“One day you’re a football player…and the next day you’re not.”
Former NFL Player Chad Brown
CONROE- Football players face a difficult and harsh reality when their playing days stop.
Some of those harsh realities include dealing with possible lifelong health ailments and how to adjust to new financial realities and challenges.
With 75-percent of the National Football League made up of African-American football players and a number of others playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB), the time is now to teach young Black men and women counting on sports about the fallacy and false security of that kind of thinking, especially among youth playing at amateur levels that sports is the go to and end all to financial success.
The average salary for NFL players this past season was about $2 million. According to the NFL Players Association, the average length of a player’s career is 3 1/2 years.
BUILDING BLOCKS TO GREATNESS
There is a need to help young people at early stages understand that sports talent is only one of the building blocks of greatness.
That’s why a cooperative effort is underway in Conroe and the Woodlands area to reach youth and teach the value of education.
Using their successes in business and community endeavors after football careers, Gerald D. Irons, son Grants Irons and Jackie Battle have partnered with Ellis Wyms and the Wyms Foundation and Professional Athletes Celebrities and Entertainers Mothers Organization (PACE) to do the On and Off Program for youth.
The Wyms Foundation creates programs that focus on Fitness, S.T.E.M. and Personal Intervention through E-Colors in Education. The programs and events are designed to improve middle school age youth in 3 areas: S.T.E.M, Fitness and Personality Diversity with the goal to provide computer devices and online programming to schools and community centers that have summer enrichment and after school programs. The programming will immerse students into Science, Computer Science, Engineering, Fitness Gaming and Personality Diversity.
“There are opportunities in this economy but you have to be specific about skills to be able to compete on a global level,” Wyms said. “We put together groups to give back to community and use our resources and networks to bring in kids and partners to get kids access to the kind of skills they need.”
According to Wyms, As a nation we have gotten behind and that is why we have to import a skilled labor force from abroad.
“It has nothing to do with skin color, it is all about work ethic,” he said. “How I think how I process information and how I study. You have to empower kids with confidence that they are smart and empower them to think that they are just as intelligent as others in the room.”
To help African-American youth to get competitive, Wyms noted that at some point in history – if you get skills and there is a need no one can hold you back.
“We are at a point here all are at the same starting line and the only difference is the skill set you acquire,”he said. “You can bypass the traditional things that have held minorities back if you have that skill set you have you are valuable – it is the kind that a company needs or that will give you the power and what you need to start your own company.
KEY TO SPORTS TRANSITION FOCUS
While not downplaying the value of sports in education, the group hopes to shift the focus from dependence of sports to a reliance on education.
Most players likely will not be paid close to that kind of salary in their post-playing career. Former players report that adjusting to their new financial reality is challenging.
The violence of the game also takes its toll on their bodies, and the abrupt end can lead to financial and emotional struggles for which they are not prepared.
In a 2013 survey of 763 former NFL players conducted by Newsday in conjunction with the NFL Players Association’s former players division showed 61 percent said they found it difficult to adjust to daily life after their career, while 85 percent said they did not believe the NFL adequately prepared them for the transition.
“Players that play in league now have a responsibility to make sure they encourage African American students to not just focus on football, but focus on life after football,” said Gerald Irons said on post NFL life. “This is what Myrna and I stressed to our three sons. Don’t just focus on sport, the field or basketball court alone. You have to focus on education and what is in your mind.”
He said he and his wife of four-plus decades encouraged them to study hard, work hard in school and all three got full scholarships to play at any school they wanted.
“…We wanted them to focus on more than just football. Education and good behavior was the focus -We knew and wanted them to know and understand that what was most important was life after football.”
His wife Myrna echoed that importance stating that the Irons wanted all of their African-American sons to feel good about themselves and know they are worthy.
“We did not allow anyone to tell them they were not good enough,” she said. “We Led by example – no smoking or drinking and taught sons how to treat a lady. We treated each other like a king and queen and that served as examples for our sons because we wanted to be the number one role model, so that they could know how to treat their future wives and teach their sons and daughters.”
LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL HEALTH
For Grant Irons, health concerns played a key role in helping him prepare for life after the game.
Most “football collisions” are as violent or more violent than car crashes and that takes a major toll on the body, especially the head and brain.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is the term used to describe brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas. CTE is a diagnosis only made at autopsy by studying sections of the brain.
CTE is a very rare condition. It has been found in the brains of people who played contact sports, such as football, as well as others. Some symptoms of CTE are thought to include difficulties with thinking (cognition), physical problems, emotions and other behaviors.
According to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, 76 of the 79 brains of deceased NFL players studied at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ brain repository in Bedford, Massachusetts, have shown some form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease.
CTE is a very controversial condition that is still not well-understood. Researchers do not yet know the frequency of CTE in the population and do not understand the causes. There is no cure for CTE.
“It’s about life and options after playing days are over,” Grants Irons said. “We want people to consider being in a position to have options and not put all your eggs in one basket.”
According to Irons, it is never too late to prepare yourself to walk away on your own terms. Having that education provides that opportunity.
“Football is good and we all love it but it is not the end all be all,” he said. “I want to stress to youth that when getting skills, it is not all about sports. You must ready yourself for beyond those days and time when sport passes you by.”
A MOTHER’S WORDS
PACE founder and mother Karen Johnson was keen in stressing the value of reaching youth with that message at early and impressionable stages in life.
Johnson, mother of Andre Johnson, 7-time NFL Pro Bowler and former Wide Receiver for the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts.
For years. she fought hard to keep her son away from the temptations of the streets and negative influences, but wondered for a long time whether her efforts would bear fruit.
“We went through a lot of struggles,” she said “… I saw our son getting in with wrong crowd and I was not going to lose him to the streets.”
She transferred him to a school where he knew no one and no one knew him and while there he played sports and was involved with various programs.
“I stress without having it (education) sports means nothing,” she said.
She thought her work was not in vain, because she could not see he was learning everything she was telling him. Then one day…
“Through all the telling teaching and thought I was not reaching him, but one day it dawned that he was getting it when I read on of his essays..,” she said.“He put my teaching and lessons on paper. I said to myself Thank God I am getting through to my child.”
It inspired her to later found PACE and work with the On and Off program to make a difference in the lives of youth.
PACE is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that consists of mothers of professional athletes, celebrities and entertainers both current and retired.
The organization’s goal is to establish and implement programs with a commitment to improve the health, welfare and education of the nation’s children.
Both Wyms and Irons agree that they want children to have confidence that they can walk away a winner in today’s society.
“I think a lot of messages in our culture tell our young men that they can’t do certain things and that they are not smart enough to compete mentally,” Irons said. “You can be what ever you want if you put the work in.”
Wyms said he is optimistic about being a difference maker for thousands more with the partnership with junior high school, Johnson and Irons family.
“Society is telling kids how how to think, feel, talk and act and that is not healthy,” he said. “Success is the same for everyone…Things don’ t just happen or come to you – you have to work for it”
That’s what America is and that what it will always be. You can carve out your place in this world – just go do it…. And We have to help.”
Interview By: Chandra Jarmon
Story By: Darwin Campbell