Help for when the dream ends: Richt’s other passion

semerson@macon.comJuly 12, 2014 

The phone rang as Mark Richt was wrapping up work, preparing for the biggest game of the year. Richt answered, and quickly realized his night was far from over.

Already that week something tragic had happened to one of Richt’s former players. Now another was calling, telling Richt he was depressed and contemplating the end.

“Where in the hell are you?” Richt asked.

The player, whose identity Georgia’s football head coach did not want to divulge, happened to be in Athens.

“You know where my house is?” Richt asked.

The player said he did.

“Be there in 20 minutes,” Richt said.

Richt hastily called a few staffers, and they raced to his house and met the player. They talked deep into the night, then put him in touch with someone who could help.

Two days later, ninth-ranked Georgia beat sixth-ranked LSU. In the locker room afterwards, Richt sobbed.

A few months later, Richt sat in the football coaches meeting room, in what they call the war room. This time it was not coaches at the table but businessmen. They would form a secret and select group that would be aimed at giving former players a life after football, a direction after the original dream ended.

It would be called the Paul Oliver Network, after the former defensive back who shot himself in front of his family the previous September, distraught about the end of his career.

A person with knowledge of the meeting remembers Richt tearing up again, pounding the table and saying, “I don’t want this to happen to another one of my boys.”

Stunning development

Oliver’s death stunned his former coaches and teammates. He was married with two young children, and after five seasons in the NFL, he likely was on sound financial footing. But his wife Chelsea told police that Oliver was “somewhat depressed” about the end of his football career, two years prior.

Whether that was the biggest factor in Oliver’s death isn’t known. He was also drinking that day. But former Georgia teammate Des Williams, who said he remains close with Chelsea Oliver, believes the inability to move on from football was paramount.

“He wasn’t in the dire straits (financially) that some people are,” Williams said. “I feel like if he had known all the people in his corner, even with all the other stuff going on, it never would have happened.”

Sadly, Oliver’s story is not unusual. Former South Carolina receiver Kenny McKinley committed suicide in 2010, as his pro career seemed derailed by injury. Many other players have trouble coping when their football careers end, having not planned for their future and with no jobs lined up or no contacts in the business world.

“There are 100,000 people cheering for you all the time. Then you have to jump into the game of life,” said David Jacobs, whose Georgia career ended in 2001 after suffering a stroke in practice. “Sometimes that can be difficult.”

Another former Georgia player, Darius Dewberry, put it this way: “It’s like, ‘Oh man what am I gonna do now?’ You’re panicking.”

Oliver’s funeral in September was attended by dozens of former Georgia teammates, as well as Richt, who skipped that day’s practice. After the service, the head coach and his former players found themselves standing outside the church; Richt recalled watching the hearse ride off, and the mood slowly lightened enough for people to chat, people who had not seen each other in a long time.

That’s when Richt called everyone together. He had a plan.

What happens when it’s over?

When young men play major college football, they’re well-known. They have tutors, life skills classes and a general safety net. But when their football career ends, whether it’s after college or the NFL, they’re suddenly on their own.

Georgia had 45 players in the NFL last year, among the most for any program. But about four times that many Bulldogs in the past decade didn’t make the pros.

Dewberry was one of them. His college career ended in 2008, and a short time later, he found himself working on the Georgia grounds crew.

Instead of playing on the grass at Sanford Stadium, he was mowing it.

“I was still around sports, so I didn’t mind it,” Dewberry said. “But it got kind of old.”

Richt and Dave Van Halanger, the team’s director of player welfare, served as sounding boards. But Van Halanger went further one day. He knew the strength coach for Hendrick Motorsports, the NASCAR team, which was looking for an assistant strength coach. Dewberry had no certification for the job, but Georgia coaches remembered him being one of their best in the weight room, so they recommended him to the Hendrick team.

Dewberry got the job last summer. He is believed to be the first black strength coach in NASCAR.

“Why did that happen? He just had a little help,” Richt said. “Now who knows what’ll happen to him and his kids and his grandkids, just because he got a break. ... That’s how the network should work.”

And this is how the Paul Oliver Network is set to work:

Richt, Van Halanger and Greg Bingham (a former Georgia walk-on quarterback and now a staff member) are running the network, as far as connecting athletes. Rhonda Kilpatrick, an assistant athletics director, is helping with degree audits. Associate athletics director Carla Williams helps when it comes to getting former players back into school.

