A heroin dealer in upstate New York. A juvenile court judge in Tennessee.
A Stanford grad overseeing $500 million in pension funds for Florida state retirees. A felon who watched his son win the Heisman Trophy from a jailhouse TV.
These are your 1994 Miami Dolphins.
No Dolphins team since has come closer to the Super Bowl, their championship dreams sailing away with a missed field goal in a heartbreaking last-minute playoff loss.
Together they were a team, but each would learn alone the one certainty of the National Football League.
One day the cheering stops.
When players take off their helmets for the last time, there are no coaches, no game plans, no teammates to support them. The hefty paychecks are gone. They are on their own.
"It's kind of like going from the penthouse to the outhouse," said Greg Baty, who spent five years in Dolphin teal and orange as a backup tight end.
To see what becomes of the players of America's most popular professional sport, the Sun Sentinel picked one Dolphins team — the 1994 squad — and spent two months piecing together the post-NFL lives of the 53 men on the opening day roster and nine midseason additions.
Most are now more than a decade removed from the game. They are 45 years old on average, many facing the same challenges as other middle-aged men. But starting life anew after football is different. Once celebrated as modern-day gladiators, they became anonymous faces in the crowd.
"You're trying to figure out life," recalled former defensive lineman Larry Webster, who confronted depression, financial troubles and ballooning body weight after leaving the game. " 'What am I going to do now? What do I want to do now?' "
Faced with those questions, some of the '94 Dolphins rose to the challenge of reinventing themselves, while others struggled mightily. Eleven have declared bankruptcy. Six have gone to prison or jail, or have been put on probation; two remain in federal prison today.
Interviews with 33 members of the team reveal that players often struggle psychologically after leaving football. Many of the former Dolphins suffered an identity crisis, crushed by the loss of the paycheck, the game-day thrills and the cocoon-like team environment where their personal needs were tended to.
Some found a way to stay in the game as coaches — six in the NFL, four in college and five at high schools. Others forged new identities outside of football: a stay-at-home dad, a pastor, the founder of an afterschool program for at-risk kids, a licensed counselor, the vice president of a Texas YMCA. They co-own a sports bar, a fitness center, a wastewater treatment consulting firm. One works at a juvenile detention center, another in catering at a Houston country club. One owns two International House of Pancakes restaurants and another a company that manages shuttle-bus drivers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Seventeen still call South Florida home, among them the team's most recognizable star.
Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino remains a huge presence here, with an array of business interests as well as a nonprofit foundation that helps children and young adults with autism and other special needs.
"You can never replace that kind of competitive feeling that you have, the feeling you get working with other people for one common goal," Marino said during a promotional photo shoot in Fort Lauderdale. "That never goes away."
"WAIT UNTIL YOU GET A REAL JOB"
There are the marquee names on a football team and then there are the backups, the special teams players, the practice squad guys and the journeymen picked up midseason. For the 1994 Dolphins, they were players like Craig Veasey, Robert E. Wilson, Jesse Solomon and Mark Caesar. They dedicated their lives to football without ever seeing the big paydays.
"I used to argue with my friends when they would say, 'Wait until you get a real job' and I would argue it is a real job," said Veasey, a defensive tackle who spent six years in the NFL. "When I got out, I realized it's nothing like real life."
Veasey, 45, is now a stay-at-home dad in the Houston area, taking care of two daughters, ages 2 and 16. He had been a construction project manager, but lingering football injuries left him unable to do the work.
His first wife divorced him a few years after he retired, putting him "into the poorhouse almost," Veasey said.
"Football wasn't something I did, but it was who I was," he said.
Wilson, a backup fullback for the Dolphins for 2 1/2 years, works in catering and events at The Houstonian Golf & Country Club outside Houston. He dreams of opening his own barbecue shack.
"When they talk about transitioning out of the game, they are talking about people going broke ... but there's something else that is there," said Wilson, 43. "You take [football] away from some guys and emotionally they go into a shell."
He said that when he heard about the suicides of NFL contemporaries Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, he wondered if they simply missed the competition too much, unable to match how they felt on the field.
