Jeff Pearlman

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Na’il Diggs

#258
He spent 12 years as an NFL linebacker, but retired to a looooong nap and an uncertain future. How one of the most inspirational athletes you'll ever know regained hold of his life. POSTED May 17, 2016

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I know many professional athletes, and a solid 78.7 percent are unable to break from the death grip of cliche.

You ask a question, they reply in the mindless language of men and women taught to speak while saying nothing of consequence. They’re happy to be here. They just wanna help. They’re blessed by the lord above. Blah, blah, blah.

Na’il Diggs, the former standout NFL linebacker and my fellow Southern California resident, is anything but your common jock. First, he’s insightful. Second, he’s honest. Third, he goes deep. Like, really deep. About life and death, highs and lows, tackling quarterbacks and tackling depression. I first spoke with Na’il about a year ago, while reporting my upcoming Brett Favre biography, and he was terrific. Then, a few months back, he kindly attended my journalism class at Chapman University. Another terrific experience.

Na’il lives in San Diego, where he coaches youth football, co-hosts the Chargers’ NBC Football Night telecast and blogs (beautifully) here. One can follow Na’il on Twitter and not go wrong. He’s a true gem. This week Na’il explains the rockiness of life after the NFL, when one gazes into the mirror and thinks, “What now?” He also tells you what it feels like to absorb the worst blow, why NFL players are slabs of meat and how my teeth are destined to rot.

Na’il Diggs was No. 59 on the Green Bay Packers.

He’s No. 1 (well, No. 258) with the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Na’il, much has been written and discussed through the recent years of the impact head injuries are having on retired NFL players. It’s certainly a huge issue, but here’s what I want to request: Can you explain the social difficulties athletes face when they retire? The adjustment to the “real world”? No more Superman cape, no more screaming fans. Because it strikes me as potentially brutal—and somewhat overlooked.

NA’IL DIGGS: It’s interesting you use the Superman analogy. Do you know Superman’s greatest strength? Its not his laser beaming eyes or his superhuman strength. It’s his alter ego, Clark Kent. His disguise is his greatest asset because he can be perceived as someone who is “normal” in the world.  Unlike Clark Kent, pro athletes do not have the luxury of being someone else after we remove our proverbial capes. We don’t have a normal job that we can walk right into and be someone other than who we were perceived as. As a professional athlete, transitioning from his or her professional career is sometimes the most difficult opponent we’ve ever had to face.

In my 12 NFL seasons as linebacker, I’ve had to tackle running backs like Brandon Jacobs, Jerome Bettis and Adrian Peterson. But I had the time to prepare and practice for those challenges. None of them prepared me for the challenge of transitioning from my NFL career.

In addition to the peaks and valleys of reinventing oneself, like a lot of former NFL players, I suffer from memory and speech impairments from playing linebacker in the NFL for 12 seasons. After being retired for nearly five years, transitioning is still an ongoing process and struggle for me. Sometimes I feel like my mind is so scrambled that even if I were doing something I loved, I’m not sure I could enjoy it. Take my NFL career for instance. Toward the end, I did not enjoying playing the game any more. The fan interaction, the attention and playing against my peers was great all the way through to my last game against the Oakland Raiders on January 2, 2012, but keeping my body and mind together became too cumbersome and an overwhelming struggle. Recently, I remember watching the movie “Concussion” and feeling so sad by the events that happened to my NFL brothers. I felt a sense of despair because even as graphic as the movie was, I’m sure its impossible to relay what really occurred in those men’s life. The mental conditions that former and current players are experiencing are very real.

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J.P.: What does it feel like to be absolutely laid out? Like, to take a blow like 99.9 percent of people reading this will never take? And do you recall the worst hit of your career? What/when was it?

