What happens when we die? It’s one of the most important questions in our lives because it’s one thing we all have in common no matter who you are. It’s a fact that you’ll die. Ben Franklin so accurately stated that the two certain things in life are death and taxes. Some people believe they are reincarnated. Others; like myself, believe you die and depending on what you believe and how you lived your life, you’ll either go to Heaven or Hell. Chicken shit Islamic terrorists believe they will receive seventy-two virgin maidens in paradise as a reward for killing innocent people. They are in for a very rude awakening because I think they’re going straight to Hell. And finally there are a vast majority who believe that when you die, that’s it, darkness, the empty void of nothingness.
It’s been said that “Professional athletes die twice” and as an ex-professional athlete, I can attest to that, and to that feeling of darkness. It was as if my chest was ripped open and my heart and soul emptied out. There’s a good reason why many of us feel this way upon retirement. In order to get to the top of any athletic field you have to live it, breathe it, sleep it, and love it; but unfortunately, you can’t play forever. Age, injury, PED usage, you name it, brings an end to something that defined us. It’s as if our identity was stripped away and now we’re standing naked with nowhere to go. And more critically without a defining purpose at an young age when others are establishing their careers.
Before I go further, let me be clear. I’m not asking for your charity or sympathy. That’s what Liberals do. I was blessed to live a life that 99.9 percent of the men on the planet would give their left nut for. Being a Major League Baseball player is a dream many young boys share, but only the select few are able to make it to the top. Once you get there you’re treated like a rock star. Flights to the most glamorous cities with flight attendants catering to your every whim. Lavish five-star hotels with first-class amenities, not to mention a fully stocked mini bar! A fat wallet, with VIP access anywhere you want to go. Countless droves of adoring fans, who scream your name. Women want you, and men want to be you. Hell, some men even ask you to have sex with their wives. It was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland.
Then you retire and it all comes to a grinding halt. When the dream I had since I was six came to an end it was like getting whiplash. I went from hero to zero. There wasn’t any retirement party, the first class flights with doting flight attendants stopped, also gone were the screaming fans, ex-teammates barely returned my calls or even seem to care about me. I even felt like my family and friends started seeing me in a different light. When I tried to make new friends outside the game, they mostly used me for my contacts, money, investment opportunities, or just to make them look cool. It was almost impossible to find normal friends outside the athlete bubble. Like Kenny Powers once said, “When you’re on top of the world every mother fucker wants to get a piece of your ass. Then when you take a little time off from being unstoppable, just to regroup and relax. No one will give you the time of fucking day”.
The camaraderie with my twenty-four other brothers I was so used to every day vanished. I was with them as much as my real family for more than a decade and suddenly they were gone. The bullshitting, competition, excitement was also gone and replaced with…. darkness. And just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it does. The longer time goes by without finding another passion the darkness expands, it gets darker if that’s even possible for something void of light. I weathered the darkness for the first six months, eventually, though I succumbed to the heavy weight of it all as I lost my self-worth, my confidence was shot, and worse yet I felt like I was losing my mind. I found myself with no schedule, no purpose, no joy, no motivation and worse yet, a crippling guilt. I know now that guilt was born from the fact that I had everything in my life that I had always wanted. I had a supportive wife, loving children, tons of money, big house, nice car, two rings, and I was still young, having called it quits at thirty-seven. I had an entire life still ahead of me, but I couldn’t understand why I was unable to be happy.
That unhappiness infected my marriage, effectively ending it. I was unable to pull my own head out of my ass in time. Looking back at how much of a pity party I had for myself after I retired it’s a miracle I wasn’t divorced sooner. Divorce in America is at an all-time high, with roughly fifty percent of all first time marriages ending in the big D. But for the ex-athlete after retirement, that number skyrockets to seventy-five percent. What also doesn’t help the retired athlete’s cause is that a whopping sixty percent of athletes are broke within five years of retirement. And what does this all add to? The Darkness.
