Football fans all over the country sit down in front of their televisions every Sunday afternoon in the fall and winter, excited to cheer on their favorite National Football League team and players. They idolize and praise these bigger-than-life superstars for making big plays on the football field and bringing home the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
But, what most of these fans don’t realize is what these athletes go through behind closed doors.
Former University of Alabama All-American, All-SEC linebacker and No. 4 overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft, Keith McCants, has been through hell and back ever since his professional football career was cut short after six injury-ridden seasons in the league (Buccaneers, Oilers and Cardinals from 1990-1995).
Once touted as the best player in the nation who was given a then-record $2.5 million signing bonus after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him in the draft, McCants has suffered from his numerous injuries and has battled painkiller addiction stemming from his pro football career. At the age of 46, McCants struggles through basic every day activities after his 29 surgeries and 12 drug-related arrests, and has even contemplated suicide on multiple occasions.
McCants has been forced to face this battle without the help from his former employer, the NFL. Perhaps one of the saddest parts of the story is that the league doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to resolving this issue with its current players any time soon. But McCants hopes to bring awareness to the situation by telling his story to anyone that will listen.
What fans don’t see when they turn on their televisions to watch the games is the human side of these players. This is why McCants agreed to speak with us here at All-Out Blitz regarding his playing career, his painkiller addiction and his day-to-day struggles:
All-Out Blitz: With all of the issues surrounding the league right now, especially the painkiller addiction issue, do you think there’s a way for the NFL to change the culture of the league?
Keith McCants: “There’s always a way if you’re willing to do what’s right, especially for the players. Because after all, at the end of the day we’re all human beings. Painkillers do not discriminate to anybody, whether you’re an athlete, movie star, superstar, or whether you’re a regular person on the street. Sooner or later it’s going to catch up with you and you’re going to suffer from addiction. The thing is that, what are you going to do about it after it happens. That’s the problem. And then doctors and psychologists, the money they have invested in these guys (the players), they already know what was going to happen.
I can’t put all the blame on the National Football League, because I chose to do it. But what I do blame the National Football League for is not preparing me for what war was going to happen.”
AOB: Regarding your retirement, what were some of the adjustments you had to make after going from playing in the NFL to entering the real world?
McCants: “The changes are dramatic. That’s something I’d like to discuss right now. That’s one of the things I think the NFL should have an interest program in––a life coach for when players do leave the league, or when they come into the league. It would really help with the players making the necessary adjustments going from a pro athlete to a normal human being (in the real world). A lot of players cannot cope with the dramatic changes and end up committing suicide or homicide, hurting somebody or hurting themselves, and losing the will to live. The only reason I can talk about it is because I was one of the ones who did it.
Like I said, I think there should definitely be an interest program for the players. In my life, what I would like to do is make a difference and make a change to help the players in coping. Those who are already out there, what I do is go to high schools, colleges and churches to speak with people and try to turn a negative into a positive.”
AOB: As you’re currently fighting through your situation, I’d consider it a success story. What’s one of the biggest things you’d attribute to you being able to work through the issues you’re currently going through?
McCants: “Well right now what I’m going through is the concussion deal. That’s a big issue in the NFL right now. In college and in the NFL I was pretty sharp, but then when I go around the corner to go to the store and get lost, or forget my daughter’s name, that’s real mind-boggling. It happened with Junior Seau, Andre Waters, a couple of other players that just didn’t want to be seen like that and lost the will to live. But I’m here to tell you it’s okay, because it’s one day at a time and it’s not worth taking your life for. What I think former players should do is reach out to other players and other people, not just in the NFL but all sports and all levels of life. I’m really trying to help people avoid going down the same path as me. I’d like to help people avoid making the mistakes I made and help make this a better sport, and a better world.”
AOB: After retirement you worked for a while as a Marine Police Officer. What is it that you’re up to these days?
McCants: “I work at a rehab facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The reason is that I know the different levels of pain and the different levels of addiction that there are, so I’ve been helping people at every level, not just the National Football League. Not only doing that, but also helping them stay strong. I see a lot of myself in those people, and I have been telling my story to as many people as I can in order to help others.”
AOB: With more and more former players like yourself coming out and discussing the issues they’ve struggled with after their careers, do you think that this will eventually (in the long run) change things around the NFL?
McCants: “Well, when they talk about it, the NFL never responds to it. They push it under the rug. The reason that I continue to talk about the different things is because I want them to do something about it. I want them to help me help somebody. So, that’s what I’m pushing for.
The problem is that no matter what you say about it, people are going to root for the Oakland Raiders, people are going to root for the Chicago Bears. They’re going to root for their favorite team no matter what the individual players are going through. Maybe if people outside of football knew what was going on behind closed doors, they would have a heart to be able to acknowledge what the individuals are going through after they go home from the game, or leave the league.”
As painkiller addiction, concussions and post-career depression/CTE continues to dominate the lives of former professional football players, McCants plans on continuing to spread his heart-breaking story around to current and former players and football fans everywhere in order to bring awareness to the issues.
You can follow Keith on Twitter at @KeithMcCants.
Photo: Sports Talk Florida