N.D.: There’s a laundry list of hits that I can vividly recall, but I definitely have one at the top of that list. The year was 2009, I was playing for the Carolina Panthers and we were playing the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. I was on punt team and we were punting the ball to the Falcons. The ball was snapped, the Falcons came with an all-out rush and blocked the punt from a few gaps away. When I heard the double thud of the punter’s foot hit the ball and then the ball hitting the defender’s hand, I immediately looked up to locate the ball. As I did, I saw a Falcons defender catching the ball 10 years in front of me so I then had to become the tackler. As I went in for the tackle, I wrapped my arms around the ball carrier and began to drag him down, but right then I felt this excruciating pain on the left side of my ribs. I winced as I brought the ball carrier down. I could not breathe, I could not move and it felt like I was hit by an f-ing car. The crowd noise dissipated and I rolled off the player onto my back and laid still on the ground, grabbing my left side. After the trainers came to help me off the field to the onsite X-ray lab. I learned I had three fractured ribs and fluid was building up in my lungs. We lost that game. After watching the game film I saw that I was speared with my own teammate’s helmet. He was intending to help with the tackle but ducked his head and hit me instead. We call that “friendly fire” and it hurt like hell.

J.P.: I know a lot of  professional athletes who, at some point, come to the realization that, to the organizations, they’re mere pieces of meat. But I wonder: A. Is this actually true, from your experiences? B. If so, when does one realize such? C. How does the knowledge impact one’s loyalty to a franchise and/or owner?

N.D.: First, to answer Part A, in my experience, the feeling of cattle herding lessened after the NFL Scouting Combine. But the reality that I was expendable grew exponentially. We are commodities. Although some organizations treated me better than others—I was still just cattle. If you examine what we do, strip away the fancy uniforms, the cool shoes and the spectacle of television, football starts to resemble gladiators in Ancient Rome.

Second, Part B: I realized I was just a number at the NFL Combine. The NFL Combine is a close No. 2 behind training camp in my personal battle for my least-favorite times in the NFL. I completely and totally despise the Combine! I have never felt so demeaned in my life. It felt as though I was an 18th-century slave. No chains and whips, but very demeaning nonetheless. I remember being given a number and carted through a series of meetings, tests, interviews and physicals. Not the turn-your-head-and-cough physical, but a poking-tugging-prodding-of-every-single-joint physical. The medical staffs of all 32 teams get to examine you … and don’t let them find something! You’ll be there all day and night doing multiple tests until they’re done. The stringent procedures mimics a meat company’s process (minus the steel rod being shot into our skulls) in many ways. On top of all that shit, we have to navigate back to our hotel rooms through a lobby full of media and financial advisors salivating for a chance to help “advise” us with our money we haven’t earned yet.

Finally, Part C of your question: The impact becomes very apparent at a certain age. There’s a point in a player’s career when the lights turn on and you see behind the glitz and glamour of all the accolades and fame that have distracted you before. Your attention begins to focus. The static disappears and you realize what this game and these wealthy franchises are made of. It becomes obvious that it’s made of the blood, sweat and tears of the men who wore the same jerseys and lockers before us. That’s the point when I learned that I need to get what I can and get the hell out as healthy as possible. Playing for Carolina was the shot across the bow for me. The game just felt different after I left Green Bay. That’s when I started awakening from the dream.

J.P.: You have one of the most astonishing—and heartbreaking—backstories of any person I’ve ever known. You were born and raised in Glendale, Arizona, but moved to South Central LA when at age 14, your mother died. You were rescued, if that’s the right word, by an older sister, Roslyn, who took you in. Na’il—I know I’m butchering this story. Can you please tell what happened to you as a boy?

N.D.: I was raised in a white, middle-class city called Glendale, Arizona, which is a suburb of Phoenix. It currently houses the Arizona Cardinals’ stadium. When I was living in Glendale, there was nothing but desert where that stadium sits now. When I was 14-years old my mother suddenly passed away from a brain aneurysm and was instantly brain dead. I was in Los Angeles visiting my sister, Roslyn, for the summer. I would go there to give my mom a little reprieve for a month or two during the summer, plus it was too damn hot in Phoenix. I vividly remember hearing my sister get the early morning phone call. I was sleeping on a pullout sofa right by the kitchen in the living room. I had an eerie feeling in my gut. I remember having this overwhelming feeling of fear and helplessness as I heard my sister begin to weep and cry, “Nooo.” There aren’t too many things in this world that could make my sister react that way.

