The NFL Draft kicks off in two days, which means—right about now—a couple of hundred or so college football players are dreaming of “making it.” I intentionally placed those two words in quotations, because “making it” doesn’t usually mean making it. “Making it” equals a fantasy life of snazzy cars, long-legged hotties, Nike endorsement deals, free kicks, a mansion, millions of screaming fans, etc. And, indeed, someone from this draft will “make it.” Maybe, just maybe, three or four or five guys will. And that’ll be about it.
For the rest, life in professional football becomes largely about survival; about lasting as long as possible so that money can be saved and the real world can be postponed as long as possible. When the hype of Draft Thursday dies down, and the headlines yellow and Chris Berman’s voice fades away, football is a brutal (though financially lucrative) business. Very few survive.
One person who knows this well is Pierre Walters, Quaz No. 153 and a linebacker with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2009-2011. An undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois, Pierre busted his ass to make the roster, then stick longer than most. Like all NFL players, he knows the ups and downs of the pro existence. Like all NFL players, the end was far from pretty.
Pierre has become one of my absolute favorite people, and he brings forth one helluva interview.
Pierre Walters, cat lover, welcome to the land of Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Pierre, I’m gonna start with a question that I’ve heard asked, but never answered especially well. What does it feel like to absorb a really powerful hit at the NFL level? I beg of you, don’t just tell me, “Well, it hurts.” Like, what does it feel like? Can you brace for it? How long does the pain last? And what’s the worst hit you ever took?
PIERRE WALTERS: Is the intensity the highest at the NFL level? Yes. Do the hits hurt more than the ones I’ve given and taken in college? Not necessarily. There are a few that stick in my mind at the NFL level, but I’ll only tell you about one. It happened during the “inside run” portion of practice in 2009. Inside run is when the offense calls only run plays against the defense so both sides can learn how to execute their blocks and fits. I was playing linebacker on the left side of the defense when the offense ran some sort of split zone play. In that particular play, the fullback was responsible for blocking the last man on the line of scrimmage. In most cases against a 3-4 defense, that man will be the outside linebacker. This was about the 20th time we practiced against split zone that day and we were having a good physical battle with the fullbacks.
Anyway, I was on the left side of the defense when the center snapped the ball. As the offensive tackle blocked down (away from me), I knew the back was coming to block me. We crashed into each other head-first and carried on with the play. A micro-second after we hit, I saw the color purple—and I ain’t talkin’ Whoopi and Oprah. I mean, literally, the top-left of my vision turned purple with a yellow trim. It was wild. I didn’t get a headache or feel any pain. I shook it off and after about four seconds the sky turned that beautiful blue again. We spoke during the short intermission after the next play to reflect on the hit, laughed a bit and agreed we were going too hard on one another. He was dazed pretty good, too. We always practiced hard, but we didn’t have to kill each other every play. So we made a pact to make it look good and save it for the game.
The pain—if there is any—doesn’t last long. Adrenaline is an amazing chemical. Most of the time the real battle with pain takes place off the field when you have to do “normal” activities. That’s when you truly feel all the hits and tears. Pain is always present in some way, so you just have to do your best to cope.
J.P.: You played for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2009-2011. Which means, in the eyes of many, you lived the dream. I’m interested—is the NFL life a dream? Does it live up to expectations? Is it genuinely fun? Or does pressure make fun not fully possible?
P.W.: It was a dream in more ways than I could probably explain. When I signed my contract on April 26, 2009, the very first thing that went through my mind was appreciation. I now have the chance to fulfill my farfetched goal of playing in the NFL, and of course to play the game a while longer. Immediately after that thought, I looked down at the numbers next to my name and couldn’t help but smile. “Someone pinch me.“ Obviously this meant, if I made the team, I’d be able to provide a bit of financial comfort for myself and my family. That was a main driving force behind my ambition. As the news spread, the reality of it all began to hit and it got more exciting. I got a flood of calls and messages with everyone wishing me the best and giving me their advice. That was the most fun part of my “dream“ … the “foot in the door” phase. Once I reported to rookie mini-camp, the fun quickly turned into business. All the hype and congratulating was cool, but I had to make it short lived and collect my emotions so I could focus on making the team. That’s when I first felt the stress.
