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He struggled after the NFL. Now he’s in Congress, and paying it forward

Anthony Gonzalez has some career advice: ‘Life is pretty good outside the NFL’

Anthony Gonzalez felt lost. His five-year NFL career had just come to an end before he’d even turned 28.  

“I was single, didn’t have a family,” said the former wide receiver. “I felt in many ways alone and like I didn’t know exactly what my place was in life.”

It took him a few months to come to grips with no longer being a professional baller.

“So much of your self-esteem is tied to the game,” he said. “I wasn’t diagnosed with depression, but if you read what that looks like, I probably went through that.”

Now an Ohio congressman, Gonzalez wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone, which is part of why we’re here. When he invited me into his Capitol Hill office Thursday, I looked around, expecting it to scream “football.” But there really isn’t much to see in the memorabilia department: just a helmet in a glass case, plus a bobblehead or two. 

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What stuck out more was the hand sanitizer — bottles of it, to ward off germs as coronavirus fears began to spread. Oh, and offensive lineman Sam Young, who, at 6 feet, 8 inches tall, kept banging his knees on the desk assigned to him.

He sat on the couch instead, listening to Gonzalez describe his new career. “Once you get through on the other side, you realize life is actually pretty good outside the NFL,” Gonzalez said. 

A former Academic All-American at Ohio State University, Gonzalez would eventually enroll at Stanford, where he earned his MBA, before working at an education technology firm in San Francisco.

His next stop: Congress. 

Now the freshman Republican lawmaker from Ohio’s 16th District wants to help people like him make the transition from professional football to a career outside the league.

That’s why Young was at the Capitol, sitting side by side with Gonzalez on the couch and wearing a neutral-looking suit. Young signed up for the NFL Players Association’s externship program, which gives football pros a chance to explore other careers during the offseason, including at startups, in sports media and on Capitol Hill.

That makes Gonzalez his “boss,” at least for the week. And what a week it was. Young arrived just in time for a coronavirus hearing at the House Science, Space and Technology panel. Other highlights: He added his input to a college athlete compensation proposal and showed up at a birthday reception celebrating the state of Ohio.

Networking without shaking hands — the new normal amid coronavirus concerns — isn’t always easy, but at least Young made it on to C-SPAN, popping up in the background of some hearing footage. 

That’s one advantage of being 6 feet, 8 inches: He’s hard to miss. A disadvantage is that the top of his head almost brushes the door frame in Gonzalez’s office.

“No helmet, no pads. But it’s still a very dynamic environment,” he said.

Young is still an NFL free agent but is exploring his options, including business school, and he wants to be ready when the time comes to make the transition. He chose Capitol Hill mainly out of sheer curiosity.

“It was an opportunity to get a peek behind the curtain,” he said. “To see what actually takes place.” That Gonzalez was a former player himself was just an added bonus.

The NFLPA has made career transition a priority given the dire financial situation some players face after hanging up their cleats. About 16 percent of them file for bankruptcy within 12 years of retiring, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. And while the median salary is about $800,000, the median career lasts only six years. 

So does Young’s week on the Hill make him more or less likely to jump into politics? 

“More,” he said. “I had no expectations, and not only the congressman, but the staff have been just so supportive.”

As for autograph requests, he wasn’t exactly fending them off. 

“So as an offensive lineman, you don’t want to be recognized,” he said. “Usually if someone knows you, it’s not for the right reasons. It’s either you have a holding [penalty] or have given up a bad play. It’s been kind of cool to just blend in and be part of the process that is Capitol Hill.”

Gonzalez looked over at Young, incredulous. “To the extent that this guy can blend in.”

Again, Young is 6 feet, 8 inches.

Gonzalez never did an externship but instead “stumbled” through the process. “I wish I would have done what he’s doing when I was leaving the NFL,” he said, adding that he wants to fight the perception that professional football players are “a bunch of knuckleheads.” (“I mean, sometimes we are,” he joked.)

“I think there’s a perception that NFL locker rooms are chaotic and maybe [don’t have] the highest quality individuals. I’ve heard people say things like that. Maybe I just got lucky. I played with a great team and had great leaders on it,” said Gonzalez, who played on the Indianapolis Colts with future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and head coach Tony Dungy, the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl. He also briefly played for the Patriots with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, winners of six Super Bowls. 

“The NFL is a great experience. It’s an incredible honor. I’m thrilled that I had that opportunity. But life outside of it is, for me, more fulfilling, frankly,” Gonzalez said.

Other offices participating in the NFLPA externship program this season include Sen. Joe Manchin, Rep. Joe Morelle and Rep. Robin Kelly. The program is in its seventh year.

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