June 07, 2012

By CHRIS JENKINS | Associated Press 

 

MILWAUKEE (AP) — George Koonce holds several years' worth of work in his hands, his voice booming as he reads from one of its 200-plus pages.

First comes an acknowledgment that it's difficult for regular people to have sympathy for wealthy former NFL players who have a hard time handling the end of their careers. Next comes a plea to coaches and administrators.

"The message being sent to players at an early age, in middle school, high school, and on the professional level, needs to include information on the afterlife," Koonce reads.

In this case, the former NFL player isn't using the term "afterlife" with a religious connotation. He's talking about life after football.

"The pursuit of a quality education, and diversification of interests, needs to be top priority for these young men," he continues. "Football must be secondary. From the perspective of great teachers and philosophers, it is demeaning and foolish to reduce people to just their athletic prowess."

Having found out firsthand that a member of a Super Bowl-winning team isn't necessarily wired for instant success off the field, Koonce used his own struggles — which included depression and even a suicide attempt — to fuel a dissertation on the issues former players face in retirement, one of the final steps toward earning his doctorate in philosophy at Marquette University. Koonce knew he wasn't alone, a point that was driven home in innumerable conversations with fellow former NFL players during his research.

Then again, tragically, on May 2.

That was the day Koonce turned in his dissertation. Then he returned to his office.

"That's when I saw the news flash about Junior Seau," Koonce said.

Koonce calls the former star linebacker's suicide heartbreaking — but perhaps not shocking, given that Koonce nearly met the same fate.

After eight seasons with the Green Bay Packers — playing a critical role in the team's run to the Super Bowl after the 1996 season — and one with the Seattle Seahawks, Koonce found himself out of football after the 2000 season. At first, he just kept working out and waiting for the phone to ring. Surely, another team needing a linebacker would be calling.

Koonce said it took about two years to realize that call wasn't coming.

"I wasn't used to that," Koonce said. "Because I was the best at everything I did. Now, I've been, the academic term, 'deselected.' Cut."

Koonce's voice grows louder and more deliberate as he talks about the sense of rejection he felt.

"Waived," he said. "Told, 'We don't need you anymore.' That was tough for me to live through that. The first time I've ever really been rejected."

Koonce said that led him to excessive drinking, inactivity and eventually an attempt on his own life.

"I think a lot of guys feel like, 'That was my purpose, to run around and tackle people,'" Koonce said. "It was tough. It was a culmination of drinking, and I was in a very dark place."

Koonce tried to kill himself by driving his car off the road in 2003.

"And that's when things turned around," Koonce said.

With the support of his wife, Tunisia, Koonce got counseling, became more involved in his church and got serious about moving on to the next chapter of his life. She asked what he wanted to be; a college athletic director, he answered.

How was he going to get there? He had no idea.

"And I thought I had prepared," Koonce said. "But I didn't really have a plan."

He enrolled in a sports management program at East Carolina, graduated and eventually became the athletic director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2009. But Tunisia died from breast cancer later that year, and Koonce resigned in 2010.

Today, Koonce works in fundraising at Marquette. Earning his doctorate is a tribute to his late wife.

"I was very fortunate to have a wife like Tunisia who got me involved in church, got me involved in school," Koonce said. "And I'm very thankful for everything she did for me and for my family. She literally pulled me out of the ditch."

Through his research, Koonce hopes to help the next generation of players avoid that ditch entirely by better preparing for the transition away from football.

Koonce says he began his research by talking to current and former players informally to identify adjustment issues. He narrowed it down to formal interviews with 21 players, some of whom requested anonymity.

"The game is gone — and, in a lot of ways, you're gone," Koonce said. "A lot of guys that I talked to said that when they left the game, it felt like they were going through a divorce. It felt like a piece of them died."

Koonce found that emotional issues are common. Seeking support is not.

"Now you're lost," Koonce said. "Now you're depressed. Now you start self-medicating. You're drinking. Doing cocaine. Taking pain pills. Trying to do some things to try to numb what you're going through. Because you can't talk to anyone. Because your whole life, you were taught that, 'George, your ankle, we're going to tape it up.'"

