By Jeff Pearlman, published on May 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 11, 2010
Before she gained 100 pounds of unwanted weight, before she jumped from job to job, before she wondered if, at age 29, her life was over, Elaina Oden was a volleyball player.
Scratch that. Elaina Oden was the volleyball player. A two-time Olympian and NCAA champion at the University of the Pacific. A first-team college All-American in 1985 and 1986. A star in the Italian Club League and one of the 10 greatest American women to ever play the sport.
From her early days at Irvine High School in California through her Olympic triumphs, the sport was a way of life. Elaina's older and younger sisters, Kim and Bev, were also collegiate All-Americans and Olympians. Her father, Abe, had starred on his Marine squadron team in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "Volleyball and the Oden name," says Bev, "sort of merged."
For Elaina, the game was her passion as well as her protective cocoon. Need a new pair of sneaks? Volleyball provided. Wanna see the world? Volleyball Express will take you there. Crave that euphoric feeling you get when fans chant your name, line up for autographs and hand you trophy upon trophy? Volleyball. Volleyball. Volleyball. "I never thought about the real world," says Elaina, sighing. "Why would I? It was a great life."
The end came, as it does for everyone from Babe Ruth to Bo Jackson to Tara Lipinski. For some athletes, it's a stallion ride off into the sunset. For Elaina Oden, it was a wounded donkey. Despite five operations on her left knee and reconstructive surgery of her torn anterior cruciate ligament, Oden fought to make the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, eager to win elusive gold (she attained bronze in '92). "I got hurt during competition, and they gave me a choice," she says. "I could stop playing, or I could get a cortisone shot in my knee." It was a no-brainer. Oden took the injection, then struggled to perform at her naturally high level. The Americans, pre-Olympic favorites, placed seventh. "I wanted to keep playing overseas," she says. "But who wants an injured player from a bad team?"
Washed up before her 30th birthday, Oden would lie awake late into the night replaying '96 Olympic moments. "What if I'd hit that ball in," she'd think to herself. "What if I made that block?" Oden thought about leaving volleyball behind but felt unqualified to do anything else. Her friends were well adjusted in corporate America. At age 29, did she really want to start at the bottom, answering phones or sorting mail? Hell, she was an Olympian.
During the ensuing half-decade Oden took a series of assistant-coaching jobs, jumping from a California club team to Notre Dame to Indiana. "I was miserable and depressed," she says. "When you're an assistant coach, there's no glory. You're useless. I felt all alone."
What Oden didn't realize was that she was far from a solo act. In the worlds of amateur and professional sports, myriads have been fortunate enough to enjoy the perks of athletic greatness. And in the end, myriads have also taken the long, hard fall.
It is an inevitability for most jocks, but few are prepared to cope with the realities of traffic jams and broken appliances, mounting bills and screaming kids. The modern American athlete resides in a million-dollar fantasy world where groupies stand outside hotel room doors in lace teddies and G-strings; where clubhouse kids fetch everything from socks to cigarettes; where people wait for five hours in a pouring rainstorm for an autograph or simply a quick nod. Many do not survive the ego-crushing trip back to reality.
"Because they've been so focused on sports from an early age, many athletes never develop necessary parts of the self," observes Cristina Versari, head of sports psychology at San Diego University for Integrative Studies. "There's a developmental arrest. When an athlete retires, it takes four to eight years to adjust to a new life."
After years running the National Basketball Association's Education and Career Development Program, Versari came across more than 400 basketball players, few of whom were ready for retirement. "Most of us spend 25 to 30 years doing a job that we've prepared for, and that becomes our reason to get up each day," she says. "The professional athlete retires in his late 20s or early 30s and then has no idea what to do. You can only play so much golf."
Pick a sport—any sport—and it's easier to find 10 athletes who failed to make post-retirement life meaningful than 10 who instantly thrived. From former Houston Astros ace J.R. Richard, found living under a bridge, to former world-class sprinter Houston McTear, slumming on the streets of Sweden; from the drug problems of Mets slugger Darryl Strawberry to the AIDS-related death of one-time Padres second baseman Alan Wiggins, the sporting world offers a Who's Who of casualty tales.