Ex Female UFC Champion Ronda Rousey said in an interview on Ellen, “Honestly, my thought, I was in the medical room and I was down in the corner, and I was like, ‘What am I anymore if I’m not this?’” Rousey continued, “I was literally sitting there and thinking about killing myself, and that exact second I’m like, I’m nothing. What do I do anymore? No one gives a shit about me anymore without this.”
For many ex-athletes, suicidal thoughts begin to manifest in their heads soon after retiring. The regular world just seems fucked up, boring, dull, and lonely. Once all the fame, excitement, and money is gone, the athlete’s so-called “posse” ends up leaving after they have sucked out every possible dinner, bar tab, lap dance, and dollar out of them. I’ll tell you this, you definitely find out real quick who your real friends are the moment you retire.
During my transition period, I had daily panic attacks and crippling depression. The panic attacks were strange because I literally had zero stress or so I thought. I have come to discover the reason I was having panic attacks was that I was bored. My mind was so accustomed to a life of go, go, go that I didn’t know how to handle a life where I had tons of time to think and ponder. What I can tell you is this, anyone living in the darkness like I was, idle time is the devil’s playground, and bad for your soul. Often, I had this overwhelming feeling that I didn’t matter to anyone. I felt irrelevant and hopeless. I felt discarded and abandoned. I went from being a Major Leaguer, a World Series Champion, someone with an identity and purpose, to now feeling like a hermit. I felt like I had no one to turn to, even when I knew I did. I isolated myself from the world and all that did is make the darkness worse. I was lost, adrift at sea, mired in my own bullshit and depression, it was then that I began to entertain suicidal thoughts.
Going back to Rousey and her question, “What am I if I’m not this?” I can relate and empathize with her. Not too long ago I used to ask myself that very question, and each time I did, the answer was always, “nothing.” And that thought of nothingness brought with it a deep sense of depression. In a lot of ways retiring from baseball was harder than actually making it to the majors. You may be wondering how it could get so bad for so many ex-athletes. You don’t need to hear it from me. I believe Apollo Creed speaks on behalf of all retired ex-athletes in this clip:
The very sport we love was our greatest blessing and our greatest curse. If we are lucky as athletes we get to play to 35-40 years of age. What about the second half of our lives? How the hell are we supposed to replace that excitement, adrenaline, identity, purpose, camaraderie, validity, and passion that our sport brought with it? It’s impossible to find all this in the real world. And like Apollo said to Rocky, “We have to be right in the middle of the action because we’re the warriors. And without some challenge, without some damn war to fight the warrior may as well be dead Stallion.”
I’m happy to say that I did finally transition successfully, but it took me about five fucking miserable years. And it may not have ever come if I didn’t come to a revelation, an epiphany of sorts. I realized I was still identifying myself as Aubrey Huff, the Major League Baseball Player. That made my mind confused, and my heart unable to move on and find a different passion, because I wasn’t doing any of those things daily to justify what I was telling myself. If you’re an ex-athlete reading this and are still holding on to a game that doesn’t want you anymore. You have to find a way to let it go.I’ll tell you a ritual that helped me. Almost a year ago I decided to write a letter to myself thanking God for my baseball career, and the blessings that came with it. I told Him I had faith that whatever He had in store for me in the future was going to be perfect because it’s His will. I also gave myself permission to let the game go. I then grabbed a bottle of Macallan 12, turned on some sappy eighties country music and went to the fire pit with about a dozen old wooden bats from my playing days. I burned them one by one. As I watched the fire consume these tokens of my past life, my identity as a baseball player also began to melt away. It’s as if the fire was searing that part of my mind as well. As the orange flames continued to devour a part of my past and the identity that was connected to it, I allowed myself to have a good cry. It was a pathetic scene, but one that was needed. When the last bat was turned to ash and the bottle of scotch almost gone, I took the letter, read it aloud and threw it in the fire. When I look back on that night it felt like some sort of Viking funeral, with my old self atop the pyre on the boat set ablaze by the warriors in the clan. When the last remnant disappeared into coals, it took with it all my pain. I was finally cleansed. I know this might not sound manly, but it worked!
