We look from afar and dream, sitting there on our couches watching these superstars routinely do the superhuman on an international stage. We secretly wonder what it would be like to garner all of that glory, all of that attention, to have all of those riches, even if just for a day or two. We create a total fantasy in our minds of how unbelievably amazing their lives must be. Our imagination runs wild, fueling feelings of envy, especially when we have to return to our seemingly humdrum, insignificant lives. If only our existence could be like theirs, to run, throw and catch the way they do. To have people cheering for us, recognizing us in the street, asking for our autograph. We haven’t got clue one what LIVING HELL so many retired professional athletes live!
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BERNIE KOSAR IN 2009: NOT MANY WINS, FAR TOO MANY LOSSES
BY DAN LE BATARD/MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS
(Editor’s note: In the days following Bernie Kosar’s application for backruptcy in June, he agreed to an interview with Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald.)
MIAMI — The IRS and the creditors and an angry ex-wife and an avalanche of attorneys are circling the chaos that used to be Bernie Kosar’s glamorous life, but that’s not the source of his anxiety at the moment.
He is doing a labored lap inside his Weston mansion, the one on the lake near the equestrian playpen for horses, because he wants to be sure there are no teenage boys hiding, attempting to get too close to his three daughters. He shattered a Kid Rock-autographed guitar the other day while chasing one teenager out of his house because he doesn’t mind all of the other boys within the area code thinking the Kosar girls have an unhinged Dad.
“There are a million doors in this place,” he says. “Too many ways to get in.”
So up and down the spiral staircases he goes, a rumpled mess wearing a wrinkled golf shirt, disheveled graying hair, and the scars and weariness from a lifetime’s worth of beatings. He has no shoes on, just white socks with the NFL logo stitched on because he’s never really been able to let go of who he used to be. He is coughing up phlegm from a sickness he is certain arrived with all the recent stress of divorce and debt, and now he doesn’t walk so much as wobble his way into one of the closets upstairs, where he happens upon some painful, wonderful memories he keeps sealed in a plastic cup.
His teeth are in there.
So is the surgical screw that finally broke through the skin in his ankle because of how crooked he walked for years. He broke that ankle in the first quarter of a game against the Dolphins in 1992; he threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter anyway. Don Shula called him the following day to salute him on being so tough, but Kosar is paying for it with every step he takes today on uneven footing. The old quarterback shakes the rattling cup, then grins. There are about as many real teeth in the cup as there are in what remains of his smile.
“I never wore a mouthpiece,” he says. “I had to live and die with my audibles. We played on pavement/AstroTurf back then. Getting hit by Lawrence Taylor was only the beginning of the problem.”
So much pain in his life. He heads back downstairs gingerly.
“I need hip replacement,” he says.
He pulls his jeans down a bit to reveal the scar from the surgery to repair his broken back.
“Disks fused together,” he says.
“A lot,” he says. “I don’t know how many.”
He holds out all 10 gnarled fingers. “All of these have been broken at least once,” he says. “Most of them twice.”
Broke both wrists, too.
The game was fast and muscled. He was neither. He was always the giraffe trying to survive among lions. Still is, really. He has merely traded one cutthroat arena in which people compete for big dollars for another, and today’s is a hell of a lot less fun than the one that made him famous. More painful, too, oddly enough.
Kosar holds up his left arm and points to the scar on his elbow.
“Have a cadaver’s ligament in there,” he says.
And that’s the good arm. He bends over and lets both arms hang in front of him. His throwing arm is as crooked as a boomerang.
“I can’t straighten it,” he says. “I started breaking at 30 years old. Once you start breaking, you keep breaking.”
The doorbell rings. It’s his assistant with the papers he needs to autograph. She puts all the legalese from four folders in front of him on a coffee table that is low to the ground. A groaning Kosar, 45, gets down very slowly onto the rug until he is symbolically on his hands and knees at the center of what used to be his glamorous life. And then he signs the documents that begin the process of filing for bankruptcy.
“Let me tell you something, bro,” he says. “It was all worth it.”
Until the bitter end
Brett Favre has made a spectacular public mess of his career punctuation because of how very hard it is for even the strongest among us to leave behind the applause for good. It is difficult for any man to retire when so much of his identity and self-worth and validation is tied up in his job, what he does invariably becoming a lopsided amount of who he is. But it is especially hard on quarterbacks because of how much of America’s most popular game they literally hold in their hands.
