Our guest today is a former professional football player, bestselling author, and outspoken advocate for the mental, emotional, and physical health for professional athletes before, during, and after their career.  While his list of athletic accomplishments would be a sort of resume for millions of Monday morning quarterbacks across the country, the struggle he’s gone through to claim an identity truly his own has been quite challenging.

This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why he’s become such a sort of thinker and writer. After being a self-proclaimed and participant of the machine at his professional football, he’s dedicated his life to shedding light on what it means to be truly a modern day gladiator.

His words are unfiltered, authentic, and raw, and infused with the experience, pleasure, and pain of someone who chased a boyhood dream from the streets of suburban center in California, San Francisco, Denver, Germany, and Denver again even while his body and mind continued to fight him along the way. Nate Jackson is the co-founder of Athletes For Care.

What has identity meant to you pre, during, and post-career? [1:59]

  • When you become part of a team sport, your identity becomes that of the team, especially football.
  • It’s a militaristic feel in the field, which is beautiful, but as far as an individual identity goes, it’s not so good. I’m a writer, an artist, but that stuff was at the back banner when I was playing football. The most important thing to me was being a good teammate and being the best player I could.
  • I was inclined to say, ‘’Yes, sir.’’ To the coaches and dissecting a game plan and going out there on the field and doing exactly what I was told, exactly how I was told to do it. This brings forth conflict of identity.
  • The writing really helped me realize who I was outside of that, and it’s helped me move on from it.
  • ‘’When I talk to guys who are going through that process, I encourage them that when it’s all over, get away from the game. Unless you want to be a coach or you want to be a broadcaster, get away from it and figure out who you really are.’’

Do guys have a realization of the tug that’s going on internally as they’re playing? [3:48]

  • It happens afterward.
  • For me, I was in a unique position because I knew I wanted to be a writer. I had hobbies that caused me to look at this stuff.
  • After it’s over, it all comes flooding out. I think all guys deal with that to an extent.

Is it possible to play without a little violence while understanding there is life after the game? [7:05]

  • I don’t know if you can. When you’re in a fight, you barely think about tomorrow. You have to be in the moment.
  • The goodness of sports is that it brings forth a challenge that requires full attention lest you lose or get hurt.
  • I never wanted protection on the field. The reason why you go out there is because you want to be in that tornado. To be able to do your best, you have to be focused only on the game.

What pulls athletes in any sport into playing? Is it that instantaneous bliss? [9:21]

  • Athletes get to challenge themselves every day and if they do well, they become the talk of the town.
  • I wasn’t the best student in class but going to the field to play gave some form of immense happiness.
  • The mythology of teams has a lot to do with the indoctrination of children into sports.
  • My love of football was complex. I wasn’t pushed into it by anyone. My parents wouldn’t let me play till I got into high school.
  • ‘’I couldn’t put on the shoulder pads till I was 14. When I first put on those pads, I was introduced to a different level of violence than I had ever experienced before.’’ It’s much different when you put on a helmet and shoulder pads and you start running around people. It’s a jarring feeling getting smacked all over your body with a helmet.
  • Guys in the NFL had been able to take a lot of punishment over the years. And the more you take the punishment without breaking completely, the further you can make it. It becomes a badge of honor about how tough you are.
  • ‘’In the real world, if there’s a track coming at you, you step out of the way. But in football, you’ve got to take it on the chin and you’ve got to do it with a certain technique or else you’re going to get yelled at.’’

It seems there’s a learned disconnect between the mind, and body, and emotional body. [18:15]

  • ‘’The brain trauma discussions are difficult for players to figure out.’’
  • I played from 2003-2008 and I never even heard the word concussion. It was assumed when you play football, it’s normal to feel dizzy, see stars, and you should be able to deal with it. The brain doesn’t feel pain.
  • For me, as long as I could run, I felt fine and I could deal with anything above the waist. I just needed to be able to run.
  • Players are not leveled up with what they’re risking when playing.
  • Life after playing is hard because players are intentionally kept away from the language of life that happens in the real world so as to be able to focus on the game plan. Stuff like emails, insurance forms, phone calls etc.
  • The union needs to fight for the souls of the players and not solely for their money. Money isn’t going to last forever for 98% of the guys.

The players are routinely on social media and there’s a feeling of disconnect. Why hasn’t there been a push to separate the players from the owners? [22:51]

  • ‘’I think the social media as far as players go is a potential tool that they could use but are not using in a way that benefits them in the real world.’’
  • If everyone in the league used their social media platform to tweet the same exact message of something they wanted the owners to concede, that will have an effect. However, these guys can’t see that far in the future and they don’t know they’re being fleeced by the owners.
  • These guys need to be educated by speaking a language and in a way that they can understand. Making them know some of the challenges that are going to face them very soon would be really important.
  • ESPN, CBS, NFL and other network have the very tried and true television narratives that don’t allow for individual thought or new ideas.
  • ‘’There’s a lot of pushing against football players speaking up for themselves or coming up with strategy.’’ the union needs to create their own platform so they can control the narrative.

