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Former NFL Star Dorsey Levens Tackles Concussions As Playwright And Actor

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DORSEY LEVENS
Dorsey Levens won a Super Bowl in Green Bay, but is now a successful playwright and actor trying to help former NFL players. | AP

For professional athletes, retirement can be both terrifying and confusing. It means giving up on the one thing you've always done. It can even mean that for the first time in your life, you are no longer wanted. And it mean means your body -- what has always been your strongest asset -- has let you down. And for the average NFL player, retiring also means dealing with severe injuries, long-term health concerns and serious mental issues.

Dorsey Levens, a former Madden cover boy, an All-Pro running back and a Super Bowl champion with the Green Bay Packers, retired from the NFL in 2007. And it wasn't until then that he fully understood how serious health issues are for many former football players.

He also realized that taking a stagnant approach on life wasn’t the answer to post-football happiness.

"When I retired, I initially thought I'd take a year or two off and not do anything," Levens tells The Huffington Post. "But you find soon that at 35 years old, sitting around all day is not very exciting."

Hoping to be both productive and impactful, Levens made a documentary, "Bellrung," that focuses on the league's handling of concussions and brain injuries. By Levens' account, the league has let its players down, especially retired players.

"The league needs to step up regarding concussions, because guys are jacked up when they retire," Levens adds.

"If you're fortunate enough to play long enough to get pension -- which is four years -- once you retire, the health benefits are done after five years. Once that five years is up, that's when guys start facing problems. It's like a car warranty."

In July, 75 former players filed a lawsuit against the NFL for under-representing to risk of brain injuries players faced.

The common perception among fans is that retired players should have plenty of saved up cash to hold them over once their careers conclude. While Levens is mindful of such a notion, he argues that this isn't necessarily the case. The vanguard of change is more than just a small crisis and, he believes that starting up a "normal" job isn't always a realistic option either.

"A lot of us, the pride is so strong, it's hard to go work a 9-5, because the perception is you failed," he says.

"There is depression that factors in with concussion issues," he adds. "'Where did I go wrong?' You've heard that every time you get tackled it's like being in a car accident. Well, how many car accidents can you have? Eventually, your brain will be fried. Something needs to be done because guys don't have healthcare. If you don't have healthcare, you don’t have a chance."

The physical issues are no doubt far different than the mental defects suffered by former NFL players, but they are also undoubtedly related. Levens argues that the league has a responsibility to protect its own, even after they leave the game.

But his documentary isn't the only production he has been working on. This past summer, he debuted the critically acclaimed play entitled "Stripped," which he co-wrote alongside Tiffany Brown.

Levens says the play is about "a former NFL player who loses everything." He says it "deals with early onset Alzheimer's and brain damage.

But he also says "Stripped" is not your typical theater experience. People leave and they're like 'Whoa, that was awesome.'"

Levens tried to balance writing from an athlete's perspective, while still relating to everyday Joes. In other words, he's not a dumb jock who only sees things from one side of the fence.

"I had a story to tell about the behind the scenes life of what it's like to be a pro athlete," he says. "I thought the perception was if you're fortunate enough to be in that situation that life is going to be perfect from there on out, but it's so far from the truth.

"Most of us have been athletes our whole lives, and then once it's time to do something else, there is a period where maybe there is confusion as to what it is your supposed to be doing. I think guys struggle with that a lot, and I think that was my biggest challenge."

In addition to the physical toll the game takes, Levens argues that the psychological issues in some cases, actually run much deeper post-NFL life. He says many former players don't know how to handle their relationships when they retire.

"The divorce rate is so high after guys retire," he says.

"We have two scenes where a counselor explains why my wife [played by Lisa Wu Hartwell] and I are having a hard time adjusting to our new environment. We were used to being apart so much and now we're together. That creates major problems. From the athlete's perspective, it's still your house. You're the moneymaker; you pay all the bills. You're away so much, the wife feels like it's her house; she's taking care of the day-to-day stuff. Once you're together full time, it's a power struggle."

While the 'power struggle' is an adjustment, so too is the daily reminder that you are no longer a professional athlete; no longer the tumult of celebrity and perhaps most importantly, no longer pulling in millions of dollars.

"One of the lines in the play is 'every woman who marries a pro athlete is a gold digger,' Levens says. "That's not the case, but there are some cases where once the career is over with, the allure is gone for the woman. Once all the fame and perks disappear, than you find out who's really in your career. The harsh reality for a lot of guys is that people hang on because of who you are and what you can do for them."

You don't have to be a sports fan to relate to such change. It's a vexing scenario surely, but many athletes go bankrupt despite grossing tens of millions throughout the tenure of their careers. Vin Baker made $89.9 million during his 14 NBA seasons -- not to mention his endorsement deal with the Jordan Brand -- yet was forced to foreclose both his restaurant and house.

Unfortunately, he's not alone.

“Deuce” McAllister was the New Orleans Saints all-time leading rusher and earned an estimated $70 million during his NFL career. The former star filed for Ch. 11 bankruptcy the same year he retired, claiming he owed close to $7 million due to his extravagant spending habits.

Mark Brunell is a three-time Pro Bowler and widely respected around the league as one of its 'good guys.' The still active 40-year-old quarterback has made over $50 million during his long career and even won a Super Bowl ring with the Saints, yet he too filed for Ch. 11 bankruptcy last year.

And Lawrence Taylor may be the greatest defensive player of all time and despite a slew of endorsement deals, he filed for bankruptcy in 1998.

Despite having never faced such issues, Levens is also empathetic to why bankruptcies do so often occur.

"It's hard to say no to family," he says.

"When you make money, the first thing you normally want to do is help your family. Some family members use you as a crutch. For me, it's like if you have some major issues, I'll help you out, but I'm not taking care of you, but I'm not going to help you buy rims for your car."

In addition to financial losses endured by athletes, along with the other elements of "Stripped," Levens also remains passionate about the health concerns.

Just as he passionately attacked running gaps during his successful NFL career, his new goal is to educate both football and non-football fans about the pitfalls of the sport, on and off the field. To further voice such a notion, he is hoping to take the play on the road and potentially make it into a feature film. While he remains keenly aware of the challenges, so too was he when he slipped to the fifth round of the 1994 draft and had to fight his way into the league.

"The expectations were in the basement for this play," he says, "and people come and are literally shocked. There were people crying. The sky is the limit. We're not done."

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