Soon after the funeral, I permanently moved with my sister and her two daughters, along with her husband and his two kids, to South Central Los Angeles. Life completely flipped upside down. I went from white suburbs to South Central LA; from all white friends to all black friends; from being the lone child to one of four. With the school year quickly approaching, my sister enrolled me in the nearest school, Dorsey High School. At this time, I was disinterested in sports and was in a bit of a fog—I was depressed. She encouraged me to play football again because she realized I needed some sort of an emotional outlet. Plus, college was expensive and she wasn’t going to be able to all of a sudden save to afford four years of college in three years. That didn’t leave her with much time with me, so she badgered me about my grades and persisted to chaperone me as much as she could to make sure I wasn’t derailed from the goal. She made sure I would come home after my high school job at Mel’s Fish Market instead of going to hang out with friends. I still hung out a little, though. I didn’t much care at the time but Dorsey was—and still is—one the best high schools in Los Angeles for producing NFL players. I commend her because somehow in a few months’ time, she put a 14-year-old boy, who just lost his mother, in the right positions to sprout his wings and fly. And so that’s exactly what I did.

After an eventful journey through high school and somehow evading the allure of the neighborhood (being shot, gangs and drugs), I earned a full scholarship to pretty much any college in America. I chose The Ohio State University and never looked back. For a more on this story, you can read a post on my blog that I titled, “The Rose Grew From Concrete.”

Pursing Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez.

Pursing Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez.

J.P.: What was your mother like? Who was she?

N.D.: My mother was strict but loving. What I remember most is that she always had me playing a sport. Whether it was track and field, football or baseball, I never had much time to goof around. But I always seemed to find a little trouble to get into from time to time. She was divorced from my father when I was too young to remember and raised me the best she knew how. She was considered “older” when she gave birth to me at the age of 37. I was the last of four, the youngest by 14 years, so I was the only one in the house growing up. I had plenty of time to get into a little mischief because she worked nights as a live-in nurse for elderly persons. Although, I was the last to be in the house, I didn’t get as much attention as a single child normally would. She worked her tail off to keep the lights on, food on the table and a roof over our heads. I didn’t get all the new style clothes and shoes my friends had, but that was the way it was. That’s all I knew. Sometimes we would have to go to the county line to get some block cheese, powdered milk and bread because she didn’t have enough to get groceries. We moved a lot and I changed schools quite a bit as well. Because she worked nights, I would come home from school and I was responsible for doing my homework, completing chores and making myself dinner. I wouldn’t always complete those tasks and when I didn’t, I got an early wake up call. She would make me get up, when she got home from work, to complete my chores that I neglected, such as washing the dishes or taking out the trash. Once, I remember damn near falling asleep at the sink washing dishes in the dark hours of the morning. Whether she knew it or not, she taught me the daunting value of responsibility. In a way she still lives through me. To this day, I am on top of my chores and I can’t stand a messy room or house. Yes!! My kitchen sink is clean and free of dishes every night before I go to bed. From her few-and-carefully-selected friends to her tutelage of discipline, what she instilled in me still has everlasting impact in my life.

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J.P.: A couple of weeks ago Ryan Grant Skyped with my Chapman University class, and he talked about life at Notre Dame, and how at the same time he was playing big-time college football at a storied university, he didn’t have enough money to eat. He considers the whole thing a messed-up system; yes, athletes get scholarships and perks, but they can’t have jobs, can’t sell autographs, give away their likeness and name usage for life. His conclusion: Athletes absolutely need to be paid. What about you? How do you feel about it? Is the NCAA duping athletes? Or can the argument be made that, hey, you’re getting scholarships and amazing opportunities?

N.D.: When I hear the arguments from the college’s administration and faculty members, who make up the NCAA committee, it’s apparent that they feel as though the educational value of the full-ride scholarship they are giving the student-athlete is significant compensation. Which is true—these universities are shelling out a substantial amount of ‘virtual’ money for their scholarship student-athletes to attend their respective universities. Just ask the parents of a non-scholarship student and they’ll confirm that college tuition takes years of saving and enormous amounts of student loans to afford; this country’s climbing student loan debt serves as proof.