That kind of control — over other strong men, over huddles, over winning, over entire swaying stadiums and their surrounding cities — is just about impossible to let go … as is the attendant attention, ego, importance, popularity, fun and life. Running backs retire early sometimes because of the beatings, but quarterbacks never do. Joe Namath finished wearing a Rams helmet, Joe Montana ended with the Chiefs at 38, and Dan Marino got pushed out after losing, 62-7 — and now Favre wanders the earth so lost and searching that he’s about to put on the uniform of his greatest enemy. Kings don’t quit kingdoms voluntarily.
But there’s no preparing you for the silence that comes after all you’ve heard is cheering. A quarterback will never feel more alive anywhere than he does at the conquering center of everything in sports. His is by consensus the most difficult job in athletics, and it requires an obsessive-compulsive attention to detail.
The most diligent and consumed become Peyton Manning and Tom Brady; the talented and lazy become Ryan Leaf. Sometimes they sculpt their singular and all-consuming skill to the detriment of the balance needed for the rest of life’s tacklers. Bills? Errands? Adulthood? Those things get handed off sometimes because, whether it is the offensive line or family and friends huddled around their income source, the quarterback must always be protected or everyone loses.
On and off the field
Kosar was one of the smart ones. He graduated from the University of Miami in 2½ years. He was smart enough to go a record 308 pass attempts without an interception. Smart enough to help build several businesses after football, with a 6 percent interest in a customer-service outsourcing company that sold for more than $500 million. Smart enough to have a wing of the business school at the University of Miami named after him. But now that the maids and wife are gone, you know how he feels walking into a grocery store by himself for the first time?
“Overwhelmed,” he says.
He is like an embryo in the real world. The huddle gave him strength and purpose and enough fame and money that he never had to do much of anything for himself. Never had to grow, really, as anything but a quarterback. He says his kids (ages 17, 16, 12 and 9) grew up in a world where “their idea of work was telling the maid to clean their room.” And even the live-in maids had assistants. So now they’re all trying to figure it out together, four kids led by a 45-year-old one.
Do you know how to wash clothes, Bernie?
“No,” he says.
Iron a shirt?
“No,” he says.
Start the dishwasher?
“No,” he says.
He just learned the other day, after much trying and failing, how to make his own coffee. This is a man who owned his own jet and helped found companies, plural. But when his new girlfriend came over recently and found him trying to cook with his daughters, she couldn’t believe what was on the kitchen island to cut the French bread. A saw.
“I was 25 and everyone was telling me that I was the smartest; now I’m 45 and realize I’m an idiot,” he says. “I’m 45 and immature. I don’t like being 45.”
He still finds himself doodling plays on napkins in the kitchen. Running companies doesn’t feel as rewarding as working with a high school or college tight end on routes. The only post-quarterback jobs that have given him any sort of joy are the ones near football: broadcasting Cleveland Browns games; running a company that created football Web sites and magazines; buying an Arena Football League team.
But it isn’t the same. Not nearly. As he tries to reorganize his life in a dark period that leaves his mind racing and sleepless, the people he quotes aren’t philosophers and poets. They are coaches.
Like when he was at the University of Miami, for example. He was the weakest kid on the team. He was mortified when his statuesque competition, Vinny Testaverde, walked onto campus and bench-pressed 325 pounds a bunch of times. Kosar got 185 up just once, with arms shaking. So he went to coach Howard Schnellenberger and, sweating and trying not to tremble, told him he was going to transfer.
Now he quotes the old pipe-smoking coach and applies those lessons from nearly three decades ago to today: “Son, I’m not going to lie. It doesn’t look good for you. But wherever you go in life, there’s competition. The guys who run home to mommy tend to be quitters their whole life.”
Kosar won. Won huge. Won the job and the national championship in a flabbergasting upset of Nebraska to begin Miami’s unprecedented football run through the next two decades.
That seems like so long ago. As creditors close in and his divorce has gotten messy in public, Kosar has had some suicidal thoughts, but he says, “I couldn’t quit on my kids. I’m not a quitter. I’m not going to quit on them or me. I got here with hard work. I’ll get out of this with hard work. No wallowing. No ‘woe is me.’ I’m great at making money. And, as we’ve found out, I’m great at spending it. What I’m not great at is managing it.”
The pangs of loss
It is hard to believe he filed a bankruptcy petition in June, but a bad economy, bad advice, a bad divorce and a bad habit of not being able to say “no” have ravaged him. He says financial advisers he loved and trusted mismanaged his funds, doing things like losing $15 million in one quick burst. There’s a $4.2 million judgment against him from one bank. A failed real-estate project in Tampa involving multi-family properties. A steakhouse collapsing with a lawsuit. Tax trouble.
