By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Not so long ago, you wouldn't have needed to ask Peter Boulware what brought purpose to his life. Purpose was a three-point stance, a speed-rush and a quarterback planted in the turf. Purpose was staying strong, staying healthy, staying paid. Off the NFL field, where he spent eight seasons, made four Pro Bowl teams and won a Super Bowl, purpose was starting a family, socking away some money, trying to set the Boulwares up for life.
But now? With his playing days behind him, and the family and the finances both as beautiful and healthy as can be, it's the question that hovers over Boulware, the question that makes him flinch -- the question, really, that every retired athlete has to confront: What brings purpose to life now, when the game has used you up but when, by conventional measures, you're still so young and so rich?
Boulware, 34, contemplates the question. He is sitting at his kitchen table, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, with nowhere else he needs to be. Purpose, at this very moment, is a glass of iced tea and some central air conditioning.
Since his retirement from football, personal life has revolved around family -- wife Kensy and their four children, whose ages range from 5 months to 6 years -- while professional life has been built around the Toyota dealership for which he is a vice president and part-owner, as well as a surprising run for the Florida House of Representatives last fall. But the dealership is more an investment than a career and he lost his maiden political race, leaving him uncertain if he wants to do it again.
"One of the toughest things for athletes, or men in general," Boulware says, "is to have something outside the household that you can say, 'This is what I'm good at.' Being a pro athlete, you've always been the best at what you do, so you want to get into a field where you can be the best, not just average. Finding that field, I think, is where most guys have their toughest struggle.
"I believe I can be a good husband and a good father to my kids. But getting outside that arena and finding something where I can say I'm the best at, that's hard to find. I can't say I've actually found that yet."
Rare is the athlete who does find it. In the last 10 to 15 years -- since the first waves of multimillionaire athletes, beneficiaries of the big-money free agent era of professional sports, began reaching retirement -- the news is full of stories of squandered fortunes, aimless lives, failed marriages and mental-health issues. Few retired athletes, it seems, are good at the game of life.
According to the NFL Players Association, the average NFL player's career lasts about 3 1/2 years, and by some estimations as many as 80 percent of retired players endure either divorce or bankruptcy, the majority of those within two years of retirement.
For any athlete, purpose number one ought to be avoiding either of those.
"I'm a Christian," Boulware says. "So my purpose and direction come from God. I believe my first purpose is to be a good husband to my wife, and a good father to my kids. God has blessed me financially. I can be [home] in the middle of the day and spend time with my kids. Anything beyond that is extra for me."The Political Arena
There's not as much weight at the ends of the barbells as there used to be -- or between Boulware's neck and waist, for that matter. He is down 30 pounds from his playing weight. He lifts about 75 percent of what he once did, and resists the impulse to think of himself, by extension, as 75 percent of the man he once was.
What purpose, this? Just staying in shape, man. Every other morning, at the gym up the road from his house, weights downstairs, cardio upstairs, with retirees -- the real kind -- pedaling away at the stationary bikes next to him.
"Are you going to run for Congress next time, Peter?" asks one of them, 85-year-old Philip Poole, who got to know Boulware at the gym and became a financial supporter of his state house run.
Boulware says he doesn't know yet. That's still a ways off.
"Well, if you do, I've got some money for you," Poole says with a smile. "Right up to the legal limit."
"I appreciate that."
The political thing came out of nowhere last year, floated initially by a friend with ties to the Republican Party, which had come to view Boulware as its best hope for wresting control of the state District 9 house seat, historically an unassailably Democratic stronghold. Other than Bobby Bowden, who coached Boulware at Florida State, there may be no more popular figure in Tallahassee than Boulware -- an all-American out of Columbia, S.C., who led the Seminoles to the ACC title every year he played, then returned to make the town his home following a nine-year career with the Baltimore Ravens.
"I personally saw something in him as an individual that I thought this country was all about," says the friend, John Davis, director of minority outreach for the state Republican Party. "Peter is someone I consider to be the model person. This is a man who gets it, who can connect with people and can interact with any sector, from the bourgeois to the lower class and everywhere in between."
That Boulware even considered running shocked his family and others close to him, and when he decided to go ahead and do it, they wondered if, for the first time, he was giving in to his athletic id -- the allure of commanding the spotlight again, the inflated sense of self that makes famous people believe they would be good at anything. He assured them his intentions were good.
"I wasn't looking to make a big name for myself," he says. "I didn't even want to do it at first. I'm thinking to myself: 'I'm not a politician. I play football.' I thought you needed experience, a law degree. I thought, 'I'm inadequate. I don't have those things.' . . .
