Changing How Football Players View Pain and Mental Health
Featured Guest: Al Smith
Behind the uniforms, professional athletes are still just regular people. So how do we ensure their health doesn’t get overlooked in the pursuit of physical achievement?
We’ll tackle this with former Houston Oilers linebacker and current NFL Alumni Association chairman Al Smith on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.
Interviewer: I’m here with Al Smith. Thank you so much for being with us.
Al Smith: Thank you for having me. Appreciated.
Interviewer: Let’s start by just having you give us a little introduction to some of your personal journey and how you got started in football?
Al: Basically, obviously starts in high school, it was all about having fun, playing with your friends in high school or what have you and then you find out later, well, you have enough talent to have the opportunity to go to college to have college paper by getting a scholarship or what have you. From there, it goes into the whole aspect of, well, that talent, well you could do some more with that talent and be able to make a living with that talent.
For me, it was never an ultimate goal to play in National Football League, it was just a matter of paying for school, paying for college. It was a way to pay for college. Then from there the talent blossomed and was able to take it further than I ever expected. From there, it is blossoming, putting the work in all the study and everything that you put in to. I was able to turn it into a pro-career and with that very grateful.
Interviewer: Absolutely. You ended up spending a decade in the NFL. Which is you talk about starting out in high school like such a small percentage even make it to the NFL and then to get to the level you’re at, have a career you’re at is amazing. Looking back at that experience, what are some of the memories that stick out for you?
Al: Lot of memories, you learn so much from playing a sport whether be leadership team or kind of build be able to adapt, overcome, be able to take life lessons or pick up life’s lessons within a sport. Even if you don’t make it up to the pro- level in the sport you have a basis and foundation so to speak to be able to be successful in any career that you kind of going into. The fact that you learn these opportunities to work with others, so carrying that into a workplace so many people struggle working with other people because they never had to.
Unfortunately, in sports you learn to-you work with your teammates doesn’t necessarily you have to like every teammate but at the same time you respect your teammate whether be your co-worker at a job or wherever the case may be and you take those lessons learned in the leadership aspect and be able to be a leader of men and be able to guide people and be able to overcome a death.
Be able to come back from a loss or be able to come back from defeat in a way that others may be unable to handle. That’s pretty much life because you have ups and downs throughout anyone’s particular life and career and be able to come back from there whether be a death in the family or overcoming a tragedy in the home or whatever the case may be.
It gives you the opportunity to able to excel and rise above because at the end of the day for you to be successful you going to have to. Some people aren’t able to be able to do that and be able to adjust to those type of things and they struggle in day to day life because of the fact of the challenges they never had to deal with.
Interviewer: Eventually, as your career wound down you retired and you decided to stay in football. You stayed with the [unintelligible 00:03:26] organization, at that time why did you decide to continue with that?
Al: Well, I was still in the transition of do you keep playing or not playing and I had come up with a few injuries and then I had the opportunity to be offered a job in the front office. At that time was like why don’t you squeeze out another year so started another career so to speak. Was basically presented to me but at the same time creating that opportunity and be able to show all the powers to be so to speak to be able to have that opportunity to be able to even be offered a job like that.
A lot of times players aren’t offered to go on to the front office of their organization what have you so that was an honor in itself. Being able to do that for many, many years and being able to excel at that was gratifying. Looking back to the teachings and the study have it and all the things that we learned along the way from that foundation way back in high school as far as having the discipline or having mentorship and having all these different individuals in your life to be able to take you to a whole another level gives you the ability to say, “Hey, I wasn’t able to do this alone.
I had a model to follow, I had somebody to look up to, I had someone to be able to guide in that. Had that too like so many kids today they already know everything.” Being able to accept criticism and being able to accept guidance and being able to take that to a whole another level and being able to be the best you, you can be.
Interviewer: Then to go on and like you’re kind of mentoring some of these players or how do you describe your role in player development?
Al: Player development which was one of my roles I was basically being able to help that transition. Any transition that you have whether be from middle school or high school was a transition. From high school to college you transition, you go from being a senior being a big person on campus so to speak to being a lot of person on campus in a matter of six months or whatever the case may be because of the fact that you’re going into being a freshman again at a big university where you don’t have hands on. You’re on your own, your parents’ aren’t there to so to call wake you up to go to class or make you go to class or making you study or wherever the case may be.