People underestimate the pressure ballplayers tolerate. Let’s say your passion is loading trucks. You spent eight-to-10 years as a truck-loading apprentice before you finally reach the level when you can interview for that big-money truck-loading job. The moment is here … you got the interview! You look online and on television and your name, job title and potential salary are posted for the world to view. Everyone across the nation is locked in to see if you’re the next best truck loader to come to their city. Soon after, you’re getting messages left and right and people come out the woodwork saying they’re going to watch your loading career unfold. Now there are blogs, forums, truck fans and analysts scrutinizing your loading abilities from head to toe—most of whom don’t even know the first steps in picking up a damn box.
Throw in the anxiety you’ve created for yourself years ago to make it to the big loading show, then add on the large money that will serve as a saving grace for you and your family—and the pressure is on. Oh, and people are hitting you with baseball bats all day while you’re working!
The point is at that top level, there’s little time for fun because it’s taken so seriously by everyone—from the athletes to the fans. There is just too much on the line to relax, no matter how much you’re getting paid. Money definitely helps in life, but in no way does it completely eliminate stress. It’ll just add to the stress because now you have to expend that much more mental energy into keeping up with it and fending off vultures who may want to taste some of it.
I fell deeper into the “dream” when the checks started coming in. Here I am. Regular me, making this money and garnishing this attention. All of a sudden you’re standing out and people want to be around you. You, your family and your close friends know you’re just you. But now you’ve earned a tag—“NFL player.” I began to see how extremely enthralled society can be when it comes to sports and pro players. We’d be at a bar or store and everyone who noticed you is surprised you’re there, and they drop everything to get a picture or whatever. I mean, I get it. I’ve always loved interacting with fans. It’s just crazy to be in that position knowing good and well you’re a normal person like them, and you’re just “loading trucks” like you have been since you were 13. Yet here they are, treating you like you‘re a king. I often wondered how the superstars of the league faired mentally with all the attention. Compared to how I got it I know they get it 100 times more, and I’m sure it can’t be easy. It seems cool on paper, but the attention gets menacing in sports. If you’re not careful you can get lost in it. It’s a dream because you become larger than life.
J.P.: What was your life path? I know you’re from Forest Park, Illinois; know you attended Eastern Illinois University. But how did you get into football? What made you start playing? When did you know you were better than merely OK?
P.W.: I first started playing football my freshman year in high school, but before high school my favorite sport was basketball. In this area, most kids grow up with a basketball in their hands rather than a football. My friends and I would play football and a form of baseball we called “Piggy” in the street or at the park, but basketball was every day—and with Michael Jordan and the ’90s Chicago Bulls’ influence, I was just one more of the millions of kids who wanted to be like Mike. For as long as I remember, I’d always been a high-energy little kid. I couldn‘t sit still at all. From ages 4 to about 7 my dad—a Vietnam War Vet—would challenge my brother and I to do push-ups and have playful wrestling and boxing matches in the living room. I loved every minute of it.
When the hoop dreams began to fade around eighth grade, that gritty fascination started to resurface and my curiosity in football began to peak. During an open house at St. Joseph High School my mom and I came across a booth for the school’s football team, and the varsity coach suggested I play. I agreed. My friend Chamario and I showed up for the first intro practice in June and my passion took shape that day. I became obsessed with the game. I was spellbound by the tough, militant environment. The field and the weight room became my refuge and that’s when I knew that I would be better than OK. Nothing was going to separate me from this game/feeling and I was ready to do whatever it took to keep it in my life. Plus, I knew that one day I would be built like my new-found heroes who were on my TV every Sunday and I wouldn’t be so damn lanky anymore. Finally, my body would grow and catch up with my head! It was a win-win!
J.P.: Knowing all we now know, do you let your kid play youth football? Why or why not?
P.W.: That’s a really tough question. Of course the man, and God-willing, future proud father in me says, “Hell yeah!” I couldn’t imagine too many other things in life more special than watching a little version of yourself playing a sport you excelled in. I’ve experienced the many perks the sport has to offer and it served as a necessary outlet for me when I was young.