"But I bounced it off my wife and some other people, and I said: 'You know what? I'm going to do this, because it's the right thing to do -- as a way to serve and try to get involved in the community. Not because I wanted to be a politician.' "
And so, he ran. He raised a half-million dollars for a job that pays $30,000 a year. He knocked on thousands of doors, wiping spider webs off his face in the dewy mornings and fending off bees, dogs and sprinklers in the blazing afternoons.
"It was probably one of the most humbling things I've ever done," he says. "Coming from the NFL, where you're a superstar and signing autographs and stuff, and now it's 100 degrees and you're knocking on someone's door asking for their support? But as a professional athlete, I needed that. I needed to be brought back to reality and see regular people and regular problems."
The odds could not have been more stacked against him. Though he played down his party affiliation during the campaign ("I wish I didn't have to have a party attached to my name, to be honest with you," he says now), running as a Republican in Florida's District 9 -- which is largely defined by Tallahassee's double-whammy as both a university town and a state capital -- was almost guaranteed to be a losing proposition.
But Boulware almost did it, coming within about 400 votes, out of 80,000 cast, the minuscule margin of defeat doing little to ease the sting of losing.
"There were a lot of people who supported me," he says now. "I felt like I let them down."
In the fallout from the loss, Boulware found a consolation prize. Thumbing through a booklet of open state appointments that arrived in the mail one day, he circled an item about a seat on the Florida Board of Education. "I could do that," he said. He applied, was chosen by Gov. Charlie Crist (R) and in January began a year-long term.
He has no definitive thoughts about his next political move, or whether there will even be a next move -- but others have thoughts for him. If the atmosphere became just a little more hospitable for Republicans next year, perhaps he could make up those 400 votes and then some.
"It's definitely not over yet," Davis says. "I really believe one day we will be talking about Peter Boulware, the elected official."
And then there's the 2nd Congressional District seat, held for the past 12 years by Democrat Allen Boyd. Because it extends well beyond Tallahassee into rural north Florida -- which is often characterized as an extension of the deep South -- it is seen as more winnable for a Republican, and in fact the district voted 54 percent for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
"Yeah," says Jim Greer, the state GOP chairman, "I definitely think a congressional run is somewhere in his future."
One problem: "I don't think I want to run anymore," Boulware says. "But I'll keep the door open. I can honestly say I'm not doing this to try to make a name for myself, or to push an agenda, or fill a void that football left. I mean, the process is too hard. Walking the neighborhoods and waving signs, and the amount of time you spend away from your family -- it's just too hard a process."
To put it another way: He doesn't need the aggravation. If that's what purpose is supposed to be at this stage of life, he can do without it.Spending Wisely
It's 1:30 p.m., and for the first time all day, Boulware does something resembling work -- and immediately wishes he hadn't. Sitting at his nearly bare desk above the sales floor of Legacy Toyota, Boulware scans the company's latest monthly sales report, and instinctively his forehead sinks into the palm of his giant left hand, while his right hand flips each ugly page.
"It's bad. It's real bad," he says absently.
Minutes later, Boulware is standing on the floor of the dealership's collision center, where roughly two-thirds of the repair stations are empty. He is talking with an employee, the manager of the collision center.
"We gotta move some units," Boulware mutters. The manager nods grimly.
Boulware made $33.2 million in salary and bonuses during his NFL career, according to an industry source with access to that information, and by all accounts was smarter about what to do with it than just about anyone else in his position. He's doing just fine, thanks.
"Playing in the NFL, it definitely set me ahead a little bit," he says. "But I still feel I have to be wise and invest wisely. I can't take the money from the NFL and put it in a shoebox and live off it. It has to grow for me to live the way I want to live."
Nothing about the Boulwares screams outrageous wealth. They live in a large but not ostentatious house in a neighborhood lined with old oak trees. He drives a Tundra truck, Kensy a Sienna minivan -- both dealer cars provided by Legacy Toyota. In every way, his appears to be a bling-free existence -- not because he can't afford it, but because he doesn't need it.
"Back when he was still playing, we'd see a nice car go by, and [Boulware] would say, 'Man, I wish I had that,' " said Adrian Crawford, a former FSU basketball player who played professionally in Europe, and who remains one of Boulware's closest friends. "I'd be like: 'Well, go buy it. You can afford it.' And he'd go, 'No, I can't.' 'You can't?' And he'd say: 'This ain't gonna be here forever. It's gonna dry up. And I gotta be ready when it does.' "
This wasn't a learned behavior; it was Boulware's nature, instilled since birth. He grew up in a family of overachievers. His father was a doctor. His sister became a psychologist. One brother is an engineer. The other, Michael, followed Peter to FSU and the NFL. Not a big spender among them.
"His parents taught him the value of money," says Kensy, a former FSU volleyball player. "They made him work hard for it."