"Too often, retired athletes just can't cope with being retired athletes," says sports psychologist John Chang, assistant professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. "Especially when their egos get in the way." Dexter Manley might be Exhibit A. From 1981 through 1989, one would have been hard-pressed to find a more dominant, more terrifying NFL defensive end than Dexter Manley, a.k.a. "The Secretary of Defense." In his nine seasons with the Washington Redskins, the six-foot-three, 260-pound Manley played in three Super Bowls, winning two. His 972 sacks are a franchise record and rank in the top 20 on the all-time league list. "Oh, Dexter was a monster," says former teammate Charles Mann, who started across from Manley on the defensive line. "He was as physically gifted a football player as I've seen."
Yet from the time he was a young boy growing up in the Houston projects, Manley was setting himself up—and being set up—for failure. He was accepted to Oklahoma State on an athletic scholarship, even though he could neither read nor write. After four years as a star, Manley entered the National Football League and the life of a big shot in a big town. He played hard and partied 100 times harder. "He was always trying to be this Hollywood superstar," says Mann. "He'd pull up in these $12,000 suits and crocodile shoes, and I'd be wearing a cheap suit. He'd make fun, and I'd always tell him the same thing. 'Dexter, it's not the clothes, it's the man.'"
Manley found himself in the psychological end zone of superstardom that sports the clothes but strips the man. Wherever he went in Washington, Manley was guaranteed a free meal, a free car, a free movie, a free show, free drugs. Addicted to the perks that come with athletic success, he developed an unhealthy dose of narcissistic entitlement: the goodies no longer were appreciated but expected. "The muscle you use to pull out your wallet goes unexercised," says Mann. "It's a trap, and it stunts your ability to cope with the real world."
Mann's wisdom rolled off Dexter Manley's expensive sleeves. Manley began abusing cocaine in the mid-1980s and in 1991 was permanently banned from the NFL. With a growing drug habit, Manley signed with the Ottawa Rough Riders, of the Canadian Football League, where he spent two unremarkable seasons. He was officially done playing after '93, but he carried around his expired NFL Players Association card as ID. He stayed in Marriott hotels because, back in the day, it was the chain the Redskins used. And when asked his profession, he continued to say, "football player."
"I'm still living that dream," he told The New York Times in 1995, shortly after his Mercedes was repossessed. "Football gave me personality. Once it was over, I had nothing to live for." Manley has been in and out of treatment for the past decade and in 2002 was sentenced to two years in Texas State Prison for cocaine possession.
"Dexter could never accept the fact that football was over," says Mann, who retired in 1997 and now owns a credit-card processing company. "I used to tell him that nothing lasts forever, that he needed to remember humility. But some guys don't want to hear that. Especially stars."
Those at greatest risk of post-retirement letdown are the athletes who dominate their profession, who know nothing of failure and everything of success. Athletes, says former New York Mets catcher Ed Hearn, know of bad times, but not bad times. "The media will use words like struggle and difficulties to describe what we go through, and it's baloney," says Hearn, now a motivational speaker based in Kansas City. "Oh, how terrible: You gave up six runs in an inning, or you were traded from the Yankees to Tampa Bay. Those aren't problems real people face every day. But the gifted athlete has no concept of reality. His life has been a floating cloud."
Superstardom, however, is only one factor. Perhaps more devastating is the failure to design a transitional role. "You go from Who's Who to 'Who's that?'" says psychologist Steven Berglas, author of Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout. It is unnatural for a human being to be routinely hounded by autograph seekers then—bam!—receive zero attention. "You're going from the pinnacle of adulation, excitation and the confirmation of worth to nothing," he says.
Perhaps the most beloved women's basketball player of all time, Rebecca Lobo planned her 2003 exit from the WNBA. When she joined the New York Liberty in 1997, Lobo was a star who was greeted with suffocating attention. Fans lined up outside Madison Square Garden for her autograph; little girls wearing silver-and-black Lobo jerseys could be spotted all over New York. Yet throughout a solid seven-year playing career, Lobo never thought of herself solely as an athlete.
"There are a number of WNBA players who have decided basketball is the only thing they're interested in, and therefore it's the only thing they think about and do," Lobo says. "Not me." Several years ago, Lobo began working in the off-season as a college-basketball analyst for ESPN. Many female basketball players finished the WNBA season, then immediately caught a plane to play professionally in Europe. Lobo, on the other hand, had a new identity as a TV personality that could grow over time. "An athlete who can find another identity for himself is promising a much healthier life," says Versari.
Professional athletes typically spend more years preparing for their career—starting in elementary school—than in it. It's not only all they know, Versari explains, they have not developed other areas of their identity. Many lack the social or academic skills that give others a sense of self-worth. "All athletes feel that they are not completely developed according to their chronological age," Versari reports. "When they leave the sport, they have to emotionally go back for 'structured building' to fill in the missing pieces."