Koonce certainly came across post-football success stories in his research: Former Packers defensive end Willie Davis earned his MBA at the University of Chicago after his playing days were over, then took over a struggling beer distributorship and turned it into a successful business.

But the majority of players Koonce talked to admitted having trouble in transition.

Perhaps the most extreme example Koonce cited in his work was an unidentified former player who dressed in a suit and left the house holding a briefcase every morning, then came home every night, making it seem to his family like everything was OK. As it turned out, he spent those days sitting in a parked car. The player eventually killed himself and his wife, Koonce said.

"From a very early age, you have this idea of being a tough-man mentality," Koonce said. "And when you are vulnerable, like so many of us are when we leave the game, that's when you go into isolation. That's when you want to go off by yourself and try to figure things out. But it's tough when you're not talking to someone."

To help players avoid such issues in retirement, Koonce says coaches and administrators must do a better job of emphasizing education. Koonce acknowledges this is easier said than done, given that coaches are paid mostly to win games.

Koonce also calls on the NFL Players Association to become a "big brother" to players, taking a more active role in helping players prepare for life after football.

"I'm not trying to put blame on the NFL Players Association or the NCAA or the NFL as a whole," Koonce said. "But there are some things that need to be done that I think can be implemented to help those once-heroes in transition."

Two former players in charge of post-career programs, NFL Vice President of Player Engagement Troy Vincent and NFL Players Association Senior Director of Former Player Services Nolan Harrison, say progress is being made in helping former players adjust to life after football but acknowledge there is room for improvement.

Koonce says that the responsibility ultimately falls on players themselves, who must do a better job of recognizing and taking advantage of potential business connections that could help them down the road.

"You have a chance to interface with some of the top, most influential people in that state, in that community," Koonce said. "But if you're so engulfed in playing the sport that you're playing, it really doesn't make any different. There are opportunities that are going to pass you by that you really didn't embrace when you were on that campus or when you were in the NFL. You're so engulfed in the next play, the next quarter, the next half, the next game, the next season."

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June 07, 2012

By TIM ­TALLEY |

Associated Press

 

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — Jacksonville Jaguars first-round draft pick Justin Blackmon appear­ed in an Oklahoma courtroom Monday for the first time since his weekend arrest for suspicion of drunken driving.

The former Oklahoma State star wide receiver’s attorney entered a not guilty plea for him to a misdemeanor count of driving under the influence. Black­mon was allowed to remain free on $1,000 bond.

Police arrested Blackmon during a traffic stop in Stillwater early Sunday after a breath test allegedly showed his blood alcohol content to be three times the legal limit.

Blackmon left the courtroom surrounded by friends. His attorney, Cheryl Ramsey, declined to comment.

The Jaguars selected Blackmon fifth overall in April’s draft. A team spokesman said Sunday that the Jaguars were trying to learn more about the arrest and had no comment.

Blackmon has not yet signed with the Jaguars, and it was not immediately known how the charge might impact negotiations.

Blackmon is Jacksonville’s fourth first-round draft pick since 2000 to face problems after being selected. The team has tried for nearly a decade to find a suitable replacement for its best receiving tandem ever, Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell.

Former Arkansas quarterback-turned-wide receiver Matt Jones, selected in 2005, was charged with cocaine possession in July 2008 and ordered into a drug treatment program. He was suspended for three games in late 2008 for violations of the NFL’s drug policy and cut in the spring of 2009.

The team's 2004 first-round pick, Washington wide receiver Reggie Williams, wasn’t re-signed after being charged with drug possession in Houston in 2009.

And wide receiver R. Jay Soward of Southern Cal, taken in the first round in 2000, seldom played due to drug and alcohol problems that led to numerous suspensions.

 

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June 07, 2012

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Vikings fullback Jerome Felton has been arrested on suspicion of driving while impaired and refusing to submit to a chemical test.