So when Boulware arrived in the NFL in 1997, he set himself up with a modest monthly allowance, saving and investing the rest. He wasn't the first to do so, but he may have been the first to not only adhere to the allowance -- but to cut it back as his earnings increased. In retirement, he's still cutting.
"Every year, we've been cutting it back and back. It's been good. As bad as this recession is, it's forced our family to look at things and say: 'You know what? This is important. That is not important. We can live with this, and we can live without that.'
"Financially, I'm in a position where I don't really have to do that, but I think it's smart."
Boulware first bought into an auto dealership 10 years ago, still early in his NFL career, viewing it both as an investment and a potential post-NFL career path. "We always thought he'd come back [to Tallahassee], maybe even go to dealer school," Kensy says. "We thought he'd really be involved [in the dealership's operation]. And then the political thing came along."
These days, Boulware goes to the dealership about twice a week, including sitting in on a weekly board meeting. His office appears mostly unused, with the shelves behind his office desk almost bare, and framed posters and other artifacts from his playing days leaning against walls on the floor, waiting to be hung.
If it seems unlived-in, it's partly by design. The agents and lawyers and accountants and financial advisers -- they all tell you to think about your goals after your playing days are over. But this was one of Boulware's:
"One of my main goals," he says, "was to set myself up financially to where I had enough income and wasn't forced to go to work every day if I didn't want to. . . . I didn't want a job where I clocked in at 8 and clocked out at 6."Emotional Transition
The end was ugly. It usually is.
The aftermath was worse. It always is.
Two knee operations, a reconstruction job on his foot. He sat out the entire 2004 season because of injuries. The pain in his toe was so great, at the end, Boulware had to wear a shoe two sizes too big just to get on the field.
"That's when I knew it was over," he says now.
The Ravens released their all-time sacks leader without so much as a press release.
And then, the darkness.
"I always said when I was playing, 'You know what? If I had to let this thing go, I could let it go and be fine.' And it was until I had to retire that I said, 'You know what? As much as I thought I was prepared -- emotionally, I'm really not. . . . I could have played another three or four years.' I felt like I got shortchanged because I got hurt."
The 2006 NFL season, his first away from the game, went unviewed and undiscussed at the Boulware homestead. Other than a cathartic trip back to Baltimore that November to be inducted into the Ravens' Ring of Honor, he stayed as far away as possible.
"You do something your whole life. You're used to being the best at what you do," he says. "You're on top of the world one moment, and the next moment you're out. It just takes time to get over."
In the players' parlance, it is called the "transition," and in the past decade or so an entire industry has sprung up around it: special departments within the unions, including the NFL Players Association, to help players deal with it; agencies and institutes that specialize in conquering it; university departments that study it; magazines targeted towards the newly transitioned ("Keep living the dream" was the motto of one, which recently went under).
Boulware consulted none of them. His support system was tight-knit: Parents, wife, pastor, God. He didn't know exactly how he wanted his transition to go, but he knew how he didn't want it.
"I'd see a lot of guys [go through it], and I'd say, 'I want to try to be not like them,' " Boulware says. "But it's hard to do. It's one thing to prepare yourself financially. It's another thing to prepare yourself emotionally. I just don't think it's possible. There's a time in there between retirement and the next thing where -- it's just like a little mourning period, where you have to just get it out of your system."
"It was hard watching him go through it," Kensy says. "It was hard to see. But at the same time, it wasn't that hard -- if that makes sense. We talked a lot. Not to belittle it, but it wasn't that terrible."
This past NFL season was the one that finally got him past it, to the other side. Watching the games, he was struck by something. Either the game had gotten faster and more violent, or he had simply gotten old. And either way, he was right where he needed to be -- on his couch.
"This year, I could honestly watch the game and say, 'Those guys are too big and too strong and too fast -- I'm glad I'm not out there,' " he says. "It took a while, but I'm okay with being out [of the game] and okay with watching it, and I can honestly say the game has passed me by."
Reaching peace with the past was a major milestone in Boulware's life, but it still leaves the future. And if he doesn't quite have that figured out yet, so what?
"I don't feel like I'm searching for something," he says resolutely. "I believe there's something out there in my future. I believe God has a great plan for me. I believe there's work and things for me to do out there. But I don't want to be the guy [who's] always looking for something: 'What's my next move, my next jump?' . . .
"I feel like I'm one of the most blessed people in the whole world. Gosh, I played in the NFL, the Super Bowl. I have a great wife, kids. I have nothing to complain about."
"This is where his identity is -- family, fatherhood," Kensy says, motioning around the house. "He's right where he needs to be."
And at this point, at this stage, in Peter Boulware's position, what's wrong with that? If purpose means diapers and bottles, minivans and Elmos, enough work to keep you honest and enough options down the road to make your head spin -- well, who among us wouldn't take that?