You go onto this whole new evolution of about who you are and which you’re going to become because whatever their foundation that you have whether be negative or positive that’s which you’re going to carry to the world with you. In some cases a lot of young adults struggle with that because of the fact that now they have to work with other people. Maybe people that they never had an opportunity to interact with before or people that don’t necessarily look like them or think like them.
Now being able to come together and being able to have dialogue and being able to have relationships with individuals they may not necessarily have the same ideals that you have but at the same time have a common ground to where you can still be friends and still be associates and still have different purposes.
Interviewer: kind of like you were saying earlier they have to work together, they have to have accountability they have to trust each other because you’re part of a whole.
Al: Exactly. Team basically is together everyone achieves more. It doesn’t matter what team because when you work together even in the teams’ aspect one person can’t do above himself. Lebron James or whoever it is they can’t win the championships by themselves as we’ve seen they tried but you can’t do it and if you squawk one out. Michael Jordan until he got help he couldn’t do it all or whoever the case may be or somebody needs a partner somebody to help them. Even though, a lot of individuals have to understand that even in the team concept even in your workplace.
Whether be your production somebody having to do their job whether be editing or whether be the camera person or wherever somebody behind the scenes that you’re counting on to make your production the way it should be. If they’re not carrying their way obviously is a reflection on you and the whole organization. Just like with the team whether be the [unintelligible 00:07:54] or my case when I played with Oilers you had to play, so you’re playing for something bigger than yourself.
When I say something bigger than yourself I mean you’re playing for that logo on the side of your helmet, whether be the star the Dallas Cowboys or Houston [unintelligible 00:08:10] on a Saturday helmet because hat’s the ultimate thing that you’re playing for. Obviously, you play for yourself and you want to be the best you can be but at the same time, there is something bigger than you. That team or that organizations go on well beyond your playing years.
Those same teams other than they’re always tuned to the times, the times are going on. The team stays the same, the names change. You get a new quarterback, you get different people coming in. High hopes all good but they may or may not last so the team stays the same. The logos the playing is always going be there. Maybe Tweets and colors here along the way but at the same time is the same team.
You’re playing for something bigger than yourself. For anyone to get to the success that they would like to be or want to be they need their teammates, they need the people in their workplace, people that they work with. Like I always go back to it nobody says you have to like or love everybody that you work with but if there is a common respect then you can work together.
Interviewer: You achieve more together.
Al: You achieve more together.
Interviewer: Now, let’s transition to talking specifically about some of the mental health behavior or health aspects to this because the athlete life is very different than normal life. Like what we were kind of talking about before we started recording pain is a part of it, the expectation of physical performance is part of it. What are some of those kind of specific challenges that you see facing professional athletes related to mental health behavior health?
Al: When you talk about like professional athletes when you look at it as a blessed profession to be able to be a professional athlete. To be one of the best at your job, so to speak, because it’s only 32 teams. If it’s only 32 give you the quarterbacks it’s only 32 of them. They’re starting NFL and my case the line back is only 32 middle linebackers. Whatever the case may be, if you wanted to top best at that and you are at the top of your profession, you’re the best in the world and with that comes expectation.
If I wake up with a flu and I have a game and missing on a game having a flu, well, that’s a national stories. It’s like, “You got a flu? Why?” [crosstalk] When everyday people work. I meet people all the day don’t go to work. They’re calling sick to work and they get a sick day and nobody says anything but if Mario or whoever the quarterback is at that time, Tom Brady is sick or has a stuffy nose or whatever the case may be and can’t be at his best, well, he’s expected to be at his best on Sunday because you have 80,000 people in the stands. You have millions of people watching on TV and it’s not like, “Well, he had a bad game because he didn’t feel good.”
Well, no, that’s not going to be the narrative. The narrative is like what Tom Brady that he do it in interception for a touchdown and he lost a game and our city, our team, our loss or we didn’t go to this playoffs so we missed the SuperBowl or whatever the case may be. It puts extra pressure. It puts you in a different light in that you do more and put yourself in situations to be able to be on that field at all costs. A lot of time, that all cost is dealing with pain.
You could be dealing with a divorce. One of your kids could be in the hospital. One of your parents could have just passed away that weekend, or whatever the case may be, but you’re still expected to go out there and be at your best because the average fan doesn’t care what happens in your life. Obviously, those are major life issues that people have to deal with and most people may take a month off or they take weeks off to breathe, so to speak.