However, my heart and the humanitarian in me says “Hell no!” The harsh fact is football destroys your body and in many cases your mind. Point-blank, period. Some people have the ability to acknowledge that, but unless they’ve played up to at least the college level or know a college/pro player in an intimate way, they can’t even begin to fathom the extent in which it tears you up. Do all sports take a toll on the athlete in some way? Absolutely. But not like football. It would be hard giving my son up to the game at that age knowing that if he gets good enough and loves it enough, he’ll be playing for a long time. The physical toll is what I cringe at when I think about this question, but I cringe just as hard when I think about the way the populace will persecute him once his playing days are over and God forbid he needs health assistance.
In my mind, football and junk food are comparable. Many Americans are addicted to and love fast food, sugar and fried treats. They are the most “fun” foods to eat and you can’t tell most people any different if you tried to get them to cut back on the over-consumption, even though there is 100-percent factual evidence all that crap significantly shortens your lifespan. Americans were ignorant to the consequences of bad food until all the health food movements started popping up. As a result, stats show that we are finally getting healthier as a whole.
Now we have football. I don’t have to explain how much Americans love football. And they have every right to love it. What’s not to love about it? You’ve got super-sized, larger than life warriors blasting each other, catching touchdown passes, signing autographs and kissing babies! It’s a very exciting and admirable game. But, like our cherished junk food, most romanticize the sport to the point where they are completely unable to recognize the mutilation that’s happening to a man, and in turn, eliminating their ability to show empathy toward the player. The allure society has for money and fame has forced people to humanely detach themselves from ballplayers. What’s the saying about junk food? “How can something that tastes so good be so bad?” I’ve heard many people say, “How can a player claim his life is so bad at times, when it seems so good (money, fame)?” and “They make all that money so why are they fighting for extra benefits/compensation?” and “They should just stop complaining and play.” People who say these things are the ones who think players shouldn’t have a voice when the issues of how to properly treat a human being arise. Football is plagued with these minds.
Not one person on this earth would refute compensating an injured construction worker, EMT or electrician who bust their ass everyday to make a living. Those are careers where the likelihood of injury is high, and the person knows it. No matter the monetary discrepancy between those professions, each would and should be compensated swiftly if hurt on the job. So, what makes a pro football career any different? Nothing. They know the risk for injury is high. They go to work. They work. They constantly get hurt … they continue to work. When it’s over, they hurt. They’re damaged. Many seek compensation for their disfigured bodies, and most don’t receive it. I don’t think anyone would want to think about their boy going through that. It‘s just different because, unlike junk food, football isn’t bad for the consumer or fan …. it’s bad for the employee. The game is too fun to watch to begin thinking about the damage being done to someone’s brother, nephew, son, father or best friend. It’s like being able to eat all the bad food you want for as long as you live, but someone else is going to get fat and die early and you don’t give a rat’s rump. The least you could do is lobby for their liposuction once they’re done sacrificing. I have a hard time dealing with these realities.
Should we ban all junk food and force everyone to eat healthy all the time? No. All we can do/have been doing is educate people of the dangers and teach “balance.” Given all the disturbing evidence, should we ban football and force young boys to do less threatening sports? No. The game is an outlet and meal ticket for millions of boys in America. Like McDonalds, football isn’t going away, nor should it. All we can/should do is continue to monitor the practices/rules, thoroughly educate the young’ns of the long-term dangers, then give them a chance to weigh the elements and decide.
So, if my son wanted to play youth football, would I let him? No. Not until high school. If he wants to follow in dad’s footsteps, I’ll explain to him why I think he’s too young to start ramming his head into people, but I’ll be more than willing to coach him up and train him until he’s a freshman in high school. By that time, I feel he will be more physically prepared, have learned enough about the long-term dangers, and old enough to make his decision. From that point, I’ll just have to be his support and pray for his safety like my parents did for me. Go be a warrior, son—get fat.
J.P.: I always hear NFL officials talk safety, safety, safety and protection, protection, protection. But, having played in the league, do you feel like teams are genuinely interested in a player’s well-being? Do they want to know if you’re hurt? Or do they prefer one shuts up and plays?
P.W.: f you are talented enough to make it to the league you learned a long time ago to play through pain. That’s not something that has to be said much around the league because everyone at that level is tough and performs hurt. But, it was always implied to young players when I first got to KC. I can’t speak for all, but I developed that mindset in high school. Some may have been conditioned before high school or after. Mine started as soon as I fell in love with the game. In my experience, I felt the coaches, for the most part, were genuinely concerned with a player’s well-being. They’re the ones who are around us the most and in large instances they were players themselves, so they understand the mindset. They’re in a weird limbo. They know we’re tough men and they allow us to be tough and play, but they also want to make sure they protect us from ourselves—especially when you’re talking head injuries. That’s the vibe I got from my coach. Some apply more pressure than others.
