Last week, after former Ravens linebacker Zach Orr announced he hoped to return to the NFL just five months after retiring with a congenital spine condition, ex-Packer Jermichael Finley said that Orr’s story “hits very close to home.”
Finley played six seasons as a tight end in Green Bay but retired following the 2013 season, at age 27, after he sustained a concussion and a serious neck injury in a span of four weeks. In May, Finley wrote an essay for The Players’ Tribune in which he detailed the circumstances of his concussion history, his career-ending injuries, his retirement, and the hardships of the adjustment to post-football living. Finley has since expanded on that essay in interviews with NPR and ESPN.
I spoke to Finley by phone this week. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why does Zach Orr’s situation hit so close to home for you?
He’s coming back to the NFL, especially with a spinal cord injury—it’s not like it’s an ACL or a knee sprain, or things like that you can come back from. A spinal cord injury scares me. I went through it. I know the details behind the rehab. I know the details behind the long nights, the long days, the stressful days. Him coming back worries me because like we all say, we’re one hit away from an injury as it is, then you come with a neck injury, you’re one injury away from never walking again. It just scares me, man.
Orr told an interviewer he chose to retire after only one doctor told him his condition put him at a greater risk for serious injury. This contradicts what he said during his retirement press conference in January. Are you surprised he’s had people telling him he’s OK to play five months after he retired?
My thing is, what type of people is he talking to? Is he talking to family members that may be mooching off him his whole life, or is he talking to a doctor with a lot of pride, and a doctor that’s done his surgery—you know what I mean?—that just wants him out there just to say, “This is my guy; I helped him get healthy”? Or are they looking out for his best outlook? He did have a spinal cord injury [Ed. note: A late-season neck injury is what led doctors to discover that Orr’s C1 vertebra at the top of his spinal cord was not fully formed]. I can tell you: The injury he’s coming back from, it’s not good, man.
You were obviously groomed to play football your whole life, and there’s a culture in the NFL of playing through pain, through injuries, even serious ones. How difficult was it for you to make the decision to retire when you did?
It was very tough, man. I went through a lot of talks with a lady that took care of me my whole life, and that’s my grandmother. I talked to her a lot, I talked to my wife a lot. And really, the eye in the sky don’t lie, and that’s the scans, the MRIs, the CAT scans, and things like that. They don’t lie. I took [team] visits. I had Seattle, I had the Patriots, I had all them guys on my coattails, and I got an MRI, and the Seahawks came back and said, “You’re not healthy. We can’t put you in danger like that.” And after that I kind of like backed up a little bit, like, “Is it worth it? Is it even worth it to push back with this neck injury?” I had a sense of humbleness hit me over a week after I went to Seattle, and I was like, “Yeah, I might have to sit down and enjoy life and work on my post-career.” And that’s what I’m doing now. And I’m very content doing it.
Given teams’ reluctance to take a chance on you after your neck injury, do you think it will be difficult for Zach Orr to get a team to take a chance on him?
I think it’s going to be tough. Zach is a great guy; I’ve followed him in the NFL—awesome, awesome guy. But at the end of the day, the league has their butts to cover, and teams have their butts to cover, so I think it’s going to be difficult for him to get on a team. Especially with all the head injuries, the settlements that’s coming out. It’s going to be very tough for any guy that had a neck or head injury to get back in the NFL from this point on.
Nick Collins went through something similar when you were a teammate of his. Did that influence your decision or your thinking at the time?
It did, man. That’s crazy you say that. With Nick being out, it was like, “Aw, man.” A great player, three-time Pro Bowler, great dad—all them things that he is. I’m like, man, I can do this, too. Nick Collins very much so influenced me to do what I did. Big time.
You’ve mentioned in a few interviews that your agent, Blake Baratz, suggested you get a $10 million insurance policy while you were playing, and that you received a payout in that amount, tax-free, after you retired. That obviously helped you get ready for your post-football life, but why wouldn’t every player get a policy like that? Also, when exactly did you get the policy?
I actually got it when I started my big deal [in 2012]. We were at a casual dinner, and all of a sudden, [Baratz] said, “You need to get an insurance policy because the way your game is, you play it reckless.” That was my style of play; it wasn’t running out of bounds. My thing was finding contact. He said, “We need to get you a disability policy.” And then so it happened when I was on the last year of my deal, I went to the max disability policy you can get. But you have to spend X amount of dollars to get it. That’s why players don’t get it, because you’ve got fork over [a lot of money] up front. It’s a gamble. It’s like a black hole; you’ve got to throw it in there and see what comes out.