But these schools are profiting far more than that scholarship is worth monetarily—through TV deals, bowl game sponsorships, ticket sales, concessions and jersey sales. It’s easy to lose focus on the business of college sports because we enjoy watching these innocent young athletes compete. It’s such a staple in the American way of life that we forget why these collegiate sports even exist. These schools carry these sports programs to make money. There’s no mistake about it—for most universities, the major sports like football, basketball and baseball generate the revenue necessary to build new campus facilities, pay coaches salaries and bonuses and pay for the multi-million dollar stadium expansion projects these schools continually fund to attract more and better athletes that will bring in more and more revenues. This business model sounds a lot like one of a pro sports franchise.

There is a more prevalent problem that underlies not allowing full-ride athletes compensation. By not paying these scholarship athletes to work, you are greatly increasing their susceptibility to having financial mismanagement issues in the future. They haven’t worked so they don’t have as much exposure to earn a check, save and allocate for bills, etc. The best chance for these student-athletes to learn is from their parents, who, unfortunately, often were also not taught these basic principles. Whether it’s a lacrosse player who is going to work at a tech company or an NFL player being drafted. These post-college athletes will be equally faced with the same daunting, sometimes financially fatal, task of learning the importance of basic financial management. The difference in magnitude is the lacrosse player will be making what 99 percent of the world earns. Meanwhile, the NFLer is possibly making hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. Asking a 22-year-old to manage that drastic change in the quality of life can be overwhelming. I know it was for me. The tools and experience they failed to learn are a result of ignorance by the institutions coupled with a failed capitalistic business model we call college education.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your NFL career? Lowest?

N.D.: My greatest moment was getting drafted into the NFL. It was a longtime dream come true. I was so naive and terrified but excited at the same time. More than getting drafted, the lessons I learned during that draft process and during my career were profound. I learned about fife, what trust really means, how to persevere through failure and how to handle success. Preparing weekly to play at that level took a tremendous amount of willpower and belief in myself. Learning what the mind and body are capable of was an exquisite realization to someone who thought himself to be indestructible. It’s one thing to be told that you can play in the pros, but it’s an entirely different animal doing it. I am extremely proud of my accomplishments and what I was able to achieve.

My lowest point is experiencing the post-career symptoms I feel on a daily basis. Every day I am hunted by the paradox of wishing I was not so reckless and careless with my body, but then again that is what made me valuable in such a physically brutalizing, gladiator sport. I suffer from memory and speech impairments from playing linebacker in the NFL for 12 seasons. It is not apparent in my everyday interactions with people but I definitely feel things are a little off at times. After being retired for nearly five years, transitioning is still an ongoing process and struggle for me. Sometimes I feel like my mind is so scrambled that even if I were doing something I loved, I’m not sure I could enjoy it. Take my NFL career for instance. Toward the end, I did not enjoying playing the game anymore. The fan interaction, the attention and playing against my peers was great all the way through to my last game against the Oakland Raiders on January 2, 2012, but keeping my body and mind together became too cumbersome and an overwhelming struggle. Recently, I remember watching the movie “Concussion” and feeling so sad by the events that happened to my NFL brothers. I felt a sense of despair because even as graphic as the movie was, I’m sure it’s impossible to relay what really occurred in the lives of those men . The mental conditions that former and current players are experiencing are very real.

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J.P.: As you know, I’m working on a Brett Favre biography. And one thing that stands out is, especially late in his career, Favre was definitely treated differently than other players. Separate changing area, separate parking area, better food, etc. And we, in the media, jump all over this stuff. My question to you: Does it matter in the locker room? Does that sort of thing cause dissension, or do few care?

N.D.: When I was with Brett at the Packers, I never really cared that he had his own accommodations. I didn’t care about why he wouldn’t shower with everyone else. It never really bother me. I suppose it depends on who you ask, though. I recognize that it did bother some of the other teammates but what could you say—that was Brett Favre. I justified his private parking and security detail to just being “big time.” I feel like Michael Jordan and other sports icons had special privileges, too. It makes sense that when he went to other teams, where he had no legacy or history, they regarded his behavior as a show of arrogance and isolation.