The real pressure comes from the “higher-ups.” The businessmen who control the team are the ones who are disconnected in that regard because you are simply an investment. Also, the majority hadn’t played a high level of football and are making too much money and have too little time to be concerned with a player plagued with an injury. In any case, you’ll feel the heat. From a bad ankle to vertigo and everything in between, you know you’re always under a microscope and any chink in your game will be magnified. “Can’t make the club if you’re in the tub.”
J.P.: You were undrafted, and somehow made it. How big a stigma is that to overcome? I’ve always heard teams feel much more devoted to draft picks, and will do everything they can to make sure they succeed before turning to free agents. True? Not true?
P.W.: The highest hurdle to overcome is the “small-school” label. A lot of good smaller-school players don’t have enough buzz created around them so it’s harder for them to get the opportunities to prove themselves against higher competition.
I was fortunate enough to get invited to play in the Texas vs. Nation All-Star game in ‘09 after my senior year at Eastern Illinois. Practicing for and playing in that game gave me the chance to showcase my skills to the scouts against more “elite” competition and I performed well. The secret to overcoming any stigma is not buying into it. If you know you’ve got game and you belong it doesn’t matter how someone labels you. Just show up and take heads off. The “free-agent” label is a much smaller hurdle and doesn’t carry as much weight. If you’re a free agent, then that means you’ve already got your foot in the door. That’s all you can ask for in life—an opportunity. No doubt the odds are still against you because the fact is, the team is more devoted to the draft picks because they’ve invested more money/years into them and those are the guys the fans are most eager to see play. If you think about the odds too much, you’ll probably fail. Acknowledge what you’re up against, devise a plan to beat the odds, then carry it out with everything you have and let the cards fall. Simple and effective strategy.
J.P.: I’ve known many retired athletes, and they seem to really struggle with life after pro sports. You were a member of the Chicago Rush of the Arena League in 2012, but haven’t played since. You’re only 28—how has to real-world adjustment been for you? Do you feel restless? Wayward? Do you watch the NFL on TV and think, “Man, I wanna go back”?
P.W.: When the truth sets in that football is a thing of the past, for many players (especially young ones on the brink of their pro careers), their world feels gone. It’s easy for people to say, “It’s just a game, get over it.” Those are the people who haven’t found or aren’t living their passion in life … they are incapable of understanding. They need to understand it isn’t that simple. One of the definitions of “passion” is “the intense feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something.” To put in all the work it takes to become, say, a doctor, medicine and saving lives have to be your passions. The same goes for court judges who are passionate about the law, famous musicians and their deep passion for music and so on. Unless people with these occupations had their license revoked for malpractice or have developed a crippling handicap, they will always be free to live out their respective passions in some way—old or young.
A “failed” young NFL career is different because it takes that same amount of intense enthusiasm to attain your exclusive goal, but it‘s certain one probably won’t thrive once he’s “made it,” and once you’ve had a taste of that level, it’s hard to continue your passion at the lower levels because the pay-to-physical-damage ratio isn’t worth it. The drop-off to other levels in football suck, so many (who realize) are forced to stop playing cold turkey. Do all musicians and medical students make it to world-class status? No. But, there are hospitals and clinics that pay very well for a med student to apply and be content. The drop-off is still sweet. Musicians will always be able to perform or express themselves through their instruments. Once you’re done in the league you’ll be damned if you go bust your body up more for free (semi-pro) or peanuts (AFL/CFL). A player has used the game for an outlet and expression (because that’s how it all starts) his whole life. Abruptly remove that and a storm is likely to brew.
A lot of crazy things were happening all at once toward the end of my football career. When you read down a couple questions you’ll better understand, but I developed a health condition in Kansas City which ultimately led to my departure from the team. Five months later, I suffered a significant knee injury in Spokane, Washington when I played briefly with the Shock. After being traded to the Rush, I was pretty much a shell of my former self. I still produced stats and made some plays, but I was running hot. I hit a hard wall and got really sick just before they released me. I came down with pneumonia, but nursed myself back to health. A few other AFL teams were interested in signing me, but I was done. I couldn’t do it. Especially at the AFL level where the player transaction rules, or lack there of, was a circus. Physically, I couldn’t go on.
