Lending a hand: Richt, former UGA players reach out to create network in wake of Paul Oliver’s tragic death

They played together on Georgia’s defense from 2004-06 and still saw each other every now and then.

At an NFL preseason game with their respective teams.

Bumping into each other in the offseason in Atlanta.

Quentin Moses remembers exchanging phone numbers with Paul Oliver. He said he kept in touch from time to time even though their paths were different.

Oliver, a former Bulldogs cornerback, was married with kids. Moses, a defensive end from Athens, was single.

“I’m probably one of those 100 people that said, ‘Man, wish I had contacted him the last time I saw him when I got his number,’” Moses said. “I wished I had called him and maybe I could have been there for him, but you never know what’s going on with a person because we always look good on the outside.”

Oliver’s other teammates from Georgia and in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers learned how things had taken a turn for the worse with Oliver after his pro football career had ended.

Oliver died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head last year on the evening of Sept. 24 at the single-family brick home in Marietta where he had lived in since January of 2011. It was a tragic end to the life of a 29-year old who left behind his wife, Chelsea, and two young sons, Simeon and Silas.

A week later, Georgia football coach Mark Richt huddled with some 40 or so former Georgia players after Oliver’s funeral at Burnt Hickory Baptist Church in Powder Springs. Richt vowed to make good on a promise he made to them when he recruited them, that he would take care of them while they were in Athens and afterwards.

“Coach Richt said that was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Des Williams, who played fullback for the Bulldogs. “He was really going to put some effort into helping us as former players.”

Plans were already underway for Georgia to increase its efforts to help those who wore the Bulldogs uniform make the often-difficult transition to life after football, Richt said.

Maybe it would be called the post-graduate mentoring program since Richt planned to tap into well-connected businessmen in the Atlanta area to serve as mentors and help former players navigate their ways into the workforce.

“I want you all to bring your buddies,” Richt said he told the players about an event that Georgia ended up having in March at the Butts-Mehre building. “I want us to be together again. If nothing else, if you just hang out with your buddies, you’re going to enjoy the day, you’re going to have a ball. But the main goal, or another goal is to help guys transition from football to life, to learn how to network and get jobs.”

After Oliver’s death came the idea to call it the Paul Oliver Network, and “even made it more crystallized to everybody that there’s a tremendous need for this,” Richt said. “I’m not going to be presumptuous that if Paul had a good job waiting for him afterwards or if he had hope for a good job or he was on the path for a good job that he would be here today, but maybe. I want that to be one thing to check off the list. I do know this: A man, I think he is divinely created to provide for and protect his family. I think if he’s not doing that or doesn’t feel capable of doing that, I think it hurts his spirit.”

***

Oliver’s closest friends from Georgia would try to get together with him when he returned home during the offseasons in an NFL career that stretched from 2007 through 2011.

That group included running back Danny Ware and offensive lineman Fernando Velasco, who both also played in the NFL, linebacker Jarvis Jackson and Williams.

“We just couldn’t believe it happened,” Ware said. “It still hurts to this day because you don’t have your buddy to call, ‘Hey, man, whatcha doing? I want to bring the boys over and let them play,’ or something. It’s just kind of tough.”

Oliver had seven interceptions and 94 tackles in three seasons at Georgia after redshirting. He shut down star Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson in 2006, holding him to two catches for 13 yards in a Georgia victory.

Oliver was taken in the NFL supplemental draft by San Diego in 2007 after he was academically ineligible. He started 12 games as a safety for the Chargers during a career that included a stint with the New Orleans Saints in 2011 after signing as an unrestricted free agent. He was released in training camp and returned to the Chargers.

Williams had not spoken to Oliver for about six months, though, before Oliver ended his own life.

“I thought since he was done with football I’ve got forever to reach out and get the kids together, get (our wives) together,” Williams said. “I never could have imagined what was about to take place.”

Oliver committed suicide in front of his wife and children, who at the time were age 2 and 11 months. He had previously made statements about wanting to take his own life, his wife told police, and the couple was having marital difficulties and he had mentioned divorce but she suggested counseling.

Since retiring from the NFL after the 2011 season, Oliver had been “somewhat depressed over being released and ending his professional football career,” she said. He signed for about $604,000 with the Chargers in September of 2011, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

While he had made statements about wanting to end his life before, the threats were never specific and police were never called regarding attempts or threats.

Chelsea Oliver and the boys have moved back to her home state of California. She played volleyball at Georgia (known then as Chelsea Young) at the same time Oliver was on the football team after she graduated from Fountain Valley High School. Her parents and family live in the San Diego area, Williams and Richt said.

She did not respond to messages left for her for this article but has started The Oliver Tree Foundation in Paul’s name.

It is focused on supporting youth, healthy living and supporting awareness and support research of CTE.

On a video on the website, Chelsea said her husband “did unfortunately have CTE” — Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease of the brain that has been found in players with repetitive brain trauma. She mentions in the video that it’s caused by multiple concussions.

“When I talked to him, I never knew anything about that,” Ware said. “I knew he had went out and seen some doctors but I didn’t know as far as what it was for.”

CTE is associated with, among other things, depression, impaired judgment and impulse control problems, according to Boston University’s CTE Center.

Oliver is among 96 — including 48 former pro football payers — listed as brain tissue donors at the Sports Legacy Institute, a Boston-based non-profit founded in 2007 by former pro wrestler Chris Nowinski and Dr. Robert Cantu, a concussion expert.

Among those players is former Chicago safety Dave Duerson, former Atlanta safety Ray Easterling, former Philadelphia safety Andre Waters and former Denver receiver Kenny McKinley, all of whom committed suicide.

***

Des Williams wonders what might have been for Oliver, even with CTE, with the type of support system that Georgia now has in place.

“Coach Richt didn’t want anybody to feel like they didn’t have not just one person in their corner but several people, 50 people in your corner,” Williams said. “Even with (CTE) if he could have seen all the guys at his funeral, there would be no doubt in my mind that even with that condition, that I just don’t think he would have been alone enough to do that. Coach Richt wanted us to stay very well connected as brothers.”

Richt has always tried to do what he can for former players in helping connect them in the job market.

By making a phone call to vouch for a former player to a prospective employer. By writing recommendations for grad or law school.

“I’m doing that all the time and I love doing that,” he said. “It’s awesome, but we’ve never really streamlined and been so organized that we can really access the Bulldog Nation’s ability to get involved. They can’t recruit them, they can’t pay them, but when they’ve graduated, when their eligibility’s up, they can hire them if they want to. They can interview them if they want to. They can help.”

Former strength coach Dave Van Halanger, Georgia’s director of player welfare, and intern and former walk-on quarterback Greg Bingham are helping match former players and businesses.

Williams may not have been a marquee player at Georgia, but he’s done well for himself after football.

His Dacula-based landscape design and lighting company, Outdoor Advantage, has generated about a $1 million a year in revenue in four years, he said.

“What Coach hopes is some of the guys that are doing well sooner can help pull some of the guys who just graduate or are struggling a little bit and are just coming along,” Williams said.

More than 120 of Richt’s former players showed up for the first Paul Oliver Network gathering, which will be held annually. They attended breakout sessions on banking entrepreneurship and real estate. They were given career and personality testing and offered help with job placement.

“I even had a couple two or three guys that were thrown off the team that showed up,” Richt said. “They got hugged by their teammates. So many guys emailed or called back and said, ‘Coach, that was awesome.’”

“Probably 60 percent of the guys had never been back to Georgia in any capacity,” Williams said.

Linebacker Rennie Curran, who played one season with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and is now in his second season with the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos, has remained close to the program but said former teammates often go their separate ways.

“We don’t really keep in touch after we leave and after we stop wearing the jersey,” he said. “It was just good to get everybody back together and network and find out what each of us were doing.”

Richt plans to include lettermen from before he arrived in 2001 in future events

Former Bulldogs defensive lineman David Jacobs and safety Sean Jones are putting together an event on Jones’ property in August as part of the P.O. Network.

P.O. is the nickname Oliver had since he was a five-star recruit out of Harrison High in Kennesaw.

***

When the games end and the cheering stops, it can come gradually, not suddenly.

Even when it’s over, a player may not want to believe it is.

“I call it when they get hungry,” Richt said.

That, he said, usually comes a year after football ends for the athlete, whether after college or the NFL.

“That’s when it hits,” Richt said. “‘What am I going to do? I need a job. I need a degree.’ … When they get hungry, they call. They come in. And for years, we’ve been helping them.”

Ware, who now lives in Atlanta, said Oliver had a hard time adjusting.

“He thought he was going to be picked up and when he didn’t, it was kind of a shock to him,” Ware said.

“I guess he was just looking for a direction to go in. I was kind of in the middle of being released from Tampa Bay (in March 2013) and in the process of starting school again, so I was kind of all over the place as well.”

Richt didn’t think Oliver reached out to the football program looking to return to school.

Former Wake Forest linebacker Jon Abbate, who was friends with Oliver, was critical of Georgia in comments to USA Today after Oliver’s death.

“There are so many people that say, ‘We love this kid, he was one of our favorite players at Georgia,’ but where the hell were you?” he said. “Did anybody reach out to him? Did anyone in academic counseling say, ‘Here’s the path you can get on to earn your degree?’ There’s just no support system. At the same time, I didn’t reach out to him. It’s just frustrating.”

Ware, the father of boys Amari and Danny, hopes to graduate from Georgia in December after taking 15 more credits in the fall. He would like to own a business and is seeking investors.

On the day Ware spoke for this story he was on his way for a doctor’s visit in hopes of getting his NFL medical benefits started with monthly checks.

“I’m seeing if there are any side effects or anything that may have developed over time playing,” said Ware, who played six seasons and won two Super Bowl rings with the Giants. “I’m going in and letting them do an evaluation on me.”

Richt estimates that about 75 percent of players who attended the networking event in the spring had jobs and were doing well. There were resources for former NFL players to tap into to further their education. Curran said he took advantage of an NFL career transition program at Georgia Tech after he was released by Tampa Bay before the 2012 season and also used that time to write a book: “Free Agent.”

Georgia is trying to educate its current players this summer with a career management symposium. Former players including D.J. Shockley, and Matt and Jon Stinchcomb are returning to speak about credit, saving and investing and value-based decision making.

Richt tells his former players they need to “humble themselves” by knowing if they were making $750,000 a year in pro football, they may soon have to start out making $30,000 to $50,000 in the business world.

Richt, a devout Christian, has often said, “What you do is not who you are,” something he tries to instill in his players.

“It might be the greatest gift I can teach them,” he said. “If you pour all your life into what you do and somehow you get fired or something happens to the business, then now what? You’re a wreck. You’ve got nothing.”

Curran said players spend so much time in the weight room and film rooms that “our identity is based upon being an athlete. Once we have to take off that jersey and we have to transition, we have no transferable skills. When it comes to getting into the workforce, it’s very, very tough. I think there needs to be more programs like this that can help guys capitalize on their platform as athletes when they leave the university.”

He continued: “You stop hearing about guys once they’re not playing in front of crowds. If they’re not going to the NFL, most guys really get lost and lose their identity. Really, the only think they have to do is go back to their hometowns and they don’t really have anything to show for it for those four years that they played.”

***

The first Georgia player to go in the 2007 NFL draft wrote down his name and contact information and dropped it in a box.

A couple of weeks later, that player, Moses, got an email from the P.O. Network about a sales job that was open.

Moses attended the P.O Event even though he’s already starting off in the coaching profession. He’s in his second season as defensive line coach at Reinhardt University in Waleska, an NAIA School.

“You get used to a certain lifestyle,” said Moses, a third-round pick of the Raiders who played four seasons with the Miami Dolphins. “The misconception is you take guys straight out of college and put them around these guys and you almost get consumed. You see the Jason Taylors and the Joey Porters and the 10- and 12-year vets.”

Moses, a product or Cedar Shoals High School, was out of the league by 2010. He said he made a lot of money but spent a lot, too.

“I felt like I’m going to help out anybody that I can help out because, at the end of the day, I want to share this blessing,” he said. “What you run into is people misuse you and take advantage of you.”

Moses reportedly received a one-year, $1.1 million tender offer before his final season and a $610,000 signing bonus after he was drafted.

“You get those stories where a guy was at home for a year and then he came back and played six more seasons,” Moses said. “You think that’s going to happen. You get cut and don’t get picked up. ‘Oh, I’ll get picked up next year.’”

Moses played in the UFL pro league and tore his groin. He rehabbed. He emailed NFL coaches he had played for to try to get another look. He went to a couple of workouts, but wasn’t signed.

“You kind of get caught up in these false realties and then you look up one day and you’re like, ‘Man, it’s really over,’” he said.

Football, yes. Life, no.

Georgia, through the P.O. Network, wants former players to know there is life after football.

“We can share our contacts, we can share our mentors,” Williams said, “and we can share our common experiences and kind of help each other pull each other up.”

Anyone wanting to help with the Paul Oliver Network, contact P.O.network1@gmail.com The website for the Oliver Tree Foundation is www.theolivertreefoundation.org

 

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