J.P.: Along those lines, after the whole Vikings-Saints Bountygate game, much was made of the evilness of paying players, trying to injure opponents, etc. But it seems like the general reaction—like, below the surface—was a big “meh.” Like, “Meh, this sort of thing happens ALL around the NFL.” Na’il, from your experiences—true? False? And did you ever take money or a prize for hurting someone?

N.D.: Yes, it’s true. There were bounties in the NFL. But it depended on which team I was playing for. Some defensive coordinators did it and some did not. Most of the time it was up to the veteran players to get it organized. It didn’t always involve money either. Sometimes it was just a medal or a championship boxing title belt or boxing glove for the hardest hit in the game. The winners on defense ranged from sack leaders, quarterback hits, caused fumbles, interceptions, etc. The offense had rewards as well for knockdown blocks or “pancakes.” I never heard of or took part in any sort if bounty that had to do with taking a guy out of the game or purposefully injuring an opponent. I’m not too sure if guys I played with would go so far as to take a guy out, but I’m sure there are stories out there of that happening.

J.P.: I live in a place where parents are nutso over sports. Many want their kids to become pro athletes, so they sign them up for multiple leagues, hire private coaches, force them to choose one when they’re, oh, 8 or 9. Do you think there’s some validity to this? Like, is it wise? And do you think those years in pro sports is worth the struggle?

N.D.: I personally have a problem with parents that who through their kids. I imagine that it is hard on the kid to endure when he can’t be who or what he/she wants to be. It’s sad because the parents identify with a version of themselves in their children and get so psychologically fixated with nostalgia that they really think they are their kids in a sick, funny kind of way. The parents try so hard to make up for some lack in their lives.

I’ve come to the conclusion that playing pro sports is a matter of timing, luck and God-given ability. Most of the time, the best player doesn’t make it for a lack of one of those three things. I played with guys who had far greater talent than I had, and for whatever reason, they didn’t reach it to college, much less the pros. When I was young, I wasn’t trying to go play in the NFL, I was just trying to go out and kick ass, have fun and be great at football.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH NA’IL DIGGS:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Duce Staley, Nathan’s French fries, gorgonzola turkey sliders, Barry Manilow, the iPad, hamsters, Dexys Midnight Runners, Wrigley Field, Stairway to Heaven, REO Speedwagon, denim, Chris Farley: Duce Staley, Nathan’s French Fries, iPad, Turkey Sliders, Wrigley Field, Chris Farley, Stairway to Heaven, Barry Manilow, Denim, Hamsters, REO Speedwagon, Dexys Midnight Runners

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No, I have my pilot’s license and have never felt a real threat of death. I am super comfortable with flying and being in the air. Well, maybe the time I flew in the backseat of an F-18 Hornet. I never knew a plane could do that. I blacked out six times!

• In 18 words, make a case for Tim Tebow’s Hall of Fame candidacy: Uhhh … ummmm … people like him?? [shoulders shrug with fake smiley face]

• Is twirling a sport?: Sure. As long as it’s with flaming objects in the dark or with nunchucks.

Celine Dion calls and offers you $3 million to be her Las Vegas personal trainer for the next two years. She demands loyalty, decency and that every single workout includes you repeating the mantra, “Celine means love … Celine means love.” You in?: Hell Yeah!! I’ll have her ripped up.

• Should marijuana be legalized?: Yes, I think it could really help people with severe pain and certain mood disorders.

• Five reasons one should make San Diego his/her next vacation destination?: 1. It is truly America’s Finest City; 2. San Diego Zoo; 3 Legoland; 4. The consistently beautiful weather; 5. Gaslamp District

• The greatest meal you ever had was where?: Although I don’t eat beef anymore—a medium-well filet mignon with a side of lobster mashed potatoes from Mastro’s Steakhose in Scottsdale, Arizona is by far the absolute best meal I have ever had. If I was headed to the electric chair tomorrow, that would be my last meal.

• I love soda. Love, love, love soda. Am I damned to rotting teeth and hell?: Definitely the former.

• We can get you your own ESPN show right now, but you have to sit across a table screaming at people for an hour. You in?: No. That just isn’t my personality and frankly drives me crazy! Listening to shows like that raises my blood pressure and gives me road rage.

  • Gluten Dude

    Great Quaz Jeff.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life