When I refused the other offers I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders—although I know in my heart if an NFL team had come calling I would have signed in an instant. It pissed me off then, but today I’m so blessed no team called because you best believe I would’ve went after that money. That’s when I was convinced the money was the top priority. It can’t be in football. If it is, you’ll be forced to turn on your “Eff-it” switch and ignore your body and destroy it for the wrong reasons (yes, there are plausible reasons, but I‘m running out of room. Another time, Mr. Pearlman). The reality was my career was coming to an end, and that‘s a big pill to swallow for a young athlete standing in the crossroads of his NFL desires. That’s when I was shaken out of my dream. The restlessness and anxiety quickly set in. “Now what?” The last 13 years I’d been playing a game. It wasn’t long into my restless state I caught a nice pick-me-up when the head coach at my former high school reached out and asked if I could come speak to the boys or maybe even coach a bit. I never really saw myself as coaching material, but I decided to go back and check things out. It turned out to be just what I needed to lift my spirits. I quickly embraced the idea of taking these boys under my wing and the first couple months felt OK. But I was too fresh out the game to feel normal again. I was still disturbed about my illness. I was bitter about how I was released. I was still battling injuries with no treatment available and still frustrated at my agent and teams. And yes, if a game came on I was turning that shit off. I was resentful and I still felt lost. It’s bizarre having your passion ripped out of your life in a flash and seeing it dangled in your face everywhere you look. “Hey! Did you see the game, Sunday?!”
“No, Fuck off.”
Five months pass and I’m still in my rut when I got the news about what happened with Jovan Belcher. The news crushed me—crushed everybody. But man, I was flattened. Just utterly destroyed. This, on top of all the other challenging adjustments and unknowns, made life take a turn for the worse. Four months later in April I get news my childhood friend, Steven, died under similar/suspicious circumstances. There’s not enough time or space in this Quaz for me to explain how I felt in late April of 2013. I literally ran out of tears by June. But, I’ll show you how God works …
Having being clouded by aimlessness, frustration, sadness and ailments, there was no way for me to understand what was being built ahead of me. Being too unhealthy to play ball forced me back to the Chicago area where I was shocked to realize how long I’d been away from my parents and how much time I lost back home. They were older and it wasn’t until I was seeing them on a regular basis that I was forced to appreciate what I’d done in my career and had to focus on developing a stronger relationship with them. On top of that, thanks to the coach reaching out, I was forced in a position to mentor these young players, and as the months went on, coaching them became a means of therapy. I couldn’t let my outside problems negatively affect how I coached them. I was aware how they looked up to me so I genuinely had to be upbeat and positive.
Not a day went by where I hadn’t thought of my friends who’d tragically passed away (including my good friend and college roommate, Trent, in July, 2010). After more than a year of dissecting tragedy in my head I came to the conclusion that there are silver linings in every event in life. Tragedies, as horrible as they are, ultimately force the ones impacted by them to slow down and value the people and blessings they may have taken for granted. I learned there are more important things in life than being hell-bent in your career no matter how strong your passion burns in your heart. So, today I do not feel restless or wayward. I’m a proud coach/mentor/counselor who is helping to turn our school’s football program around while quietly working on several other projects and ambitions. I enjoy watching NFL football again, and I would not go back—even though I’m in the best shape of my life thanks to juicing and T-25.
J.P.: This might sound odd coming from a white Jewish guy, but I feel like, were I an African-American college football player, I’d view fans and coaches and boosters very warily. I’d wonder their motivations; their thoughts. They cheer for me—yet until college desegregation they wouldn’t let me play for their teams. They say I’m great—but would they want me dating their daughter? They’re often multi-millionaires, but once my athleticism and/or eligibility fade, they don’t toss a dime my way. Pierre, am I being dumb here? Is there sense to this?