There’s also the group of businessmen in Atlanta whom Richt wants to remain anonymous. While Richt is happy to publicize what he and Georgia are doing, he is wary of people getting involved with the network just to get publicity. The group is helping to screen former players and help place them at job interviews.

Williams, a former fullback and linebacker, is a point man among players. Sean Jones, a former Georgia and NFL safety, is also assisting, as is Jacobs.

In March there was a network event. More than 100 former players, including a couple who had been dismissed from the team, congregated at the team’s athletics facility. Players with successful post-football careers (Williams, David Greene, D.J. Shockley, etc.) mingled with ex-teammates needing a job.

That event sprung out of that impromptu reunion at Oliver’s funeral.

Richt said for years he was helping players get jobs and go back to school, but it wasn’t organized and was more on an “as they come” basis. A former player would call him, and Richt or an adviser would put him in touch with someone they knew. But Richt found that often a former player needed more help than that.

Hence the network.

“I believe that the Georgia Bulldog nation is a real thing, and they love our guys, and they respect the guys that come through,” Richt said. “I tell (players), ‘If you come here, and you behave, and you play hard, there will be so many people who want to help you down the road, to just get started.’ So I want to tap into that in an organized fashion.”

The idea for the network had been around for some time, and Richt was just searching for a name for it. When Oliver died, it was decided to dedicate the network to him.

“When Paul died, I think that weighed heavily on Coach Richt’s heart,” Williams said. “He really wanted to do something special for the guys.”

Losing hope

Richt sat in a private room at his office this summer. His voice lowered.

“Paul, somewhere along the way, lost hope,” he said.

Oliver never called Richt looking for help. Richt doesn’t want to presume that the inability to find work was the reason for his depression. But Richt sensed that any man with a wife and kids would feel pressure to provide.

“It’s one of the things that I believe God has ordained us to do, is to provide and protect for our families,” Richt said. “When you’re not able to do that, your ego takes a beating, or however you want to say it.”

The coach took a deep breath.

“I don’t want any one of our guys to feel like, ‘I don’t know where to go, I don’t know where to turn,’ ” he said.

There will be cynics who argue that this will help Richt with recruiting, that it can help his good-guy image and encourage players to go to Georgia.

Richt himself brought up that side of it.

“I can promise you it doesn’t have anything to do with recruiting,” he said. “I’m sure it could help recruiting. But I can assure you I’m doing this because I really care about these guys.”

During the interview, former Georgia player Kareem Marshall called Richt’s cellphone.

Marshall played offensive line for Georgia from 2001-02, is interested in going back to school and sought out the help of his coach. The network is open to all Georgia lettermen, including those from the pre-Richt era.

This season will be Richt’s 14th as Georgia’s head coach. He’s only 54, and yet there is always speculation that he could walk away to pursue non-football measures.

But the Paul Oliver Network is just that, and Richt feels he can do more good by staying as the head coach at Georgia. It empowers him, because this is a major way he can make a difference on the job.

“It fires me up,” Richt said. “I’ve always had a greater purpose in coaching than trying to get a raise or trying to win a championship or coach a Heisman Trophy winner. I mean I’ve been blessed to win championships, coach Heisman winners, All-Americans, national championships, ACC championships. I know we didn’t do that at Georgia as a national champion. But you know, I experienced all that. And if that’s all there is at the end it’s empty, unless you help these guys.

“And that’s what people misunderstand sometimes. I’m highly motivated to win the national championship. But just because I care about them beyond football they think, ‘Oh he’s more worried about that than he is winning.’ No that’s not true at all. Not true at all. I want to win, and we’re gonna do the best we can to try to win. But I feel like we truly are educators, and we truly have a responsibility to help these guys.”

Then Richt, whose program signed 22 players this year, harkened back to the promises he makes to parents when he recruits their children.

“How many moms have said to coaches, ‘I can’t teach them how to be a man, can you help me?’ I would say half or more. It’s that situation,” he said. “So who’s gonna help them?”

UGA is asking those who are interested in the network -- former players or anyone wishing to assist -- to send an email to p.o.network1@gmail.com.

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