You may get a couple days for the service or whatever the case but you’re expected to be back at that game because not only is the team expecting you to be there, your teammates, the city, your peers, everyone expects you to perform. When you have that, that comes pressure. With that pressure, what will you do to make sure that you’re on that field? A lot of players would do whatever it takes to be on that field and that could be the fact of taking pain pills or taking a shot or doing something to alleviate pain so that they can be at their best at all costs.
Now it can be detrimental to them down the road or doctor may say if you have a surgery and it’s normally four to six weeks where they may expect you back in two weeks. The healing processes is the healing process. If it takes four weeks to you that does not mean it’s not- [laughs]
Interviewer: Just because you’re professional athlete doesn’t mean your body is magically–
Al: – ligaments are ligaments. The doctor says they heal but take four to six weeks. It takes four to six weeks but expect you to be out there maybe in a week and a half, two weeks. You may get that and expect you to play at a high level with a less than healed injury.
Interviewer: Then that’s rewarded because everyone’s like, “Man, look at this. Look at this warrior. He’s out there after a week and a half.”
Al: He’s out there a week and a half but in between after that game, or him limping or being up all night, can’t sleep or whatever that pain is nobody cares about that. You make X amount, whatever, you just need to do it. For someone to do that and to do it at an optimal level, they may take pain pills and pain pills comes from not that they just want to take pain pills, just for the sake of taking pain pills because it comes with the injury.
If you had a surgery, like in my case, I had surgery, multiple surgeries and as a part of the recovery when you come out of surgery pain pills is a part they presume. They just give any cap.
Interviewer: They give it to you. They [crosstalk].
Al: The doctors give it to you and you like, “This will make you feel better.” Then next thing you know, “Hi. Can I get some more pain pills?” They make you feel better, make you feel better, make you feel better, make it feel better. Now when I get out of that hospital, and I don’t feel good, I want that feel better. [chuckles] If that feel better is going to make me play better well, then I want that feel better again.
It becomes a fact that you started asking for, you start wanting it and the next thing you know it’s easier it’s access. You have team doctors. You have trainers, to the point where the main thing they want you to do is to be on that field and be able to perform.
Interviewer: If you go to the team doctor and say, “Hey, I’m not feeling that great. Can I get some of that?” Is less questions. That’s part of the culture.
Al: Is less questions part of culture, there’s more pressure, because then you are having a team put pressure on a doctor like, “Hey, we need them out there,” Is this unwritten code, so to speak, and a player wants to be out there as well. The player wants to be out there to play and whatever it takes for him to get out to the play because if he doesn’t have to play his jobs in jeopardy.
If your job is in jeopardy just like anyone else that has a job in America that they want to keep their job they do within all the realm of legality, do what they have to do to keep their job and that’s how it starts.
Interviewer: Do players generally view that pressure, those expectations as like unhealthy, or do they think it’s just kind of part of the deal, and you just got to deal with it for the certain amount of years you’re there?
Al: They know it’s not necessarily a healthy thing but it’s the only thing at the time, and they’ll deal with whatever repercussions from that down the road. Now, the question is, are you strong enough to wean yourself off once that demand for your talent isn’t there? Can you wean yourself off?
Interviewer: Because you might still have the pain.
Al: Because you still have might the pain. Are you taking care of yourself? Are you eating right? Are you gaining an extra hundred pounds when you retired, or whatever the case may be, that’s going to put extra strain on your body, which in turn is going to make you make some decisions that you may not make otherwise? A lot of that is self maintenance but a lot of it at the same time is an uncontrollable urge.
Interviewer: On top of all this, you’re traveling all the time. It’s just you really like kind of out of the normal habit of being home a lot of the time, aren’t you?
Al: Exactly. Then more athlete are creatures of habit. You’ve been in this routine since grade school and you have this regime and you have this regime. You up at this time you work out this time. You have meetings at this time you have practice at this time. You have school at this time, or whatever the case may be, depending on what level you’re at and all of a sudden, when you’re pro query ends there’s nothing. You go from 100 miles an hour to zero and the next thing you know what’s going to fill that void? Now is that void going to be filled by positive nourishing things that can enhance you and build you or is it going to be filled with things that’s going to tear you down?