P.W.: Na, you’re not being dumb at all. You’re being an aware individual. That’s an awkward reality every elite black football player faces at some point. There have been times where I had to attend a special dinner or party and just laughed to myself thinking those same thoughts … wondering what’s going through their minds as you have to sit and make small football talk at the table. I‘m confident there are many out there like how you describe, but I’ve never thought way into it, tricking myself that every white booster, coach or fan was racist. I was always respectful and cordial, but never too concerned with how anyone viewed me. If they had a problem, it’s their vice. Good luck with that.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your football career? Lowest?
P.W.: The greatest moment of my football career had to be when I received a scholarship to play at Eastern Illinois University. I’d been receiving some attention from several schools, but most of them were only offering partial scholarships or preferred walk-on positions. It was my senior year in high school and we just finished playing our first game of the season. I believe it was that following Monday I got a call from a guy named Derek Jackson, who was Eastern’s defensive line coach at the time. The call surprised me because I hadn’t heard anything from Eastern. Hell, if I hadn’t made it down state for track the prior year, I wouldn’t have even known Eastern Illinois existed. Well, he introduced himself and began to explain how they wanted to offer me a full scholarship to play. I was speechless. He said he was actually scouting the offensive lineman I was playing against and I stood out. I wasn’t even on their radar. Lesson in life: Always go hard in anything you do because you never know who’s watching. After I hung up the phone I ran in the kitchen to tell my mom the news. It felt so good. I was going to a university for free. That made our lives a lot easier.
The lowest moment in my career, hands down, was how I departed with the Chiefs. Not a lot of people know how it all went down. So, it’s the week of the third preseason game in 2011. I was having my best training camp to date. I knew the defense well, and my body felt good. On Monday night of August 22, I was at my apartment eating dinner. It was a normal night and I felt fine. I set my alarm to 5:30 and went to bed. I woke up at about 4 am and felt an enormous pressure in my abdomen and figured I had to take a dump, so I got up to do my business. I sat down on the toilet (yes, I’m about to explain, in detail, my poop session) and tried to go. Nothing. I push a little harder. Nothing. As the minutes went by the pressure got worse. I push, I push. Nothing. Not even a fart for some relief. Now I’m getting worried because 10 minutes have gone by and I just want to finish and go to sleep. Now it’s 4:30 and at this point a baby rabbit could have put my turds to shame. I knew I wasn’t going back to bed because of the pain so I decided to get an early start to the day. I walk into the facility at around 5:45 and at this point my abdomen hurts worse than before. Still, it wasn’t hurting so bad to the point where I thought to panic. I figured I was constipated. I asked the trainer for some gas relief medicine, swallowed them down, got taped and dressed then proceeded to the bathroom stall. I put up another valiant effort with no results.
The start of practice was nearing, so I had to wrap it up and try later. As I stood up, it felt like a knife was being jammed from the inside out of my intestines along with pressure four times worse than earlier. I nearly collapsed and started sweating profusely. I knew I wasn’t right. Practice was starting in 10 minutes, camp is almost over, and these last two games were the most important for me to date. I had no time to think about it, so I left the bathroom, grabbed my helmet and walked outside. Once I got on the field I started jogging to the usual warm-up spot and with every stride, the vibration irritated my stomach. It was miserable. I don’t know how I made it through practice, but I did.
After practice I quickly shower, change and drag myself into the training room to see the doctor. After some preliminary assessments, he suggests it may be my appendix and recommends I go to the ER. He drove me there and when we arrived I was almost fully incapacitated. After they run the tests the doc tells me I have Diverticulitus. “Diza-ficka-whaa?!” Google it. He tells me I’m the youngest patient he’s seen with it and he doesn’t know how in the world I was able to practice and blah blah blah. He says to take antibiotics and go on a liquid diet. I’m blown away. My head is spinning. “What of my career? The Rams game is in 3 days! What are the coaches thinking? I can’t even move! How long is this gonna take? Am I gonna die?! What the hell is happening right now?!” It all happened so fast. As a result, I missed the game and fell hard on the depth chart. The next week I was far from 100 percent, but I put in too much work to go out like that. I pushed on and practiced anyway, hoping to show them there wasn’t anything that was going to keep me from making the team. It didn’t work out. Man, I tell you that was hardest moment in my career. It ripped me from football (not really a bad thing after 13 years total) and killed the momentum in my career. Today, I’m aware that it was a blessing in disguise because I gained a brand new appreciation for health after that experience. Now I take better care of myself and I’m much healthier and more fit today.
