Kent Bush: When the NFL dream dies too soon
Be careful what you wish for.
Almost every little boy has the dream. Each autumn when temperatures fall and classes are back in session, they put up their bats and balls and grab a hunk of pigskin.
In backyards across America, little boys toss up a ball and make the game winning catch to seal a victory for their imaginary team.
That dream grows clearer in junior high. If they continue playing into high school, they reach another rung on the ladder.
For the few fortunate enough to play in college the stakes grow higher. And if fate smiles on them, they get a chance to live the dream of playing on Sunday afternoon and even Monday night.
The money and fame induce the players to engage in behavior that puts long term health at risk in order to be able to extend their time in the spotlight by a few seasons or maybe even just a few more games.
But what happens when the spotlight fades away?
Hopefully, they have saved enough money to help pay the bills after retirement. But most NFL careers last only three and a half years.
That means most have seen the dream die before they are 30. They are left trying to restart their lives.
Promise and potential is replaced with pain and plight.
It's a story that plays out across the country and recently was revisited in my hometown.
As a young man in Chickasha, Okla., Sam Rayburn was a gentle giant. He was soft-spoken, but he was huge, and he had talent to match his size.
He was an all-stater and then started for four years at Tulsa University.
He wasn't drafted into the NFL, but he made the cut with the Philadelphia Eagles and played four seasons with them -- including a Super Bowl -- before injuries made him the odd man out on the Eagles' defensive line. He tried to catch on with the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins before taking being cut one last time.
But just because he stopped going to work in a facemask doesn't mean the effects of the repeated concussions and dislocations, separations and sprains just go away.
During his time in the league, he spent a lot of time on narcotic painkillers to keep him on the field and off the injured reserve list.
But what happens when the lights go off and you're looking for work to support your wife and kids back at home?
Rayburn admits that he came to a point where he had to decide whether to seek help or find a way to kill the pain.
"It gets to the point where you either have to say I've got to put it down, or you make a stupid decision which, unfortunately, is what I did," Rayburn told an Oklahoma City television reporter. "It just gets to the point where you don't need the medication to perform on the field anymore. You need it to perform in your life. You have to have it to get up and work and play with your kids."
Even though he knew what he was doing was wrong, he wasn't ready to admit his addiction until he got caught forging prescriptions and faced time in jail.
Since then, he has completed rehab and has been clean for almost 60 days.
"I'm trying to come out of this a better person," Rayburn said.
Knowing Sam, he probably will. He overcame a lot in his life to live his dream. He has met challenges and overcome obstacles.
It would be nice if the story ended with the NFL Players Association creating programs for players who recently left the league to insure that they are physically and emotionally ready to transition back into life out of the spotlight.
There are so many stories like this. A little assistance could keep more of them from taking a detour through a correctional facility or other wrong turn.
These players make a good living when they are in the league. But the NFL makes millions thanks to the brief careers of these young men whose star burns bright but burns out far too soon.
The league should show more compassion to the competitors who make the NFL the premier sports organization in the world.