I woke the next day with a hell of a hangover, but I felt great inside, where it mattered. It was the best hangover I’ve ever had. That simple ritual opened me up to let it all go, enabling me to be open to the amazing life I have ahead of me. Without all that bullshit clouding my mind, I’m able to be a good father, son, brother, uncle, and friend. It has even allowed me to be a better man to my boys and their mother who I truly appreciate when my heart could have given me so many reasons not to.
If you’re an ex-athlete transitioning into the real world and looking to find relevance, and identity again. Stop. It’s now time to start looking for peace, contentment, and happiness again. I mean think about when you were a kid. All you wanted was to be a professional athlete so that you could be happy, financially set, so you would never have to work a real job the rest of your life. Now you have finally gotten to that place in your life where you don’t have to grind and achieve. It’s time to enjoy your family and the fruits of your labor. It’s time to give back instead of continuing to try and validate yourself in a world that doesn’t make sense to you. Pour your life, and the lessons learned into people, into kids. Try and get outside your head, and see the impact you can make on others. It’s about giving, not getting. It’s about contributing not collecting. This shift in mindset has revolutionized my life in the last year.
Along with that ritual, I developed seven steps that helped me free myself from my past identity:
1. Let go of the game and your old identity: I know this is hard to hear, but you are no longer a professional athlete. Let it go. I know this is easier said than done. But I promise you you’ll never be free unless you do. Have a ritual like I did. Cry your eyes out and mourn your career if you have to. It doesn’t make you a pussy.
2. Get out of the fucking house: Many of you might not have this problem, but I got so low that I didn’t leave my house for six months. I locked myself away. I was always the life of the party on and off the field, Mr. Social, but when I retired I felt like I had nothing to offer anyone. I had zero male friends and felt like a hermit. Even my communication skills waned with my wife and kids.
3: Get a daily schedule: We were creatures of habit for so long. We knew exactly where to be and what to do. Workout, practice, film work, game, etc… whatever fucking crazy ritual you had in the game, you have to make in the real world. Try as much as you can to make a daily schedule. My routine is: I take my kids to school. Go to the gym. Run errands. Come home to shower, get a coffee at Starbucks while I write my blogs. Pick up my kids and take them to practices, or whatever they need to do.
4. Get involved in the community: Coach your kid’s sports teams. Speak at local schools. Volunteer at your church, or local recreational center. You’ll be amazed how you feel. You will fill your heart and head with purpose when helping others, replacing that selfish need to feel relevant again.
5. Work out and eat healthy: As an athlete, we are so used to keeping our body in prime physical condition. Continue to go to the gym and work out, eat healthy foods and treat your body kindly. If you take care of your body it will take care of you. Don’t do what I’ve seen so many guys do. Get shit faced everyday playing golf while eating a like a fat fuck. I’ve always said, “It’s easier to stay in shape than to get in shape.”
6. Learn stress management skills: Even though the stress of the game is gone, you’ll find the stress of having no longer having the excitement of your game stressful in itself. Learn stress managing skills. Pray, meditate. Do yoga. Hit the gym daily. Be grateful for such a blessed career.
7. Love on your loved ones: The last thing you want to do is neglect your family in this difficult transition. Lean on your wife, or husband and be completely vulnerable. I know, I know we are taught to be warriors and not show any signs of weakness. But remember, you’re not a professional athlete anymore. It’s ok to show your heart and be completely open. Especially to the ones who love you. Remember, when all the fake friends and screams from the stands die down, they will be the only ones left standing by your side.
I’ll finish with this thought; you’re more than one thing during the years you live on this planet. If your life is a boat, then your past is the wake that’s made as it travels through time. The wake doesn’t propel the boat, it’s merely what’s left behind. What pushes the boat forward is purpose, a goal; find that and the darkness won’t find you.