Solomon, a former linebacker, has returned to his North Florida hometown of Madison. With bad knees and arthritic hands, the 48-year-old doesn't work anymore and lives on disability payments. The nine-year NFL veteran had been a high school teacher and a coach, but admittedly had problems handling some students.
Like many of his former teammates, he said he stayed away from football the first few years after he left the game.
"It had been a way of life," he said. "You feel like your best friend or daddy left you. You got an ache in you that you can't do anything about."
Then there is Mark Caesar. He wore No. 98 with the Dolphins. These days, he is number 17711-052 with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
THE DRUG DEALER AND THE JUDGE
Caesar, best remembered as a defensive tackle out of the University of Miami, didn't see any game action his only year in the NFL. He made $112,000 that year. His career over at 25, he drifted up to North Carolina and was arrested for cocaine possession, according to court records.
He cleaned up, headed back to his hometown of Newark, N.J., and landed a city job. But he plunged back into drugs as he fought a bitter custody battle with the mother of his children and resigned from his job rather than get laid off.
His brother recruited him to work for a heroin smuggling ring that paid Caesar $1,000 a week to sell drugs in Syracuse, N.Y., court records show. A New York state grand jury indicted him in June 2009 on a heroin possession charge and that was followed a year later by a federal indictment for his role in the drug operation. He cut deals in both cases, receiving prison sentences that will keep him behind bars until July 2013.
"Mark Caesar could be a 'poster child' to illustrate the destruction caused by substance abuse," his attorney wrote in court documents. Caesar, 42, could not be reached by the Sun Sentinel. He's listed as "in transit" on the U.S. Bureau of Prisons website.
Another ex-Dolphin knows the justice system well, but from the other side. Tim Irwin, a former offensive tackle, is the elected Juvenile Court judge for Knox County, Tenn., home of Knoxville and the University of Tennessee.
Irwin, 53, played seven games for the Dolphins in 1994 as a midseason addition — the final stop of a 14-year career. While he played, he attended law school and became a licensed attorney and sports agent.
Within days of retiring from the pros, he was handling cases in his law office.
"It worked out for me," said Irwin, a judge for seven years. "I have the best job I've ever had. I get to work every day with kids who have tough problems. Most of the time you can make it better for them at the end of the day.
"I think people mistake a game for life and the game I played for 14 years is not life," the judge said. "It's a game."
THE "NEW NORMAL" IS A TOUGH ADJUSTMENT
The average NFL player's career lasts less than four years, and when it ends, it's often abrupt.
"They become addicted, almost like a drug addict, to a surrealistic lifestyle that is really kind of a fantasy lifestyle," said Michael Brannon, a Fort Lauderdale psychologist who treated Dolphins in the 1990s. "It's almost a culture shock that they are moving from this selective and pampered group."
A 2009 University of Michigan study of 1,063 former NFL players found nearly 17 percent between 30 and 49 years old had been diagnosed at one point with depression.
In July, the NFL unveiled a wellness program for current and retired players, establishing a 24/7 confidential hotline for them and their families if they are experiencing mental health issues or need to talk to someone.
Troy Vincent, a cornerback for the '94 Dolphins, said players leaving the game experience what he calls "The New Normal." He's uniquely positioned to know — as vice president of player engagement for the NFL. The five-time Pro Bowler now develops programs and internships for players to find second careers.
"Football has defined who you have been the last 20 years," Vincent said. "You're living off an agenda, someone else's agenda. Once that is removed from your life, it's really about self- regulation. 'The New Normal' for us is the normal for normal society. You wait in line at the grocery store. You sit at the gas station and pump your own gas."
"I DIDN'T WANT THEM TO KNOW"
Stories about broke ex-NFL players are so commonplace that they border on cliché — millions blown on over-the-top lifestyles, lost in failed business ventures or sucked up by unscrupulous advisers. A March 2009 Sports Illustrated article estimated 78 percent of former NFL players are "bankrupt or under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce" within two years of leaving the league.
That number has haunted the NFL ever since. The league hotly disputes it, armed with a September 2009 study it commissioned indicating the median income of former players between 30 and 49 years old is $85,000, which is $30,000 more than the average American male.
At least 11 players from the '94 Dolphins — 17 percent of the squad — filed for bankruptcy after leaving the NFL, court records show. Most were unable to latch onto second careers fast enough. On average, they filed their petitions more than nine years after playing their last game.
