Finding Myself

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Nick Hardwick, Contributor - The Players' Tribune

“Holy shit, I’m done! I. Am. Done! This is so cool …” I felt like I was high. It was the first day that I wasn’t at practice while everyone else was. I was driving down the interstate, windows down, cranking Neil Young. It felt like I was playing hooky, and I was having a great time. Nothing was gonna bring me down.

That feeling lasted about a week. Then it hit me: “Wait, what now? What am I gonna do with myself? What am I gonna do with my life?”

And I immediately got scared.

Retirement didn’t catch me by surprise like it does a lot of guys. Going into the 2014 season, which was the last year of my contract, my body was starting to break down. I never wanted to be that guy who played forever, and it was my 11th year in the league, which was plenty for me. I had already decided that it would be my last year.

So when a persistent neck injury forced the Chargers to put me on injured reserve in Week 1, I knew it was the end. I was ready for it.

Since that moment, my life has been a series of ups and downs. There was the initial elation of not having to go to work — a freedom I’d never experienced — followed by the reality that I was 33, and I was retired. I had a whole life ahead of me and no idea what the hell I was gonna do with it.

San Diego Chargers v Tennessee Titans

I was a football player. That was always my identity. And when I walked off that field for the last time, I left that identity out there. Everything changed. I was lost. There’s a sudden void in your soul where football used to be, and you have to find some way to fill it. It’s a harsh reality.

There are three things you miss more than anything when you leave the game. The first, and probably the most obvious, is the adrenaline. You get a rush from playing football that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a combination of the thrills of competition and physical combat that can’t be duplicated in the “real world.” But there’s also a certain high you get from the attention of being an NFL player that’s difficult to match.

Fans in San Diego are amazing. I couldn’t have picked a better fanbase or a better city in which to spend my career. When you’re a player, especially during the season, you get a lot of attention. You get it every Sunday when you step onto the field, you get it in the media throughout the week and you get it around town when people recognize you and ask for autographs or photos.

The reality of my new life hit me hardest after my retirement press conference in San Diego. Talk about attention — it was a huge celebration, and it generated a good amount of buzz.

After being on IR and off the grid for the whole season, there I was, back in the spotlight — the center of attention — and I loved it. It was such a rush. And after the presser, it kept going. There were phone calls and media requests. Everybody wanted to talk to me. I remember laying in bed with my wife, Jayme, and I said, “Baby, nobody’s got it better than we do. This is like a dream.”

She said, “I know. It’s amazing.”

A couple of days later, everyone just sort of moved on. The phone calls stopped and the only time my name was mentioned was when people talked about who my replacement would be. And I’m thinking, What the fuck? That was quick …

I knew the tremendous high I got from the press conference would likely be followed by a massive letdown — that’s only natural — but I thought I was impervious to it. I was wrong. I didn’t realize how much I would miss the high of being in the spotlight and getting all that attention.

Another thing you miss after you leave the game is the structure.

Imagine driving through a long, narrow tunnel. The road is laid out for you and the walls keep you from straying off course. The path is clear.

That’s what your football career is like. Your goals and objectives are clearly defined, and so is the path to reaching them, and every decision you make in your life is made within the parameters of that tunnel with the ultimate goal of being the best football player you can be.

Now imagine retirement as a giant, open field at the end of that tunnel. No more walls or road to guide you. No parameters. No rules. There are unlimited decisions and directions and limitless possibilities, but you don’t know the way. You don’t even know the destination.

You’re on your own.

Hardwick Purpose Pull

For 11 years, my life operated on the football clock. I had weekly meetings and weekly goals, and every decision I made in my life — what to eat, when to sleep — was based on football. Suddenly, I didn’t have any direction when I woke up. I didn’t have that purpose. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing.

In theory, freedom sounds great. We all want more freedom. But when I retired and I had all the freedom in the world, the only thing I craved was that structure. It was all I knew.

Adjusting to the lack of structure and schedule is one of the biggest challenges of retirement because the real world moves much slower than the football world. Football is week-to-week, and everyone in the real world is working on the fiscal year. You have to slow yourself down because it’s not a sprint. You can’t attack every day like you do in football. You have to pace yourself and find balance. That’s a new concept for me.

The third main thing you miss when you leave football is one of the toughest to find outside the game: the camaraderie.

There’s nothing tighter than an NFL locker room. There’s a lot of laughter and pranking and general craziness, but there’s also a support system built in that wills you to do things you otherwise couldn’t do. It builds you up into this superhuman version of yourself. There’s a strong bond created by working together and pushing each other — both physically and mentally — for a common goal. After you leave the game, you have to find a way to motivate yourself each day, because you don’t have that support system and that competition to drive you.

Perhaps the thing I miss most about being a part of a team is leading men. Over the years, I had taken up a pretty serious leadership role. That’s one of the biggest voids I have still yet to fill — that leadership aspect that I so badly crave.

Hardwick Force Pull

Ultimately, retirement is a soul-searching journey. It’s trying to re-discover yourself, because for your entire life, you’ve been an athlete. Now, you’re no longer taking the field with thousands of fans cheering you and your teammates on. You’re not that guy anymore, and it’s a hollow feeling.

You see it in the offseason all the time: Guys go out and spend all their money or get into trouble because they’re looking for something to do to get that fix of adrenaline they usually get from football.

Now imagine that same adrenaline craving and being forced to cope with it not just for the offseason, but for the rest of your life. That’s retirement.

I never really talked to retired players about what the transition was like. I always thought I’d figure it out when I got there, and to a certain degree, I have. I’ve already started redefining myself. I showed up to my retirement press conference 85 pounds lighter than my playing days. I was recently on the radio five times a week, and I had a great time, but I rushed into working right after I retired, so now I’m taking a step back to decompress and have a little time to myself and with my family. As important as it is to stay busy in retirement, it’s just as important to take a breath and enjoy life.

There are still highs and lows, and I still get stuck in little ruts every now and then while I try to find what else I’m really passionate about. It’s hard sometimes to know myself without the parameters of football as the guiding force.

But if there’s one thing I did learn in the NFL, it’s to never back down from a challenge. And as challenging as it’s been and will be to redefine myself after football, I’m up for the task.

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