Where do you start consulting with a player that has just retired? [27:39]

  • Physical is what goes first. You’ve got to get your body to naturally where it wants to be. Most people in NFL, they’re bigger and stronger than their body should be.
  • I left the league after 6 years with several injuries and the best way the league deals with that is by giving you pills. This leads to players depending on certain substance becoming addicted.
  • I encourage guys to use the money they made to fund the pursuit of their new life. Whether it’s going back to school, traveling, or trying new professions. ‘’I believe sport is an art.’’
  • There’s no ‘this is it’ moment in the life afterward. So you need to figure out how to give yourself those moments in a way that’s constructive and healthy. We get comfortable in chaotic moments and they culminate in the act of aggression and violence.
  • That time is valuable to discover who you really are because there’s a depression that comes along with it. You’ve got to embrace it and face it because eventually, you’ve got to push yourself out of it. It’s a 5-year process but you’ve got to push through.

What is the role that cannabis plays in bridging the recovery? [33:26]

  • Its infinite possibilities with Cannabis. We’re just starting to learn about it.
  • As athletes, we had similar experiences around the game with this plan. We weren’t communicating with each other but then later came together and found out that we all had similar experiences with the rejection of the pill and that this plant worked well for all of us.
  • We’re finding that cannabis can be neuroprotective. It protects your brain in advance of a brain injury.
  • ‘’I started trying cannabis when I was in high school and tried it for the first time a month before I ever put on a helmet. And unbeknownst to me, I was protecting my brain for the 15 years of head-first violence.’’
  • I was an ADHD type of kid and when I discovered cannabis I mellowed out. I stopped disrupting classes. It solidified some of my hand-eye coordination and made me believe in myself.
  • Cannabis helps you to rest well, sleep well and you’re not tormented by nightmares or dreams. There’s an element of PTSD that goes on after retiring from playing and cannabis helps with that.
  • It’s still a narcotic according to the US Government and NFL won’t move on it unless something is done in that regard.

What ways have you seen, experienced, or do you think players in the game can train to understand when there’s a moment where they need to go from 0-60 and when they need to understand the context they’re in at the moment?[39:29]

  • It’s hard to fight the feeling of urgency that’s fostered in the system where everything needs to be done right now.
  • Meditation and yoga is great. A lot of former football guys are big on meditation.
  • One of the difficult things of going out in the real world is nothing seems to happen like you were used to before. There’s a lot of talks and no action and we have to accept that that’s part of life.

Is there a way for coaches to infuse their coaching style to athletes so they can respond to the level they need them to while simultaneously making them conscious of the outside world? [42:23]

  • I think there is going to be a wave of those type of coaches because the game has to adapt. Science advances and knows what exactly goes on in our brains and in our bodies.
  • There’s this breed of football coach who yells a lot and wants blood. This breed is slowly fading away. There won’t be a tolerance for that type of coach anymore because we know too much now.
  • There are coaches who can stimulate thought in players without diverting from the main goal of winning football games. It takes a delicate approach and a special mind to do it.
  • It’s a hard thing to do these days because like in NFL, these owners pick from the same pool of guys who all do the same type of coaching. Coaches get shuffled from team to team and they do things exactly the same way as far as scheduling, terminology, weights, nutrition.
  • Change needs to start at the bottom which is the high school or college level.

What is the role of sports in this culture? [46:29]

  • I think it’s a unifying role. In this modern society where we don’t hunt for food, we still have that instinct for that kind of stuff. We are warriors deep down.
  • It gives parent something to do with their kids, it gives kids somewhere to go giving the parents a break, and it gives kids a chance to make friends with kids who otherwise wouldn’t be.
  • Kids have a natural instinct to run and play and this is just a harnessing of their natural instinct while putting some rules around it.

What does it mean to be an Omni athlete?

  • “It’s about engaging not just your physical body but your mind and your soul and being all rounded and a complete athlete.”

PULLED QUOTES

  • The goodness of sports is that it brings forth a challenge that requires full attention lest you lose or get hurt.
  • The brain trauma discussions are difficult for players to figure out.
  • Players are not leveled up with what they’re risking when playing.
  • There’s a lot of pushing against football players speaking up for themselves or coming up with strategy.
  • I believe sport is an art.
  • We’re finding that cannabis can be neuroprotective. It protects your brain in advance of a brain injury.

 

LINKS MENTIONED

Twitter: @Nathanserious
Podcast: Mindful Warrior.