Most had spent the majority of their careers as backups, never earning the big paycheck. There were a few exceptions, notably quarterback Bernie Kosar.
Beloved in his home state of Ohio, the former University of Miami star was a partner in a $100 million telemarketing firm when he retired. He estimates he made 10 times more money post-NFL than in his playing days. A wing of UM's School of Business bears the former quarterback's name.
Yet in 2009, bad financial decisions by his associates, the souring real estate market and his divorce led him to declare bankruptcy. He listed $9.2 million in assets with $18.9 million in liabilities.
Kosar said he didn't have time to miss the game; he was too focused on placating the 30 to 40 family members and friends who depended on him financially. He also estimates he loaned nearly $10 million to former teammates. He never got the money back, but has no regrets about helping former teammates despite what others may think of him.
"People were making fun of me, saying I was dumb," he said. "I'm proud of it. I loved being in the huddle with them. I loved football and I loved them."
Kosar's post-football financial success and subsequent problems are atypical. The bankruptcy filings by former Dolphins more closely resemble that of Larry Webster, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound defensive lineman who spent 11 seasons in the league. He had two modest properties and listed himself as unemployed at the time he filed in 2009.
After retiring, Webster said, he didn't know what to do with himself. He became a homebody, putting on pounds. He stopped talking to former teammates.
"I didn't want them to know what I was going through," Webster said. "I found out, lo and behold, that the guys who retired during my era were going through the same thing."
After trying his hand at trucking, Webster, a father of seven, said football called him back. He attended NFL coaching internships and started volunteering in 2009 as a coach at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, one of Maryland's oldest high schools.
Webster, who won a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, was hired as a hall monitor at the school.
Earlier this year, Polytechnic named him head coach. He said he is blessed with the chance to mold young people's lives.
"I show them my scars, my football wounds and my life scars," he said.
"AN INTIMIDATING PLACE TO BE"
Three-time Pro Bowl offensive guard Keith Sims, who protected Marino from 1990 to 1997, said he felt abandoned and broken down when the Washington Redskins cut him after 11 seasons in the league.
"You go from being in the NFL in December and in a wheelchair in June. It's a difficult transition," Sims said. "When I got hurt, they cast me aside."
At the time, Sims owned three Dunkin' Donuts stores that were bleeding money. His weight swelled from 330 pounds to nearly 400 pounds. His marriage disintegrated.
"I gave up my liquid cash of over $1 million to my ex-wife and I found myself in an 1,100-square-foot apartment after living in an 11,000-square-foot, $2 million house two years after I retired," he said. "It was an intimidating place to be. I had no choice but to make my business work, and I did."
He had 16 doughnut shops in South Florida when he sold them in 2010. He is now remarried with four children, works as a sidelines reporter on Dolphins radio broadcasts and has lost 90 pounds after lap-band surgery.
Greg Baty, the backup tight end, walked away after the 1994 season, concluding he wasn't making enough money — $168,000 a year — to be putting his health at risk. He went to Stanford Business School and owned stakes in 50 Blockbuster video stores.
He works in the Fort Lauderdale office of a private equity asset management company, and runs the Florida Growth Fund, $500 million of Florida state employees' pension money allocated by the State Board of Administration.
As much as he prepared for the transition, it hasn't been easy, he said.
"It's this double whammy of not having your close friends around you and transitioning to a lower-profile career," Baty said. "You are starting all over."
Even small things bring home how life changes for a former pro. Baty remembers the first time he had to buy sneakers after years of getting free shoes from Nike.
Baty said football players need to leverage their celebrity and use their careers as "business development exercises," establishing connections.
Ex-running back Mark Higgs, an eight-year veteran, said fans see only the glamorous side of the NFL. Higgs owns a company that manages shuttle-bus drivers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
A gregarious figure who seems to know everyone at the airport, Higgs has run his M&T Transportation firm for 16 years, but at one point had to sell his Davie house to keep it going. He, too, has felt the recent economic crunch, losing two major contracts.
"People don't understand that everybody doesn't make that big money," he said.
"NFL stands for Not For Long. Trust me, it's not for long."
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