You’ve been outspoken about the league and about teams putting pressure on players to return from injuries. How prevalent is that, and how much of that did you encounter that when you played?
Man, I know coaches read my posts and read the things that come out. I was one of them guys that hated coming out when I was injured. I didn’t even want the training staff to even touch me unless I was on the ground like I was when I was [temporarily] paralyzed. Then you come out. But if it’s an ankle, knee injury—I’m one of them guys that I’m going to find a way, and I’m going to be on that field, 100 percent. I really wasn’t a guy to really say nothing about a head injury or to say anything as far as “My knee is swelled up.” I’m going to find a way. I had a doctor; we called him a mastermind, he’s got magic. I’d call that guy, and I’d be back out there next Sunday, without the training staff even knowing.
Did teams put any pressure on players and coaches, or even the trainers themselves, to ignore injuries or to keep them to themselves in some way?
I’m not going to say ignoring, but the coaches put the pressure on the training staff, like, “What the hell is going on? Why isn’t he back? Why is he not healthy? We need him on the field this Sunday.” You know what I mean? If someone tells you that’s not going on, they’re a bald-faced liar. It’s a business. It’s a money deal.
There was a recent lawsuit (much of which was dismissed) that alleged teams gave out painkillers like candy, and ex-players like Eugene Monroe have written and talked openly about the cavalier use of painkillers in the NFL. Did you observe any of that or encounter it yourself?
The crazy part is I really wasn’t a pill-popper-type of guy. I really didn’t see things like that occur, especially in a first-class organization like Green Bay, that didn’t occur. The thing that did occur was the pressure on the training staff to get players back from injuries.
Marijuana is something a lot of ex-players are increasingly outspoken about as something that can assist with pain relief. What’s your stance on that? And do you think it’s strange the league is still being so retrograde on this topic?
Absolutely, man. I think more than anything you should have an alcohol test instead of a marijuana test. I think it’s bogus, man. I think marijuana is good for a guy that’s [currently] in the NFL, and a guy like me. I’ve got permanent nerve damage. Marijuana, for me, it helps me calm down, relax. I actually turn into a fucking normal person when I smoke marijuana. When I’m not smoking, it’s not necessarily like I’m in pain, but I feel like I’m abnormal, I’m not normal. But I’ll go and smoke a little bowl of marijuana, I feel like I’m normal to the world, I feel like I’m equal, I feel like I’m level now.
Was this true when you were playing, too, or was this something you discovered since your playing days?
It’s something that I just really discovered after my playing days, my post-career. Obviously, I ain’t getting drug-tested no more, the NFL don’t pay me. I just think it helps me, man. Not only in the NFL, I think it should become legal around the world, man.
The league is taking a very cynical approach to this at the moment. Do you ever see it coming around?
I think it will come. I think they’re going to have marijuana just for players, just for guys that play high-violence sports, they’re going to have something to treat them guys. I think it will happen, but I think it needs to happen a little faster.
What was it like getting out of the routine of being a player? As a player, for much of your life, you had everything scheduled, and then you transition into having nothing scheduled, and what are you supposed to do? How hard was that?
Aw, man. It was tough. It was tough for about a year or so—a year and a half, I’m going to give it a year and some change. Just because in the NFL, you get to the locker room, you’ve got the monitors on. You’ve got TVs in every corner, and you’re occupied from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.—12 hours out the day. You know what I mean? You’re occupied. And you’re in this building where you really don’t even see daylight until you practice for an hour and a half. Then you come out and you retire at 27, 28 years old, with money. So you’re just trying to find a routine, so you may go have a drink. It’s frustrating because you’re not in a rush, especially if you’re comfortable and you came out of the league very smart and wealthy, but it messes you up because you don’t really have that consistent routine. And then the thing you struggle with after the league, you go out, you hang out, and [people ask], “Who are you?” “Jermichael Finley.” It’s like, “uh, what are you doing?” “I’m retired.” “Retired at 28 years old? Now what are you doing?” That’s the question that frustrates former players. I guarantee you.
Like you’re supposed to step into a Wall Street job or whatever.
Aw, man. Absolutely. It kills me. I get that question probably five times per day. I’m 30 years old. When did your career really jump off like when you were successful? You know what I mean? That’s the question in my post-career that frustrates you the most.