Does those pain pills turn to, “Okay, well I can get the pain pills as easy more to the alcohol.? Is that going to turn into another type of drug that’s going to fill that void? When you get more time on your hands is a devil’s workshop as I say. Idle time is the devil’s workshop so if you don’t have a routine or job or a solid relationship or marriage or something that keeps you going, it can easily push you down a road that isn’t conducive to healthy living.
Interviewer: Right. Because if football has been your rock, your foundation then when it’s not there anymore you got to have something to keep you centered.
Al: The thing about that is that it’s just not saving time. It’s not like, “Okay, well, September 12, 2012 is going to end on that day and you’re able to prepare for it.” No. It could be snatched in the middle of it. It could be the middle season. It could be like okay, this could be your last season and you weren’t expecting it to be your last season. You were expecting hopefully to play a couple of more years or whatever the case may be but I always played each year like it was my last year to prevent those type of things like that. You have to kind of police yourself in a way if you can.
A lot of guys aren’t able to do that because I just think that it’s not going to end or you’re not going to get hurt or whatever anything can happen. When someone else’s is making a decision on whether or not your career will go forward because you may still have some talent to play but someone may be younger or cheaper so to speak, better business wise for the team they may go in another direction and just by the fact that you may be 30 years old and 30 years old and the reward is pretty young and it’s worth [unintelligible 00:19:54] It could change real quick.
Interviewer: Looking back to your career, back to the 90s, what were some of the resources you remember being around to help with these transitions, with the mental health, with behavioral health aspects of being a player? Was there a lot of that? Was there a lot of support with that?
Al: When I was playing, it wasn’t a lot of support for those type of things because it wasn’t to the forefront like it is now. It was like this taboo, things something’s wrong with you or what have you. I think guys would drink or have other outlets to help alleviate whatever pain they may have but once– When I got into player development, you’re able to place guys if you saw a situation or a guy was going through something that was pretty tough.
It could be a divorce or depression or something like that, we did try to find a counseling situation to plan out to get the problem identified and with that diagnosis, be able to find a remedy to help that player. At least now you have him with some professionals that can help him move forward, to help him with this problem as opposed to, “Well, that person has a problem, we just get rid of the problem”, as opposed to helping the person with the problem. In the past, a lot of times well instead of dealing with the problem, well, they’ll just eliminate the problem and–
Interviewer: Just let that player go?
Al: Just let that play go as opposed to, “Okay, well, let’s help them”. Or if you know somebody has a drinking problem, we’ll have something in place to help with that. He may be a talented individual or a talented player but have something in place as opposed to just letting him fend for himself and not being able to know how to do that.
Interviewer: Really, ultimately, that helps the team because football is physical sport. It takes a lot of physical strength but really you got to be smart. You got to have your head in the game too and so if they can build their players up mentally and emotionally, that benefits everyone.
Al: Exactly. When I was with the teams I would tell the teams, they’re like, you’re investing all this money in this quarterback or whoever the case may be to perform and you won’t invest anything into making sure that that he’s a top performance level in all aspects of his life? That doesn’t seem smart to me because what’s the point of giving somebody a big contract and he may have a breakdown or he may not be at his best because of the fact that he’s going on with some mental health issues or a drug issue or whatever the case may be, that he may have been good at hiding it or masking it but at some point, it still rears its ugly head.
It may be the second year in, a third year [unintelligible 00:22:58] or maybe something traumatic that happens in the life that just brings it to light. At least have things in place or have a team of people in place that if something does go awry at least you have a place for that player to go, to get the help that he needs.
Interviewer: For the past several years now, you’ve been working with the NFL organization itself, with alumni and compliance. Could you tell us about those roles and how you hope to help players in that role?
Al: It’s two different roles that I’m in now. The compliance role is separate from the alumni role. Compliance role work with the NFL as far as making sure players are complying with the rules of the game. A lot of money is invested. TV money is put into broadcasts, making sure that advertising is conducive with the contracts that have been signed with the league and the teams and making sure that players complying to that, and how that they are uniform because everyone has to be just because of TV the teams have players that look pretty much the same as far as how they dress.
Interviewer: There’re certain rules for the physical uniform, the clothes you wear.
Al: Yes, what they were not promoting their own brand and all those type of things in that setting. When players do not comply with that, they get fined or whatever the case may be. I’m the person that documents it and turns it in, so to speak, but I just document it by writing it up and photo on everything so everything is documented of what this player did or did not do.
