In the Disney Pixar animated film “The Incredibles”, Mr. Incredible, the world’s best and most beloved super hero, decides to hang up his cape and retires from the business of being a super hero. He must consciously suppress the urge to use his super powers to help others and implants himself in common society as an insurance agent. As you could imagine, Mr. Incredible struggled with this transition for many reasons, the biggest being a feeling of not being able to affect society on larger positive levels anymore. He was lost in the reality of who he was and who he felt he could still be, compounded with the sorrows of how society presently viewed him, which was as a mere mortal. He found himself in a sort of identity purgatory.
Though this film is a great kid’s movie and one of my son's favorites, as a retired NFL athlete there were many parallels to the movie and Mr. Incredible that resonated with me and I imagine many retired athletes.
Most professional athletes have the luxury of finding their life's work or passion at a very early age and consequently have their identity attached to that. I knew I wanted to play in the NFL by age 11 and I made a conscience effort to do all that I could to make that dream a reality from that age on. Once I made it to the highest level of the sport, the NFL, Sundays became the day that real superheroes came to life in front of millions of fans. I often attempt to articulate the feeling of a superhuman NFL experience to friends. Playing along side and against modern day giants that have super human strength that can be summoned at will. Running with and after some of the world’s fastest men who also possessed the ability to accelerate, decelerate and leap defenders in a single bound. Engaging in mental and strategic warfare with some of the quickest and brightest minds of our day. Speaking of minds, playing with men that have mastered the art of mind over matter and are able to almost supernaturally will their minds past their body’s perceived physical limitations on a daily basis. Adrenaline constantly flows through these men’s veins along side their blood. So, when the opportunity to be superhuman on the field presents itself, there’s an immediate internal explosion of excitement that creates instant action. As an NFL player, you have the unique ability to incite happiness into millions of people you don't know from the actions you take on and off the field. This creates a sense of greater good that ignites a powerful psychological sense of acceptance and happiness. That feeling of being able to make a difference is powerful.
But, just as Mr. Incredible had to hang up his cape and lay his super powers to rest, so did I, and so does every other professional athlete, at some point. To some degree, that feeling was similar to Superman loosing his powers and falling from the heavens at supersonic speeds before exploding into the concrete, unconscious and struggling to make sense of his new identity. You see, it’s not the climb or the hard journey to the top that 'gets' most ultra competitors…it’s the fall. It’s the emotional and physical let down of not being able to compete at the top anymore. It’s an intrinsic wiring that, typically from an early age, creates an internal happiness and excitement when a challenge is presented and conquered. So, when an NFL athletes goes from obtaining incredible highs of glory with teammates in an arena that brings happiness to millions, it’s hard to duplicate that feeling of accomplishment and acceptance elsewhere. There's a perpetual void in most former NFL athlete’s lives that can never be filled, no matter how successful their 2nd career is. In fact, after getting the news that I would be receiving a significant Venture Capital investment into my technology company, I remember the feeling being bittersweet. I was obviously ecstatic to receive investment capital, but I also experienced a feeling of sadness due to the fact that the possibility of ever reliving my superhero gig (i.e. playing football again) was officially in my past.
This emotional and psychological awakening of the mind is where many former professional athletes, and I, at one point find ourselves. That was at the crossroads of now what and ahhh haah! This crossroads, though sometimes brief, is also the most challenging and sometimes darkest times in every former professional athlete’s life. No matter what their educational background or future business landscape looks like, it’s essentially a rebirth of identity in some ways, only the new identity is not only foreign to others but it’s also foreign to you, the former athlete. So much of your identity in life was wrapped up in what you did, not who you were underneath the superhero cape. And now, for the first time, these fallen super heroes must quickly reinvent themselves in a way they never thought they would have to nor want to. They have to be human now and deal with aspects of life that every human has to, without the everyday support, acceptance and validation of their teammates and millions of fans. You can say that the things that fueled their superhuman ability ultimately become their kryptonite. It’s simply called the real world, a world Mr. Incredible also initially had trouble finding his identity within.
In summary, the reason the movie 'The Incredibles’ resonated with me so much was because Mr. Incredible ultimately finds his 'mojo' again. He is able to use his super hero gifts in a new way, with a new team, to help many more people. You see, just as Mr. Incredible reinvented himself, many former NFL athletes and I had to do the same thing. Most professional athletes hate losing. Period. It eats at our core and not only gives us an acute sense of failure, but sometimes effects us psychologically days after. It’s why we trained so hard and focused so hard on the details of the game that would most likely allow us to win. That hate of losing allowed us to block out certain aspects of pain and suffering to accomplish the goal. Now you have the wave of former NFL athletes with that competitive mentality that are venturing away from the norm and discovering new challenges to compete in to help with their reinvention. We are substituting the thrill of competing on that high NFL level with new thrills of competing on new levels with new obstacles and new rewards. Our villains aren't the opposing teams anymore, they are the competing companies in our space. Our rewards no longer deal with things like a share of the division lead, they now revolve around being a leader in an industry based on market share. That's my new competition and I still hate losing.
Some would argue that the real reason we appeared to be superhuman had nothing to do with the uniform we wore, but ironically had everything to do with the intrinsic make up of the person underneath the uniform who's true identity had been hidden his/her whole life. So, the fact that the world is now left with that person, and not the cape, is kind of fitting. Just as Mr. Incredible learned that his real powers lied inside of him, regardless of his uniform, we as former athletes had to realize that important truism to begin our reinvention into our true selves…the real Incredibles!
"Faber est suae quisque fortunae"