It was a beautiful day, at the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum. It was the opening game against our hated rivals the San Diego Chargers. Unfortunately this game would end much different than the many others in my career.
To fully appreciate the importance of this event we have to go back a season to view my pro football career on the rise. I ended that season as a second alternate for the Pro bowl and the expectations for this coming season was that I would make the Pro Bowl team. The Raiders coaching staff, and owner Al Davis, were extremely pleased with the work and effort I had put in during the off-season to prepare myself to take the next step forward in my professional football career.
Now fast forward to that fateful day. As with most Chargers versus Raiders games the battle of trenches was extremely fierce. Neither team or individual player wanted to give an inch to the other. Then it happened, the offensive guard that I was playing against went low to take out my legs on a chop block, while the center hit me from behind creating a high low scenario. I felt a pop and sharp pain in my lower back. I was helped the sideline in extreme pain. The training staff applied moleskin to my lower back so that I could tough it out and go back in to finish the game. Little did I know, that one gruesome hit would change everything. The plane ride back was excruciatingly painful. (As one positive side note to the story this is where I met my wonderful wife of 16 years but that is another story!) I knew then, for the first time in my then five-year football career, that something was terribly wrong but like all professional football players I ignored the pain and continued to try to fight through the next week of practice. During that week the pain in my back turned into burning in my hip and then the eventual loss of strength and sensation in my right leg and right foot. Hindsight is always 20/20 but here's the really stupid part, I went to play against the Washington Redskins that Sunday only being able to use one leg effectively. Looking back I had to have been completely insane thinking that I could defeat a 350 pound professional football player with only the use of one leg. It wasn’t until I was getting thrown around like a ragdoll because I could not plant with my right leg that I finally took myself out of the game. The coaches were screaming for me to get back in the game as I sat on the sidelines in tears and had let the trainers and doctor know that I could not feel my right leg and I could no longer play.
The next week and I was faced with a difficult decision, have surgery to repair the damage and hopefully get the strength and feeling back in my right leg, or don’t have surgery and I may never be the same again. Of course I had the surgery, and as I laid in the hospital bed recovering I thought to myself; what if I can no longer play football again? What would I do? That is where my life took a pivotal turn. It was at that point that I realized, what if it all ended? What if my career was over? What if the excitement, and my childhood dreams, were all gone. I realized I had no plan for what I was to do after my career was over. That fear paralyzed me more than the surgery on my lower back. Luckily, I had already graduated from The Indiana University before entering the NFL draft so I was set there, but what would I do next? As I calmed down and thought through my options my path started to become clear. I needed something that could keep my competitive juices going. Something that would fill the void the loss of football would create. I needed a career that would support my family for years to come since at that time I was only around 26 years old and was not one of the players who made enough money to retire from football and never work again. I found that the NFLPA offered the players various corporate internship programs that I could explore. My father was in the insurance business and that seemed like a good field for me to go into as well. It was at this time that I decided to pursue the career path that lead me to my career as a vice president in the financial services industry.
Now happily I was able to make a recovery but unfortunately I was never the same player that I had been before that injury. Even so, my football career lasted for another five years for a total of 10 years in the NFL. We all get hit with #CareerCurveballs in life and it is how we respond that defines what trajectory our careers take us. Mine forced me to look at things through a different lens but It also prepared me for the career I have today... but that again, is another story.
This article was originally posted on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/today/author/23289025
Nolan is currently the Senior Director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) Former Player Services. Prior to joining the staff at the NFLPA, Nolan spent ten years as a business owner and a financial services industry executive. Nolan had a ten year playing career in the National Football League, playing for the LA/Oakland Raiders, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington.