A recent Sports Illustrated article estimated that, within two years of leaving football, an astounding 78 percent of players are either bankrupt or in financial distress over joblessness and divorce. The IRS and the creditors and an angry ex-wife and an avalanche of attorneys are circling the chaos that used to be Bernie Kosar's glamorous life.
There's no preparing you for the silence that comes after all you've heard is cheering. A quarterback will never feel more alive anywhere than he does at the conquering center of everything in sports. His is by consensus the most difficult job in athletics, and it requires an obsessive-compulsive attention to detail. The most diligent and consumed become Peyton Manning and Tom Brady; the talented and lazy become Ryan Leaf. And sometimes they sculpt their singular and all-consuming skill to the detriment of the balance needed for the rest of life's tacklers. Bills? Errands? Adulthood? Those things get handed off sometimes because, whether it is the offensive line or family and friends huddled around their income source, the quarterback must always be protected or everyone loses.
Kosar was one of the smart ones. He graduated from the University of Miami in 2 ½ years. He was smart enough to go a record 308 pass attempts without an interception. Smart enough to help build several businesses after football, with a 6 percent interest in a customer-service outsourcing company that sold for more than $500 million. Smart enough to have a wing of the business school at the University of Miami named after him. But now that the maids and wife are gone, you know how he feels walking into a grocery store by himself for the first time?
''Overwhelmed,'' he says.
He is like an embryo in the real world. The huddle gave him strength and purpose and enough fame and money that he never had to do much of anything for himself. Never had to grow, really, as anything but a quarterback. He says his kids (ages 17, 16, 12 and 9) grew up in a world where ''their idea of work was telling the maid to clean their room.'' And even the live-in maids had assistants. So now they're all trying to figure it out together, four kids led by a 45-year-old one.
Do you know how to wash clothes, Bernie?
''No,'' he says.
Iron a shirt?
''No,'' he says.
Start the dishwasher?
''No,'' he says.
He just learned the other day, after much trying and failing, how to make his own coffee. This is a man who owned his own jet and helped found companies, plural. But when his new girlfriend came over recently and found him trying to cook with his daughters, she couldn't believe what was on the kitchen island to cut the French bread. A saw.
''I was 25 and everyone was telling me that I was the smartest; now I'm 45 and realize I'm an idiot,'' he says. ``I'm 45 and immature. I don't like being 45.''
He still finds himself doodling plays on napkins in the kitchen. Running companies doesn't feel as rewarding as working with a high school or college tight end on routes. The only post-quarterback jobs that have given him any sort of joy are the ones near football: broadcasting Cleveland Browns games; running a company that created football websites and magazines; buying an Arena Football League team. But it isn't the same. Not nearly. As he tries to reorganize his life in a dark period that leaves his mind racing and sleepless, the people he quotes aren't philosophers and poets. They are coaches.
It is hard to believe he filed a bankruptcy petition on Friday, but a bad economy, bad advice, a bad divorce and a bad habit of not being able to say ''no'' have ravaged him. He says financial advisors he loved and trusted mismanaged his funds, doing things like losing $15 million in one quick burst. There's a $4.2 million judgment against him from one bank. A failed real-estate project in Tampa involving multi-family properties. A steakhouse collapsing with a lawsuit. Tax trouble.
His finances have never been something he controlled. He graduated on July 14, 1985, was at two-a-day NFL workouts six days later, and immediately got on the learning treadmill at full speed, always feeling like he was catching up because his team wasn't very good; and his receivers were worse than the ones he had at UM, and everyone on the other side of the ball was very fast, and he was very slow, and the only advantage he would have was being smarter. Dad would handle the bills; the son had to handle the Bills.
And he was always rewarded for being consumed that way. That's how the weakest and least physically gifted guy on the field once threw for 489 yards in an NFL playoff game. But that huddle eventually breaks, and the men who formed it break, too. Depression. Drugs. Drinking. Divorce. You'll find it all as retired football players cope with the kinds of losses teammates can't help you with -- a loss of identity, self-worth, youth, relevance.
Over the years, a lot of those old teammates have asked Kosar to borrow a hundred grand here, a hundred-fifty grand there. He knew then that he wouldn't be getting it back. But, as the quarterback -- always the quarterback -- you help your teammates up.
How much has he lent teammates over the years without being repaid?
''Eight figures,'' he says.
Friends and family?
''Eight figures,'' he says.
Charities, while putting nearly 100 kids through school on scholarships? ``Well over eight figures.''
When it became public earlier this month that the Panthers hockey team would be sold and that Kosar would be getting a minority-owner percentage of the $240 million price, his phone rang all weekend with people asking for help. Calls after midnight on Friday. Calls before 7 a.m. on Sunday.
''Everyone with a sob story came flooding back,'' he says. Then there's the divorce. It has been a public disaster, with him being accused of several addictions, of erratic behavior and of giving away the couple's money. Bernie says he has no interest in fighting with his estranged wife publicly or privately because ''I can't live vengefully in front of my kids. Why subject them to that? I don't want to fight anybody. I don't want hate or anger in their life. I may hurt me, but I wouldn't hurt anybody else.'' He speaks with a slur and admits there has been drinking and pain medication in his past, but says the only thing he's addicted to is football.
Drugs? Alcohol? ''Would my kids be living with me if that were really the case?'' he asks. ``If I did 10 percent of things I'm accused of, I'd be dead.''
He says the divorce has cost him between $4 and $5 million already.
''That's just fees,'' he says. ``And they keep coming. Attorneys charge $600 an hour just to screw things up more.''
And here's the worst part: ''I don't want to get divorced,'' he says. ``I'm Catholic, and I'm loyal, and I still love her.''
There are photos all over his mansion. Many of them are not up. They are on the floor, leaning against the walls. He'll learn how to hang them soon enough. He goes over and grabs the one by the fireplace. In it, he is in the pocket with the Browns, and everything is collapsing all around him. You can see Kosar's offensive linemen either beaten or back-pedaling. His left tackle is on the ground, staring as his missed assignment blurs toward the quarterback's blind side. But the ball is already in the air, frozen in flight, headed perfectly to the only teammate who has a step in a sea of Steelers. It is a work of art, that photo. You can see clearly that the play is going to work. And you can see just as clearly that Kosar is going to get crushed.
Kosar runs his fingers along the frame. This is what his life once was and what it is now -- a swirl of chaos and pain and danger surrounding a man who has to remain in control for the people around him as everything feels like it is falling apart.
''I just wanted to play football,'' the old quarterback says.