises and routines they put me through, but a lot of it was centered around meditation and intense emotional therapy sessions. The exercises and therapy were to stimulate the parts of my brain that were running slow, and the mediation was to slow down the parts of my brain that were going a mile a minute.
It all just brought me back to center.
I spent 30 days in that clinic, then I went home to Texas to be with Courtney for the birth of our fourth child — another boy. I sat in a hospital room with a brand-new baby in my arms, and I felt like a brand-new man myself. I was sleeping better. I wasn’t so irritable. I was talking to people again. I wasn’t forgetting my dadgum wallet at the restaurant anymore.
I was back to my old self … maybe even better.
PHOTO BY JOHN BIEVER/SI/GETTY IMAGES
As part of the neuro training, the doctors needed to find something that stimulated me — something I got excited about the way I got excited about football.
We determined that that something was coaching.
So today, I put on football camps and work with kids in the small town of Aledo, Texas, where I live, and I work with my own boys, coaching them up, too. I’m obsessed with my family now. I finally came to the realization that my relationship with the NFL was temporary, but my relationship with my wife and kids is permanent. It’s forever.
And I honestly believe that if it weren’t for my wife and my kids, I never would have gotten any kind of help, and 10 years from now, I might have ended up one of those former players who put a bullet in his chest.
That’s the path I was on.
I think that’s why I want to share my story. I bet there are a lot of guys who are either fresh out of the league or who’ve been out for a while who are experiencing a lot of the same things I did. And if there are, they’re probably thinking they can handle it themselves, like I thought I could. Because football players don’t tell people when they’re hurting. That’s just not how we’re wired. We suck it up and get back out there.
But don’t fall into that trap.
Today, I’m 30 years old and I still meditate daily, and every now and then I go back to the clinic for a mental tune-up, or just to check in. I’m as happy and healthy as I’ve ever been, and it’s all because I was able to swallow my pride and go get help.
We give so much to the game of football. But whether you walk away on your own terms or you’re forced to give it up like I was, don’t let the game take away the rest of your life once it’s gone. There’s no shame in asking for help. In fact, it might be the bravest thing you could do.
JERMICHAEL FINLEY / CONTRIBUTOR
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