J.P.: We spoke at length when I wrote a long piece about your good friend, the late Jovan Belcher. Looking back at your career, as well as at Jovan’s passing, why do you think guns are so prevalent among pro athletes? Is it a problem? Not such a big deal?
P.W.: The answer is simple. First, you get picked up by a team. Second, you attend the many mandatory meetings where they brief you on the city and all the craziness that has happened to players before you. Everything from identity theft and stalking to home invasions and extortion. They spend so much time preparing you how to maneuver through your new life as a “target” and what you must look out for. The meetings are absolutely essential but they do something to most players. The meetings put players’ guards way up and you’re compelled to find solutions to feel safe, naturally. These new realities that you’ve never had to worry about come very fast once you’re in the NFL, so the quickest way to security is getting strapped.
Think about it. You’ve never lived in this city before. You move into the neighborhood and you stand out. People know who you are, they know when you’ll be out of town during the season and they know you‘re making great money. You feel like all eyes are on you because they are. It’s always in the back of your mind and the stuff does happen, so why would you be so arrogant and think it can’t happen to you? Better to be safe than sorry.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Aw man, yeah. I forgot where I was flying from, but we were trying to land in Chicago. There was a big thunderstorm directly above the airport and the pilot had to circle the place about four times before he could land safely. It was the worst turbulence I’ve ever been in. It was terrifying and the muscle relaxer had worn off.
• Best piece of advice you ever received?: I received a lot of great advice from many strong men from my dad to coaches who were like extended fathers, but the first that comes to mind is from my favorite hip-hop artist. “If you lie make sure the trail is gone, and don’t expect a happy ending unless you’re in a nail-salon” — Joe Budden
• Who wins in a MMA match between you and Floyd Mayweather? How long does it last?: I win. It‘ll take about 30 seconds to walk him down and finish him. He’s 5-foot-8 and about a buck fifty? I’m 6-foot-5 and 235 with giraffe legs. My front-kick is hellacious.
• Five all-time favorite books?: Over the years I hadn’t done much reading to give you a solid five favorites, but I’m proud to say I started up recently and I’m forming a collection. I enjoyed Forrest Griffin’s “Got Fight” and I’m finishing up Jeffrey Marx’s “Season of Life”—which I’m thoroughly enjoying (I still have to thank Coach Gary Gibbs for that one). Next on my line-up is Nate Jackson’s “Slow Getting Up,” and then I‘ll start “Sweetness,” written by some no-name. For the fifth book, I gotta go back to grade school and say Goosebumps: “Night of the Living Dummy III”
• Why do you think women are so drawn to athletes?: Naturally, like most men, most women are attracted to an athletic, in-shape body. If that’s one of your fixations as a woman, where better to start looking than the athletic department? But, of course the main reasons are the hopes for financial security, living fast and the excitement of being a trophy to a player so she can make her girls jealous. Certainly, the “stand-up” women don’t fall under this umbrella … that’s just the scallywags and jersey chasers.
• Celine Dion calls. She offers you $5 million to move to Las Vegas for a year and work as her personal physical trainer. However, you have to work 365-straight says, live on a diet of Coke Zero and baked potatoes and change your last name to Tollbooth. You in?: Eh. It’s tempting, but I couldn’t do it. Money isn’t all too important to me these days and I don’t drink pop. I wouldn’t want to go that long of a time from seeing my parents again. Plus, my cat and I have separation anxiety from one another. Yeah, I said it …
• Three ugliest NFL uniforms, three coolest NFL uniforms: Ugliest: Raiders, Broncos and Chargers. Coolest: Ravens, Bears and Chiefs
• Should the Washington Redskins change their name?: Absolutely. Times have changed. Either change the name, or give every other team racist names and we can all make a joke out of it. “Tonight, on Monday Night Football we’ve got the Jacksonville Jigaboos versus the San Diego Wetbacks! And later, the Cleveland Crackers will face off against the undefeated WASHINGTON REDSKINS!”
• Michael Sam is about to enter the NFL. How hard will it be for an openly gay player?: It’ll be tough on him for sure, and he may lose a bit of stock/money because of his bravery. But I applaud him for not allowing himself to be oppressed out of fear. For him to announce his orientation with conviction shows he’s a confident man. As long as he produces and gets sacks (heh-heh), he’ll stay in the league.