Former NFL player and gym student Tommy Doles (Weinberg ’18, Kellogg ’19) spoke to The Daily about his recently published book, Gridiron Redemption: The NFL, Paris, and a Pandemic.
The memoir tells the story of Doles’ journey from the Northwest to the Chicago Bears and Atlanta Falcons in the NFL and then to Paris during the pandemic. He tells how he observes football in different contexts and how he deals with leaving something he loves.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Daily: After being dropped as an undrafted free agent for the last time, you started thinking about getting away from football. How did you deal with resulting identity problems?
doles: Ever since I was a sophomore in high school, people have been looking at me like, ‘Tommy, he’s a good football player.’ It becomes not just something you do, but a little bit of who you are, although anyone in the wise will warn you not to allow it. Then, when you get off that fast track, you kind of have to wrestle with, “Well, who am I now if I’m not an elite football player, if I’m not playing at the top of my classmates in the NFL? , my colleagues?’
I’ve learned to detach my identity a bit from what I do because it’s quite liberating. My faith gives me my ultimate identity, meaning, security and meaning, so that’s a foundation I come back to and frees me to pursue these other things. It’s definitely a work in progress and an ongoing question, but I feel more comfortable and confident in pursuing these things after going through the experience I had in stepping away from football.
The Daily: You have decided to spend your final year as a professional footballer with your wife in Paris. What prompted you to make this decision?
doles: We thought we would like to travel and see the world. Football could be a tool for us to do that, build relationships and connect with people abroad. That was a track we wanted to take in hopes of ending my football career with a better taste in my mouth because I was a little jaded and upset after being signed and cut by the NFL — it felt like it was about money and there wasn’t real team love and loyalty like Northwestern. So, ‘Let’s see a new part of the world, have a cross-cultural experience and also have some fun playing soccer before I hang up the cleats.’
The Daily: What were the biggest differences you noticed playing American football abroad?
doles: They have such a distinctly American game, but then it’s exported overseas to a country that’s very proud of its own culture and not necessarily interested in riding along with what Americans are doing. When I played in Northwestern, and even more so in the NFL, it’s something that people celebrate and glorify – you get a little taste of glory because people love football or football players. It’s a big thing and people are looking for money, fame – but in France there aren’t any of those incentives. You won’t get rich playing it, and certainly no one will want to take pictures with you in a restaurant because you’re an American football player.
The Daily: What are some common misconceptions about NFL tracking?
doles: There are many people who play professional football, even play in the NFL, who live much less glamorous and stable lives than people might expect. It’s a kind of unstable lifestyle where men have to decide how long they want to stay. Even if you make it to the NFL, the average career is two years, so it’s a tough road.
The Daily: What advice would you give to athletes who also want to make it big?
doles: Reflect on your identity and who you are outside of the game. Understand that football is temporary and will not last forever. It’s a gift, a great thing to have and be a part of while you’re here. As it’s temporary, don’t be in a hurry. Don’t look forward to the next thing at the expense of what’s going on in the here and now. Also, focus on relationships, because those are the things that endure even if you can no longer play soccer. This is the best you can take with you.
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