Eden Prairie police say Felton was arrested Friday just before midnight. A message left with police Saturday seeking additional details wasn’t immediately returned.

Online court records show Felton was released from jail Saturday after posting $12,000 bond. A court appearance is set for July 18.

The Vikings say they’re aware of the situation and working to gather more information.

Felton was drafted in 2008 by the Detroit Lions. The 25-year-old signed with Minnesota as a free agent in March.

In a five-year career that also included seasons with Carolina and Indianapolis, Felton has 42 carries for 136 yards. He also has 34 career receptions for 280 yards.

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June 07, 2012

By DOUG FERGUSON | Associated Press

 

DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — Tiger Woods needed only two words to explain where the Memorial fits in on his road back from wherever he was to wherever he is going.

“I won,” he said.

When trying to chart his progress, golf becomes a lot like watching tennis.

He wins at Sherwood, and then can't shake Robert Rock in Abu Dhabi. Phil Mickelson blows him away at Pebble Beach, and then Woods shoots a career-best final round of 62 to put a scare into Rory McIlroy. He withdraws from Doral with a sore Achilles tendon, and then wins by five at Bay Hill. He has the worst three-tournament stretch of his career, and then goes through a week at Muirfield Village where he hardly misses a shot.

He’s back. He’s finished. He’s back. And on it goes.

“I’m sure by Tuesday I’ll be retired and done,” Woods said Sunday. “And then by the time I tee it up at the U.S. Open, it might be something different.”

He was smiling at his own exaggeration, though there was a weariness to his tone that became even more pronounced when he concluded, “But I’ll let you guys figure it out.”

His remarkable rally at the Memorial makes the temptation greater than ever to proclaim that he has turned the corner and is picking up speed.

Woods said he hit just about every shot exactly how he wanted to, with the exception of his second shot on the 10th that he pulled slightly while trying to play a fade. It found a bunker and led to bogey. He missed only one fairway, and that was only by a few inches into the first cut of rough.

“I had it all today,” Woods said. “Whatever club I wanted to hit, I could hit. That was fun to have it when I needed it.”

Equally impressive was his score, which ultimately is what matters.

Not only did Woods overcome a four-shot deficit going into the final round, he was two shots behind with four holes to play as he posed in the fairway urging — begging — his 3-iron into the par-5 15th hole to carry beyond the false front of the green. It did, and he two-putted for birdie.

Woods figured if he could make one more birdie over the closing stretch, it might be enough for him to get into a playoff. Minutes later, he was praying for par when his 8-iron bounced over the green at the par-3 16th into a horrible spot. The ball was nestled in the rough, and the path 50 feet to the hole looked impossible. Too short, and it would turn down a slope and leave a difficult two-putt bogey. Too strong, and it would race past the cup and into the water.

With a full swing and a flop shot, the ball rode the crown of a ridge with just the right speed and dropped in for birdie not even he saw coming.

“It was one of the hardest ones I’ve pulled off,” Woods said when asked to rank it among his best shots, which is a long list. “That was a pretty sweet shot.”

He made one last birdie for good measure, a 9-iron into the 18th green that was played by a guy who looked as though he had won here before. It caught the ridge at the back of the green and rolled down to just inside 10 feet, giving him a 5-under 67 and a two-shot win.

It was his fifth win at Muirfield Village, the fifth golf course on which he has won at least five times. And it was the 73rd win of his PGA Tour career, tying him with Jack Nicklaus, the tournament host who was there, as always, to greet Woods when he came off the 18th green.

“He had to rub it in my face here, didn't he?” Nicklaus later said with a laugh.

Nicklaus was gushing over the flop shot that Woods holed on the 16th, and it truly was magic.

“I don’t think under the circumstances I’ve ever seen a better shot,” Nicklaus said.

The last time Woods won the Memorial was in 2009, when he also rallied from a four-shot deficit on the final day with a 65. It was his second win of the year, and the U.S. Open was two weeks away at Bethpage Black, where Woods had won wire-to-wire seven years earlier. Woods had 14 majors, as he does now.