Interviewer: Then with the alumni organization?
Al: With the alumni organization, I have been with alumni. I started out as a chapter president in Tennessee and then I was elevated to a national board member for the alumni. I’m the chairman of the board for the alumni nationally where the CEO and the president answers to me and then I answer to the board as far as I’m between the CEO and the board.
Interviewer: Sure and so the board is other former players?
Al: Yes the board is other former players from different all ages, different areas, and they are comprised of different walks of life, businessman, different walks of life, different outlooks but the common denominator is that they played in NFL.
Interviewer: I guess looking at the of things now in the NFL, what are some of the initiatives or resources that the NFL is offering now to players that they didn’t have when you were a player?
Al: Well, there’s the one of the thing that they offer now, obviously, is that, you can get counselling like if you have, whether it be a marriage counselling or addiction or different things like that, that you can get help. In the past you couldn’t get help so there are resources now that are built in that it could be confidential. You don’t have to go through anyone to say. Hi, XYZ is going to something,” and it’d be in the newspaper or e on the six o’clock news. Now it’s more of your identity is not disclosed, partnering with foundations and places like that where you can have outside resources that can help.
There’s all these things that are built in for free and family members as well because a lot of times players go through a lot of different issues and different things that they have to go through and they go through it by themselves but the families may take the brunt of it. They may not understand what’s going on and they can be able to go through it with the player and being able to do with together as a family and at no cost to the player in the family so that is an issue because contrary to what everyone may believe every player isn’t rich, so to speak and everyone needs help. They have the resources for them to get that.
Interviewer: It seems like it’d be a lot more likely for people to speak up if you’re creating this confidential free atmosphere where that’s encouraged.
Al: There’s hotlines to where they can just call on their own if something comes up and they got to deal with something. All that is right there for them at their disposal.
Interviewer: Getting back to you were talking earlier about transitions and you’re helping players transition from one phase of life to the next, what are some of the challenges you see with players who are transitioning to life after football, to being an active roster to kind of starting that next phase?
Al: One of the toughest things is that outside of football what are your interests? What do you like outside of the sport? There’s opposites sport you love, sports you play since you were a small individual, but beyond that, what are your interests? What would you like to do? Some guys have that like when I first started my journey college will have you I wanted to be an FBI agent. That was kind of my thing at that time, but there’s an age limit and I played up to that age limit. When I retired, that was all right.
Interviewer: I see you weren’t quite young enough to start the FBI.
Al: I was young enough to start on the FBI side so with that the door open to a career in sports which I had been doing. Obviously, wasn’t on the field so it was behind the scenes. It was helping with the transition of players and it became director pro scouting where I was evaluating players and what have you as well. It was in the wheelhouse, so to speak, and developing those skills which is a skill in itself because everyone doesn’t necessarily have a eye for talent.
It’s tough for guys because of the fact that a lot of times they don’t think it’s going to end because one thing about sports especially football it would definitely end and you just don’t know when it’s going to end. You could play one year. You might play two. You might play 15. You might not play any so you can’t plan for that of the unknown. It’s hard to plan for the unknown, so to speak. That’s why I always took the approach of each year as my last year I get another year with so that was a bonus.
At the same time, well, this is my last year. In your mind and you have to keep fighting now you still work hard and try to make the team and be at your best because if I didn’t make it being at my best I can live with that. If I shortchange myself, well, I wasn’t prepared or I didn’t put everything in it, then that would haunt me. I put everything in it and did everything that I could to make the team I was fortunate to keep making it but at the same time, when it was over, it wasn’t devastating.
Interviewer: Because you know you’d given it your all, you’ve done your best.
Al: I’ve done my best and they made the decision that, “Okay, well, they want to go in another direction.” Although you missed the camaraderie, your teammates but no one misses the brutality or the physicality of the game. I don’t miss hitting somebody. Because when you think of a day, that’s not natural. It’s not natural to want to run into a wall which is basically what you’re doing.
Another human being, this a big guy [crosstalk] and you have two big guys that are fast and have heavy impact, something’s going to give. It could be your bones or ligaments, something gives at some point. That’s not a natural act for, the body wasn’t made for that.
Interviewer: It’s not it’s not naturally incentivized to throw yourself into that wall.
