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Why I Empathize With Max Hall

4 September 2014 Jonny Harline
Former BYU quarterback Max Hall. (BYU photo)

Former BYU quarterback Max Hall (No. 15). (BYU photo)

Out of respect to Max Hall and his family, I initially just wanted to stay silent on the recent news of his arrest for cocaine possession and shoplifting.

But the more I thought about it, I figured if you’re reading this you already know what happened anyway, and maybe some of these thoughts could be valuable to someone.

Most people were completely shocked to hear the news. I was definitely surprised, but I wouldn’t say I was totally shocked. I don’t think most former athletes were either.

Not because Max himself gave any indication that he was dealing with these kinds of issues. But because they know something about what it’s like to have your athletic career end.

Some make the transition smoothly, others never quite make the transition at all. It’s not quite as simple as most probably imagine.

Two disclaimers. First, I don’t know the origin and reasons for Max’s specific situation. It’s been a couple years since I last ran into him and talk to him. I don’t know if it’s been something he’s dealt with for years or just recently.  But this incident has got me thinking more about how so many players struggle with self destructive behaviors after they finish playing and I wanted to write this to help people understand a little better what athletes go through as human beings during it.

So in that way this article is not necessarily about Max. Second disclaimer, this isn’t meant as an excuse or to condone anything. These were serious and seriously poor decisions and actions that demand accountability and responsibility.

Now, in saying that, I don’t mean that we can’t empathize with Max, or anyone who goes through similar struggles. Empathy is one of our most underrated, and probably underused, abilities as human beings. Empathy is not just saying you feel bad for someone and that you’re grateful it wasn’t you.

I don’t like oversimplifying situations like this by saying, “just don’t judge people.”  Empathy is more powerful and loving than just refraining from condemning someone.  Indeed, it seems there are times people need a little condemnation and a wake up call.

Empathy means you use your imagination to truly put yourself in someone’s shoes. How would you hope others treated you in a given situation? Empathy also means recognizing that there’s a part of you, possibly a tiny barely perceptible part, or possibly a large part, that is exactly like this person, that if not checked could deliver you to the same circumstances you see that person in.

Now as we go through this I’m not saying we should feel sorry for anyone. Feeling sorry for someone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re empathizing, in fact I’ve found the last thing most people want is for others to pity them. But it wouldn’t hurt any sports fan to understand that these guys who provide entertainment, who we cheer for and supposedly love, often go through a difficult transition as real, normal, human beings when they’re finished playing. And that this transition period is fertile ground for self-destructive and addictive behaviors and attitudes. Not only drugs, but depression, apathy, guilt, lack of motivation, lack of direction, and many others.

Before I get into the reasons why it’s fertile ground, realize that these are usually deeply subconscious behaviors, needs, and views that are built up without the athlete truly realizing it. In fact, most athletes are consciously aware at some level that they should be guarding against these things, but the subconscious influence is stronger than they probably realize (I can hear Darth now, “Do not underestimate the power of the dark side.”). And also realize that this applies to everyone in varying degrees. Some guys make this transition smoothly, effortlessly. Some struggle a little, but mostly figure it out. Some are nearly killed by it.

First, many athletes don’t really know who they are without their sport. They seem extremely confident, but much of their self esteem and their self image are actually tied up with exterior influences. The crowd cheers them. Their coaches tell them they did a good job and validate them. Their family, friends, people they may not even really know, all tell them they’re great. Because of this their confidence can easily be falsely inflated, built up by these outside things rather than an intrinsic view of their nature and true worth as a human being.

Many players allow their athlete persona to become who they are, their entire identity. Why not, right? Everyone loves you for it! But then suddenly you’re not an athlete at all anymore. So who are you? There’s a giant void in your identity.

Not only does your self image and esteem suffer because of the lack of these outside supports, but it can be attacked from the inside too. Many get into a cycle of self loathing, ironically because they must now do what they’ve always taught themselves never to ever, ever, ever do. Which is, to quit.

Never give in. Never surrender. Never quit. This attitude is stamped into the very essence of your soul when you are an athlete bent on becoming the best. But there comes a point when no one wants you on their team anymore. You. Must. Quit. From Michael Jordan to Max Hall to me, at some point you’re done. As Sir Charles Barkley always says, the only one who’s undefeated is Father Time.

But even though a part of you understands that for whatever reasonable reason (age, injury) you can’t play like you used to, and that no team is interested in picking you up, another part of you, the part you’ve worked at creating your whole athletic life, the part that sneers and bristles at the thought of conceding this, doesn’t go away. It hates you for quitting, no matter how understandable the quitting may have been. This “dark side” character that has been a powerful driving force for your success, suddenly turns against you.

Second, you are addicted to the thrill and power you feel playing your sport. Few things I’ve experienced in life are exciting as playing in a big time football game. It’s strange, but something I miss so much is the feeling of going across the middle, jumping up for a pass, not knowing if you’re going to get clobbered by a safety or linebacker as soon as the ball touches your hands, but just concentrating on catching it anyway. Man, you feel alive. The intensity and clarity of body and mind is a sensational sensation. It’s a rush. It’s a high. It’s addicting.