Across the board, sports organizations have done a terrible job of helping their ranks prepare for the afterlife. In the high-octane worlds of college football and basketball, the goal of most coaches is not to produce well-rounded human beings but well-rounded athletes. "The college stars have dollar signs attached to their bodies from the day they arrive on campus," says Gil Pagovich, a players' agent. "Anyone who says the universities or the NCAA are looking after their all-around interest has no idea. It's a product." Few pro leagues offer athletes career guidance, internships or future-counseling. Major League Baseball's players' union dropped its post-career planning sessions. According to union representative Greg Boras, "Nobody showed interest." The NBA features internships, college enrollment guidance and veteran transition programs but, says Versari, "it's at a superficial level." Most teams have sports psychologists, notes Berglas. "But it's all focused on performance enhancement, not character development."
One consequence: "The emotional part of retirement is devastating," says Versari. While no statistics are kept, an overwhelmingly large number of athletes divorce their spouses after their careers end. Part of it is the difficulty of being home year-round after spending the past 10 years jumping from Chicago to Charlotte to Los Angeles. An even greater problem is the re-examination of personal relationships. "Often, the wife married a hero, the champion," Versari says. "Now he's a person she's never met, and that person has a lot of problems to overcome."
The same man who scored 50 points against the Lakers two or three years ago is suddenly taking out the trash, picking the kids up from school and going unrecognized at the Jefferson Valley Mall. He wants to still be "the Man," but "the Man" has minimal education and minimal social skills. "There's a lot of pressure for the athlete to still feel important," Versari says. "Many never get over talking about the past." Or drinking to it. Alcoholism is a "significant problem" among ex-athletes, reports Berglas.
Then there's the matter of money. Though never rich by major league standards, former Seattle Mariners pitcher Dave Fleming once enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle. In 1995, the final season of his five-year career, Fleming earned $750,000, well above the league minimum. It was the payoff of a career that started with a bright flash but ended with a dull thud. In 1992, his first full season in the majors, Fleming won 17 games for the Mariners, including 11 in a row. So hot was the rookie left-hander from Mahopac, New York, that The New York Times once ran the headline, "Who Is David Fleming? When Will He Lose?"
"It was great," says Fleming. "I could pick up and go on a vacation to Disney World and not even think about it. The money you make—from your contract, from endorsements—is just crazy."
But following the '95 season, Fleming bounced around from training camp to training camp and independent league to independent league, never again returning to the majors. He was 25 years old.
Today, Fleming is a fifth-grade teacher at Chatfield Elementary School in Seymour, Connecticut. He mows his own lawn, shovels his own driveway, and his wife, Ivy, works several days a week as a waitress at a local restaurant, to bring in cash to help with their two kids. The family might still go to Disney World, but not without cutting coupons and looking online for the cheapest rates. "It's a shock to the system, I won't lie," he says. "I'm not sure how a lot of guys deal with it."
Many make investments that only compound their financial woes: There are weekly stories of ex-jocks investing in bars, restaurants and car washes that consume their money within months. "Because you're a ballplayer, nobody thinks you're smart, and they'll take advantage of you," says Jim Bouton, the former Yankee pitcher and author of the legendary book Ball Four. "Oftentimes you're not smart, and they can take advantage of you. And do."
The best way to avoid such trouble is education. Returning to college, either to complete undergraduate work or to pursue a higher degree, is the number-one way to minimize the inevitable doldrums of retirement, insists Versari. "When they go through school the first time, most athletes are studying the easiest subject to help them stay active," she says. "It's not about what you like. So now, later in life, they should go for it.
But continuing an education is not simply about getting a new post-sports job. A return to the classroom can provide the ex-jock with his first nonathletic feelings of achievement. Like sports, academics can be goal-oriented and intense. It also stimulates the mind which, says Fleming, "is something a lot of us probably need after our careers."
That is what saved Elaina Oden. In the midst of her prolonged depression, Oden returned to college to pursue an MBA. Now, she is a full-time student at Chapman University in Orange, California and plans to become a certified financial planner. Though her studies don't provide the excitement of spiking volleyballs and walking through the Olympic village, they have, finally, provided an exodus from her life of yester-year; a life that refused to let her go.
"I'm no longer an ex-athlete," she says proudly. "I'm a future businesswoman."