Al: Exactly. You’ve been trained so to speak to do it. Now, no one forces you to do it, it’s a great game, it’s a fun game. It’s a competitive game, but it’s a brutal game. With all that being said, you have to take it forward for what it is now. Some guys can play a long time, some guys take care of themselves better than others. Some guys, you can work out and be in shape and do everything that you’re supposed to do and still get hurt. Anything can happen. It’s just a matter of being prepared for the unknown. The unknown being, I don’t know when this is going to end. No, no one ever wants at the end.
One of my former teammates, Bruce Matthews, he played 20 years. When I look at Bruce today, and I see the way he walks and the way his body looks, I was like, “Well, I would take 12 years, 20 years or 10 years. Then it’s like, well, what’s your quality of life after? You can say, “Well, I had a great long career”. You can say, “Well, can I still walk? Get out of bed? Can I walk the kids to the bus stop? Can I pick up my grandkid? Can I do all these different things that normal people supposedly are able to do?”
If you can’t do those type of things, then you have to ask yourself. Some guys who say they would do it all over again, I understand why they may say that but then you have to ask yourself about your quality of life and how would you want your personal quality of life to be. I always wanted mine to be able to still be able to be active and functional and being able to– The dog chasing down the street. I can jump on a car, at least. [laughs]
Interviewer: You really have to take in personal inventory and see like, “Is it worth it? Where’s that line for me?”
Al: No one can answer that for the next guy. Then, I think sometimes when someone has never been in the battlefield or in the arena, so to speak, how can they make judgment on someone who’s in the arena and who’s in the battle. That’s like going to war saying, “Well, they should have did this”, or “Could it did that”, or “He should have duck and not got shot or sitting them one around this banner that being aware of the case may be”.
It’s always easy as to say that when you are in a nice air-conditioned room, on a couch dictating with somebody else’s supposed to do but if you’re out there in the battle, it’s a lot of different, let’s just say.
Interviewer: We’ve been talking about professional athletes but you also have some experience working with college athletics as well here at Vanderbilt University. I guess, how did you maybe adjust your approach or how is that different reaching that pace of life?
Al: Well, it was different because of the fact of the age group and this age group is obviously these guys they want to get the degree that you’re trying to finish school and hopefully have an opportunity to maybe to extend their careers into the pro ranks, which everyone won’t be able to do, but everyone thinks they can do. It’s almost being like realistic with yourself as well and being honest with yourself and knowing what your true talent lies because someone said, “Everybody has a dream to be in the NBA or being in NFL or soccer or whatever the case may be, and be able to go to the highest level of this sport”, but maximizing your talent to the best that it is.
That’s all anyone can ask themselves. Now, if the best that your talent takes you is a scholarship to college, a lot of people take that.
Interviewer: That’s great.
Al: That’s great. Now if you fortunate to have exceptional ability to be able to carry on, well, some do and some don’t. This is because you’re not able to play a pro sport that you can be productive or you can be successful or you can have a glamorous life, so to speak, whatever the case may be. It’s all of the perspective how you look at it and what you’re willing to put into it because a lot of guys have the talent but they don’t have the work ethic.
They don’t have the will to go to that next level. When you don’t have that, what is the talent? It’s a waste of talent. So many kids out there now that in especially in the younger generation they think that just go and hand them something, that is going to give it to you on a silver platter and not have to work with it or don’t have to compete but I got to compete. I was like, “They have me in high school, I was the man.”
Interviewer: Hey, you’re recruiting another guy, that is my same position [crosstalk]
Al: People, when you look at, they look at all the schools across the country. If you are the best, let’s say, running back at your school, well, the guy the school down the street he’s the best running back at his school, at the school get the best runner back at their school. You get all these best of the best, so to speak, in one big room. Now, who’s the best? I always said noticed that number one dissolve because those are the ones that are going to go to the next level.
There’s some individual who may not have the talent that you would want but they have the work ethic and they have the will. When you have that, it can elevate your talent higher than it would be if you didn’t have that. You can take yourself to another level, even surpass a guy that has a lot of talent but he’s lazy, he won’t put the extra work, he won’t do the study. Well, then, all of a sudden he won’t last.
Interviewer: All right. Well, I guess what are some things that come to mind that you wish you knew maybe 20, 30 years ago and as you’re dealing with these younger players, just what are some things you wish you knew when you were in those shoes?
