What happens to professional athletes after they retire?

A few years ago friends of our went to a University of Notre Dame football game. They told us what they saw was a group of very young men, the football players, being treated like kings by their fans. We wondered what life for most of these kids would be like after they’d graduated, since most of them wouldn’t be playing professional football after university. We wondered if they’d miss that time in their lives, if they’d constantly revisit it in their minds, or if they’d be able to move on and be content with what they’d had.

Then I started wondering about how professional athletes handle retirement since so many of them retire in the 30s for physical reasons. We see that some adjust really well and go on to rewarding second careers in commentating, but not all of them can or want to do that.

John McEnroe is a great example. He was never one of my favourite tennis players, but as a commentator (which he’s now been doing longer than he was a professional tennis player), he is fantastic. He knows how to relate his own experience to those of the players and brings us along with him as he describes how they are probably feeling in the middle of a match.

To transition from being in the lime light, competing for trophies, receiving cheers (and boos) from the crowd, to being a commentator, the person who reports about the person on centre court, must have been difficult at first. Your ego must take a real beating. You realize that time has passed and you are no longer the centre of the universe, that your time is over. If however, you get past that and accept it, then you can transition on to other rewarding careers or activities…assuming you know what you want to do.

In Harris’ case, he had basically been in denial that his time in the lime light was over. He had never thought about what to do after tennis because his entire existence right up until the day he retired was about making it to the next round. His decision to retire was abrupt, even he didn’t know it was coming, but his body gave out on him. So he never really accepted that it was over.

Because he was only 32 when he retired he was still young, vibrant with tons of energy but nowhere near the centre of the universe. Harris feeds off crowds so when they aren’t focused on him he isn’t sure how to behave or what to do. He ended up doing pretty much nothing until he’d successfully whittled his bank account down to almost nothing. At least, not enough to live in the style to which he has become accustomed for the rest of his life.

The reason I started the story eight years after retirement was because I wanted to see what he would do when he was financially forced into a corner. Until that time, there isn’t a story to tell since he wandered aimlessly from party to party because he knew how to win tennis games and celebrate and that was about it.

Having no money left forces him to evaluate his life and what he wants to do with it. That’s also when the unpleasant side of his personality comes out. It’s also the most fun to write about!



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