His finances have never been something he controlled. He graduated on July 14, 1985, was at two-a-day NFL workouts six days later, and immediately got on the learning treadmill at full speed, always feeling like he was catching up because his team wasn’t very good; and his receivers were worse than the ones he had at Miami, and everyone on the other side of the ball was very fast, and he was very slow, and the only advantage he would have was being smarter. Dad would handle the bills; the son had to handle the Bills.
He was always rewarded for being consumed that way. That’s how the weakest and least physically gifted guy on the field once threw for 489 yards in an NFL playoff game. But that huddle eventually breaks, and the men who formed it break, too. Depression. Drugs. Drinking. Divorce. You’ll find it all as retired football players cope with the kinds of losses teammates can’t help you with — a loss of identity, self-worth, youth, relevance.
A recent Sports Illustrated article estimated that, within two years of leaving football, an astounding 78 percent of players are either bankrupt or in financial distress over joblessness and divorce. Through the years, a lot of those old teammates have asked Kosar to borrow $100,000 here, $150,000 there. He knew then that he wouldn’t be getting it back. But, as the quarterback — always the quarterback — you help your teammates up.
How much has he lent teammates during the years without being repaid?
“Eight figures,” he says.
Friends and family?
“Eight figures,” he says.
Charities, while putting nearly 100 kids through school on scholarships? “Well over eight figures.”
When it became public in June that the Panthers hockey team would be sold and that Kosar would be getting a minority-owner percentage of the $240 million price, his phone rang all weekend with people asking for help. Calls after midnight on Friday. Calls before 7 a.m. on Sunday.
“Everyone with a sob story came flooding back,” he says.
Then there’s the divorce. It has been a public disaster, with him being accused of several addictions, of erratic behavior and of giving away the couple’s money.
Bernie says he has no interest in fighting with his estranged wife publicly or privately because “I can’t live vengefully in front of my kids. Why subject them to that? I don’t want to fight anybody. I don’t want hate or anger in their life. I may hurt me, but I wouldn’t hurt anybody else.” He speaks with a slur and admits there has been drinking and pain medication in his past, but says the only thing he’s addicted to is football.
Drugs? Alcohol? “Would my kids be living with me if that were really the case?” he asks. “If I did 10 percent of things I’m accused of, I’d be dead.”
He says the divorce has cost him between $4 and $5 million already.
“That’s just fees,” he says. “And they keep coming. Attorneys charge $600 an hour just to screw things up more.”
And here’s the worst part: “I don’t want to get divorced,” he says. “I’m Catholic, and I’m loyal, and I still love her.”
He has poured himself into being Dad, but it isn’t easy. Kids listen more from 2 to 10 years old. But now there are the perpetual parental concerns of cars, driving, drinking, drugs, sex.
“I’m outnumbered now,” he says.
And he has no clue how to help girls become women, although he gets moved to the brink of tears when his girls tell him they appreciate how hard he’s trying. He wept like a child when his daughter painted him a picture of herself smiling and signed it with love. He has found therapy in learning how to clean the house with the kids and dealing with life’s smaller headaches.
Just the other day, while in a 10-hour bankruptcy meeting with 10 attorneys that left him “humbled and in pain and feeling betrayed” as he took a detailed inventory of his life, he excused himself with a smile because one of his daughters — the oldest of his children lives with him full time, the others part time — was calling with some sort of popularity crisis.
“The worst feeling in the world is being Dad on Friday night at home at midnight and they haven’t gotten home yet,” he says.
His daughter rolled her car the other day, getting ejected as it sank into a lake.
“Memorial Day, I should have been doing the funeral for her,” he says. “This other chaos is just stuff. Money. I’ll make more. It feels bad. It sucks the life and energy out of you and is a relentless drain. But I’m going to come out of this fine. I always get up.”
There are photos all over his mansion. Many of them are not up. They are on the floor, leaning against the walls. He’ll learn how to hang them soon enough.
He goes over and grabs the one by the fireplace. In it, he is in the pocket with the Browns, and everything is collapsing all around him. You can see Kosar’s offensive linemen either beaten or back-pedaling. His left tackle is on the ground, staring as his missed assignment blurs toward the quarterback’s blind side. But the ball is already in the air, frozen in flight, headed perfectly to the only teammate who has a step in a sea of Steelers.
It is a work of art, that photo. You can see clearly that the play is going to work. And you can see just as clearly that Kosar is going to get crushed.
Kosar runs his fingers along the frame. This is what his life once was and what it is now — a swirl of chaos and pain and danger surrounding a man who has to remain in control for the people around him as everything feels like it is falling apart.
“I just wanted to play football,” the old quarterback says.
A laugh and a pause.
“Actually, I still do.”