Al: When I was in those shoes that at an earlier age, I’ve been exposed to some more because a lot of times depending on your background or what have you, I wouldn’t trade my background. I have a great wall to do background or whatever the case may be but I was able to maximize the opportunity that I had. I was fortunate to have a park that was pretty close to– It’s a little small park, it wasn’t like a major park little small park.
Interviewer: You grew up in California?
Al: Yes, in Los Angeles to where being competitive– Like basketball, you won’t get on the court if you don’t win. It wasn’t like [unintelligible 00:38:46] little Johnny play and then a little Johnny had to earn his way to get a court. If you didn’t go out in scrap and fighting, when I say fight I mean fight to stay on the court, so to speak, and being able to take a hard foul and not cry or whatever the case may be because you can’t call it a little slap on the wrist, those aren’t fouls. [laughs]
Interviewer: Not at the park.
Al: Not at the park. You learn that toughness and all those types of things like that it’s like a lot of times everyone grows up in different environments or whatever the case may be but just having the opportunity to put yourself in competitive situations. Obviously, here in Tennessee, participation trophies in fourth place gets this and in fifth place, it gets to that. I’m not necessarily for that school. I’m not from that school is I believe in. First place and maybe a second place but after that I was like, the participation and recognition trophies are high on the list because in the real life you don’t get that. When you are trying to get a job whether you’re going to get it or you’re not going to get it. Well, this guy has got some top job and you get the second place job.
Interviewer: You can still be proud of yourself if you did your best, gave your all but it’s– What kind of incentive is that creating?
Al: Exactly. If you always get something along the way or you got the job because your dad work there or you got the job because of favor from somebody else and you never did anything on your own merit. Well, when it comes to competing, you just think, “I’m supposed to get it” and not work for it. That breeds laziness, non-accountability and it creates environment in the workplace of entitlement. In this age of electronics and texting and everything digital, just looking at eye to eye and having a conversation with somebody is a thing in the past.
When you have to interview, when you go to a job and you have to interview somebody and you’re actually sitting down and somebody is facing and you have to look him right in the eye and they asking me questions, I have to answer those questions to the best of my ability and I’m hungry and I don’t want to be here. It’s easy to text it. Would you rather somebody you care about, a significant other to say, “I love you” in your face or to text you and say, “I love you?”
Interviewer: You can have their personal connection.
Al: It’s not the same they tell you on a text. Some people are like, real husband or she maybe texting 20 other people too.
Interviewer: You never know.
Al: You never know. If they say it in you’re face and you look him in the eye, you have a sense of, “Okay, well, I can trust that person”, or “I believe that person”. At least it’s hard to be phony in person.
Interviewer: Just back to what you were saying about the participation trophies and all that, another thing it does is, it robs you of knowing yourself. Knowing what you can really do and having to push yourself.
Al: Nowadays, it’s like if I get a participation, what’s my understanding of connection? I want to get the first place trophy. Well, I know I’m going to get something so it don’t matter. If I get the first, fine, if I get the second, fine but I’m going to get something as opposed to like, “Okay, well, I want to get to first place so am I going to work harder to get ready for the next year or what have you?”
That’s what I tell young people all the time. I was like, “What are you willing to do”, or, “What will you do when you have to?” I had a coach that you could be throwing a ball and everybody is watching all day on how I catch in one hand it catches and doing all the fancy stuff on the side. The question is, what would you do when you have to? Would you be able to do that if you had to do it?
Like when the game is on the line and you have to cast the ball, would you do 80,000 people watching, millions of people on TV watching? Could you catch it then? You catch it when you’re joking around and playing around but can you do when you have to do? What are you going to do when you have to feed the baby? When you have to feed your wife? When you have to get a job? What will you do then?
Interviewer: Then you really get to know yourself.
Al: Then you find out well, you better get going because the baby got to eat. The baby is not waiting. [laughs]
Al: In that regard, it could be obviously a generational thing or entitlement thing or whatever the case may be but the older generation obviously has to continue to instill on younger generation as far as those work ethics and accountabilities. If somebody corrects somebody or tell them they need to do a better job and break down because somebody criticized them, well, that’s an issue because you got to be able to take criticism too. That’s one thing about athletes. We get criticized a lot of time. We get critiqued on every step.
Interviewer: On TV, in the newspaper.