“I suspect No. 15 will come for Tiger Woods in about two weeks,” Nicklaus said at the trophy presentation. “If he drives the ball this way, and plays this way, I’m sure it will. And if not, it will surprise me greatly.”

That year was full of so many surprises.

Woods won every tournament he played before the majors and failed to win any of them. By the end of the year, his problems were off the golf course and he hasn’t seriously challenged in the final hour of another major since then.

He won at Bay Hill, and then had his worst performance ever at the Masters as a pro when he tied for 40th.

Woods never broke par the last time the U.S. Open was played at The Olympic Club in 1998, though he was in the middle of changing his swing. He played the golf course last Tuesday and found it to be difficult, which it is. It is short by U.S. Open standards, though it plays long.

If nothing else, Olympic served as the perfect tuneup for Muirfield Village.

“Last week I did some good things, good work at home, and really got comfortable with the things that Sean (Foley) and I have been working on the last few tournaments and months,” Woods said. “As soon as they felt comfortable, I was good to go. And when I went out and played Olympic, I hit the ball well there. I said, ‘Hey, that's as good a prep as any for this event if I can hit the ball well there.’

“I just basically carried that into this event and hit it great all week.”

Does this make him a failure if he doesn’t win the U.S. Open? Is he done?

Woods talked about his game being good in spurts at other tournaments, though it was clear — at least by how he hit the ball — that he had his fastball all week. The process is to put good rounds together. Maybe the next step is putting good tournaments together.

In tennis terms, this would be a good time for a changeover. It’s best to wait until the end of the year — or at least until August, the end of the majors — to figure out where Woods stands.

 

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June 07, 2012

By BARRY WILNER | Associated Press

 

NEW YORK (AP) — An arbitrator ruled Monday that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has the authority to discipline New Orleans Saints players for their role in a bounty system.

The NFL Players Association challenged Goodell's power to impose penalties for what the league says was a three-year bounty program that targeted specific players. Stephen Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, took only five days to determine that Goodell has the power to punish the players under the collective bargaining agreement reached last August to end the lockout.

Goodell suspended Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire 2012 season and teammate Will Smith for four games. Former Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was suspended for eight games, while linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, was docked three games.

Those players have appealed the suspensions. And the players' union later Monday said it will appeal Burbank's decision because it believes salary cap violations are involved in the payment. That would give Burbank the authority to rule on penalizing any players involved.

Burbank did, however, retain temporary jurisdiction on Hargrove's role and asked Goodell for more information on Hargrove's "alleged participation."

Burbank "invited the commissioner to clarify the precise basis for his discipline of Mr. Hargrove who, among other things, was found to have lied to the league's investigators and obstructed their investigation," the NFL said in a statement.

The union said in a statement it "believes that the players are entitled to neutral arbitration of these issues under the CBA and will continue to fight for that principle and to protect the fair due process rights of all players." The NFLPA noted Burbank wrote that "nothing in this opinion is intended to convey a view about the underlying facts or the appropriateness of the discipline imposed."

The union filed another grievance with a different arbitrator, Shyam Das, contending the new CBA prohibits Goodell from punishing players for any conduct before the CBA was signed. The league's investigation showed the bounty program ran from 2009-11.

Das has yet to rule on that grievance, which also seeks to have player appeals heard by Art Shell and Ted Cottrell, who are jointly appointed by the league and union to review discipline handed out for on-field conduct.

The league and union have spent plenty of time before arbitrators and judges this offseason, with two other major cases pending.

Vilma has sued Goodell for defamation in a U.S. District Court in New Orleans, and Goodell has been given until July 5 to respond to the action.

The players also have sued the league in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, saying the owners colluded in the uncapped 2010 season to have a secret salary cap. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has said such collusion could have cost players $1 billion in wages.

That lawsuit stems, in part, from the NFL stripping the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys of salary cap room in 2012 and '13. The Redskins had their cap reduced $36 million over the two years and the Cowboys lost $10 million in cap space.

Both teams filed a grievance and lost.

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