"As soon as something like that happens, you start calling all your friends to make sure they're OK, just checking on everybody," said Ken Norton Jr., who retired in 2000 after 13 seasons as a linebacker for the Cowboys and 49ers and now coaches that position with the Seahawks. "It just opens your eyes and makes you more aware of what each other is going through — and ask that extra question, give that extra hug, to make sure there aren't any problems we don't know about."
Matt Bowen, a former defensive back for the Redskins, Bills, Rams and Packers whose last season was 2006, got a telephone call from a college teammate the day Seau died.
"'I just want to tell you if you're ever down, you're ever depressed, just call me.' He was worried. ... My buddy from Iowa calling hit home a little bit," Bowen said. "A little doubt creeps into the back of my mind: Well, maybe this could happen to me."
In responding to the AP's questions, rookies were, to a man, certain the league is making things as safe as possible for them. They, of course, have yet to participate in their first training camp or game.
But players who've spent time in the NFL were split on whether they're properly equipped for what might await down the road. Asked whether the league is doing all it can to take care of players' financial, mental, physical and neurological health, particularly when it comes to having a good life in retirement, 13 veterans or retirees said yes, while 11 said no.
"There's a program for everything, but it can't prepare you for everything. Most people find out about the real world when they're 18 or 19. Ex-NFL players find out about it at 30 or 35," said 39-year-old Jon Kitna, a quarterback for the Seahawks, Bengals, Lions and Cowboys from 1997-2011.
"You might think you've got it bad in football, because it can be a grind and you might think meetings are a drag, but the real world gives you a totally different mindset," said Kitna, now teaching algebra and coaching football at the high school he attended in Tacoma, Wash. "There are a lot of programs available, but you have to search for the answers. That's harder for athletes, because they've been given answers their whole life."
As for money matters, Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who's heading into his sixth season, said: "I wouldn't say the NFL takes care of players financially for the future. The NFL makes sure this is a drug-free league. You can't use steroids or street drugs; they're testing every week for that. But in terms of taking care of your finances, it's not something they push every week like they do with drugs. There's not a push that makes it mandatory for players to learn how to manage their money, or to set up life insurance or 401Ks."
The two men in charge of post-career programs at the NFL and the NFL Players Association readily admit there is room for improvement.
"Do I think enough is being done? A lot is being done. Can we do more? Yes," said NFL Vice President of Player Engagement Troy Vincent, a former defensive back in the league.
But he also put the onus on players for not participating in what's available.
"We can continue to expand our offerings, but if the athlete doesn't engage, it does no good," Vincent said. "What other employer provides this kind of service for their employee? It doesn't exist."
NFLPA Senior Director of Former Player Services Nolan Harrison said the union has been working for years to develop a new "life cycle program" to address various needs during careers in the NFL, from start to finish — and beyond.
Asked if there's a specific gap that can be improved, Harrison said: "Every area needs help."
Only one veteran or former player the AP interviewed acknowledged having taken advantage of counseling provided by his team. Three said they weren't aware such help exists.
Several players echoed Camarillo's observation that the biggest difficulty might very well be persuading players that there's nothing wrong with seeking help.
"It's a matter of a culture change, moreso than just creating a program. It needs to be something that's not looked down upon. If a player goes for counseling: 'What's wrong with that guy? Why can't he deal with it?' The NFL and NFLPA can definitely help more, but it also needs to be a culture change," said Camarillo, who holds out hope of continuing his playing career.
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