Al: By everybody. That’s not somebody saying something negative. That’s not devastating. An athlete, anything is fueling. It can make me better, make me stronger if you doubt me. Please doubt me. Those type of things. The next person if you do that and they crust. The rest of the day are shot if you told them that they didn’t do a good job or you didn’t perform or kid didn’t do well on tests, what did you study? Well, little while. Well, don’t be surprised that you didn’t do well in your test.
What did you put into it? Did you invest in doing well? Are you doing the extra work? Are you working while everybody else is resting? Are you studying? Are you doing the extra? Are you going the extra mile? Are you doing all these other things that you need to do to take yourself to the next level? What are you willing to do? What were you doing when you have to?
Interviewer: All right. Just wrap up with this final question if that’s all right. Two decades now after your playing career even to help mentor, advocate for athletes. Could you close by summing up why this mission of helping athletes develop as healthy whole people; mind, body, and spirit. Why is that so important to you?
Al: To me, it’s a spiritual thing. It’s as far as giving back and bringing others up and giving them the opportunity to instill in them what was instilled in me as far as having somebody who cared or someone that they wanted to set me on the right path or give me the discipline or show me what they look like. Show me what greatness looks like because if you hang around with knuckle heads, you’re probably going to be a knuckle head. If you’re going to hang out with people who drink all the time, sooner or later you’ll probably go and take a drink.
If you want to be something, surround yourself with that something. Whatever that is. If you want to be Greg Renneberg, you need to be talking with Greg Renneberg, see what they do. What are the great ones? How the famous do, how they eat. Do they stay up all night and then get 100 yards a day? Probably not. Their body get to sleep, their body get their rest. They take care of their bodies, they don’t put poison so to speak in their bodies and do things conducive to them being successful because a lot of times the goals and the dreams don’t align with each other.
The actions and the goals don’t align with each other. What you’re doing, and you say you want to be great but you’re not acting like you want to be great. You’re not doing things conducive to you want to be great. You’re just saying, anybody can say they want to be great. Anybody can say I want to be like whoever the latest star is. I want to be the next Hollywood movie actress or actor.
Anybody can say it because they see it on the movies but what do they do, what did they do and how many non-movies or bad movies did they do or movies that nobody would never even take or mentorship or things that they do or did a broadway show that nobody even thought of or worked their way up and got a break and being ready for their opportunity as opposed to an opportunity presents itself and then you’re not ready? That’s the worst thing to be able to have an opportunity present itself and you’re not ready for that opportunity.
It’s like always being ready for whenever that moment is because you don’t know when their blessings are going to come. When their blessing comes, I don’t know, they got drafted. I was fortunate to get drafted, you probably get shot. Back then it was 12 rounds. I got wrapped in the six round. I’m in the middle, I got a chance. I got a shot. That’s all I needed, it was a shot. People from the bigger schools, all the first round pics. Everybody we lined up, when we all lined up, we lined up together.
Interviewer: Starting in the same place. We started in the same place.
Al: We started in the same place. Someone is like, I’m going to get noticed. They go remember me.
Interviewer: You had to be ready.
Al: I had to be ready. Whether that be conditioning, mentally, physically, emotionally. I was ready for that. If didn’t make it by having all those things lined up, I can sleep good at night because I did everything in my power to take it to the next level. You have to be willing to do everything in your power if you want it bad enough. One great speaker once said that if someone was holding you under water, you will fight like heck to get up to get some air. Until you go for your dreams and what you want with that same fight, to breathe until you are willing to do that, it will be hard for you to get you where you want to go.
How bad do you really want it? People talk all the time, “I want to be great, I want to be like–” An NBA fan, Lebron- “I want to be like Lebron or make the money he make”. Do you see what he does when nobody is watching? How does he do that? How does he keep from getting hurt? How does he putting all those minutes up and down that court, at that high level? You think he is just eating chips and dip all day, everyday?
Well, he is doing something that other people aren’t willing to do or Kobe or whoever, Larry Bird. All these different great players that they do above and beyond. That’s what I learnt early on as far as seeing the work ethic of guys on a level where I wanted to be. I told myself, “That’s what I’m willing to do so I’m going to be ready and if I don’t make it, I can live with that.”
Interviewer: All right. Well, Al, man, thank you so much for your time and sharing that with us.
Al: Well, I appreciate it.