The power you have over people is a rush as well. People still ask me all the time (thankfully validating me still and feeding my self esteem) what it was like to catch the game winner against Utah. It was awesome for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which was the satisfaction of shutting up and crushing the hopes of 40,000 people who (from my perspective) had been spewing hatred at me and my teammates for the last three hours. Very satisfying feeling. My dark side guy loved that, and still does, if you can’t tell.

Third, escape. A player who is forced to quit their sport before they’ve made enough money to retire (which is most, or at least most have spent too much of what they have made) suddenly has to find another way to support their family. Again, they’ve lost a large part of their identity. So what are they passionate about?

Playing football.

No good anymore. What else?

Ummm…

Time to get a job. How mundane. What can compare with the thrill of playing football? Not to mention make you the kind of money you’ve been making or were hoping to make? Again, I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for anyone. I realize that all I’m saying is that now a major option for former athletes is to do what just about everyone else does, get a job and go to work.

But imagine tasting that kind of professional and financial success that young. How disheartening would it be to be that close and then lose it and have to start over with something else that you will make a tenth or twentieth of the money and probably not enjoy as much? Imagine reaching the peak of your profession that you love and have always been passionate about in your mid twenties and then having to start over.

It’s only human nature to feel bummed about a disappointment like that. I can empathize that someone in this situation might feel inclined to briefly escape from that reality. Something to take away the reminder of your perceived failure. To take your mind off the false notion that you’re not special anymore. To take your mind off your new and, in your view, mundane job, the paperwork you have to do, the calls you have to make, etc etc etc.

And last on my list is the difficulty many players face because they’ve become addicted to prescription drugs before they’re even done playing.

In a sport like football where you’re pushing your body to the extreme and there’s physical violence with other extremely powerful individuals there’s going to be aches and pains. Goes without saying, but yet I’m still saying it.  There are injuries and often surgeries are involved, which require some kind of pain management.

In my first game as a starter, I got crushed by an outside linebacker as soon as I caught a pass for a two yard gain (thanks Nate Meikle, you know what you did!… Everyone, I’m just giving Nate a hard time because I know he still feels horribly guilty for slightly altering his route which partly caused the linebacker to see me coming and line me up for a huge hit, he knows I still love him!). My AC joint–where the collar bone connects to your shoulder–popped out. Apparently there are some small ligaments or tendons connecting them and they were all torn. It’s a common injury.

It was about two minutes before half time, I went in the locker room, the doctors told me if I played it wouldn’t cause further damage, but it would be painful. I was cool with that. Hey, never give in, right? So they gave me a shot to numb it (Ironically the painkilling shot hurt like crazy) and then gave me some painkillers for after the game when the numbness wore off. I didn’t miss any time because of it.

I did this for the next five or six weeks before games. Shot before, then pills after. I’ve also had one major knee surgery, a minor knee surgery, and surgery to repair my poor ruptured Achilles tendon.  So I’ve taken my fair share of prescription pain killers.

Lucky for me, I never had any issues when the time came to stop taking the pills. Drugs, alcohol, those have never been my temptations. I’m just not interested, they’re not appealing to me. And for the record, I never felt the doctors acted irresponsibly in their diagnosis and treatments in my case. And if I remember right there was a conscious effort to get me off the pills as soon as possible. Sooner, if possible. Wait, does that even make sense? But anyway, I can see how many players could fall into the habit and the addiction of needing those painkillers. And many players do unfortunately.

And as I understand it, the prescription drugs are the ideal drug for someone who becomes addicted to the high these pills can provide, but soon (especially if the person in question no longer has a lucrative career as a pro athlete) they become too expensive and the person turns to cheaper, even more dangerous options.

So, compound a person with low self-esteem, who doesn’t really know who they are, who has a void in need of a thrill and an escape, and who has probably already had experience with narcotic pain killers. You can see why this transition period for athletes could be dangerous.

If you’ve read my other articles you know I love sports for the profound positive lessons we can learn from playing and observing them. But, like anything, it’s a two edged sword. You often can’t have the good without the bad being a possibility if you don’t watch yourself, and sometimes even if you do.

And I know from my experience, from my conversations with other former athletes, and from my observations, that nearly all of us have encountered some degree of difficulty in dealing with ending our careers. But back to the two edged sword, there are so many positive attributes developed and lessons learned from sports that can greatly help overcome the difficulties.

As far as Max goes, I don’t know if I’m right on point or way off. Maybe I’m partly right.  But either way, in his case I hope he knows that I, all his former teammates, and Cougar fans everywhere are ready to completely support him, forgive him and are pulling for him in his efforts to take responsibility and make the changes he needs to make to be the kind of man I imagine he wants to be.

–Jonny Harline

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