His face looks the same, and he still wears a nice, trimmed beard. But Sebastian Vollmer is a shell of his former self.
“It’s a healthier version of me, I would say,” Vollmer, the former Patriots right tackle, said last week.
Vollmer, 34, retired from the NFL in May of 2017 after eight seasons with the Patriots. He is down about 60 pounds from his playing weight of 320, and is at his lightest weight since high school.
“Probably as good as I’ve felt in . . . I can’t remember,” Vollmer said at the Battery Wharf Hotel, where he was getting ready for a charity bartending event with Leonard Hair Transplant Associates.
Vollmer was one of three ex-Patriots appearing at this event, along with Rob Ninkovich and Wes Welker. All three look terrific — thin, well coiffed, walking with no signs of a limp. All three said they feel great after a lifetime of football.
“Right now I feel really good mentally,” Ninkovich said. “I feel blessed to play as long as I did.”
There is a “but” coming, of course.
“But the scary part with all that stuff is we don’t know what the future has in store,” Ninkovich added.
There are countless stories of players falling apart after football — struggling with finances, or falling into depression or substance dependency, or struggling with a host of injuries — from brain damage and CTE to chronic aches and pain.
And if anyone would be at risk for head trauma, it’s these three. Together they combined for 31 NFL seasons and 394 regular season games, and played three of the toughest positions — Welker who took big hits over the middle, Ninkovich and Vollmer who banged their heads in the trenches on every snap.
Welker, Ninkovich, and Vollmer aren’t walking around with pronounced injuries, and they say they aren’t experiencing any memory loss or other brain issues. But they know the stories of ex-players who have fallen on hard times, and are cognizant of monitoring their health.
Ninkovich said he had only one documented concussion during his 11 NFL seasons, but he knows that the accumulation of little hits can be just as damaging, if not more so, than the big hits.
So Ninkovich has been mindful of monitoring his mental health. It’s not in the forefront every day, but he is mindful of keeping his brain stimulated and his body healthy. “It’s a lifestyle thing — just got to stay on top of my reading, Sudoku, crosswords, fish oil,” Ninkovich said. “I don’t know if it helps you, but it’s better than nothing.”
One big goal for Ninkovich in retirement is watching his alcohol intake. Many ex-players turn to drinking once they leave the game and have too much free time, and several ex-players who have had advanced stages of CTE also dealt with substance abuse.
“Obviously when you’re in a social setting I’ll have beers and do that stuff,” he said. “But I just think sometimes football players, athletes in general, get to a funky state with drinking, doing too much of that. I don’t think it’s good for anybody.”
Welker suffered at least six documented concussions in 12 NFL seasons, and seems like a textbook candidate for CTE.
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Welker, who last played football in 2015, said the first year out of the league was tough. He spent much of his time with his wife and newborn twins and played a lot of golf, but drifted without much direction.
“I think the year off was very hard, and just trying to figure out what I’m going to do,” Welker said. “It’s a bad road that way. You go from having a routine to nothing. You’re like, ‘OK, what do I do with myself now?’ ”
For Welker, the answer was obvious — get back into football. He dipped his feet into coaching as an intern with the Dolphins in 2016, then got a full-time position on Bill O’Brien’s staff in Houston last year.
Welker was a grunt for O’Brien, filling three-ring binders with playsheets each week and learning how to use Excel. But he loved the structure the job provided, and he’s back for a second season as an offensive and special teams assistant.
“I feel good, especially now coaching,” Welker said. “The main thing for me is just staying busy and really working my mind and all that. It keeps me occupied.”
Vollmer, like Ninkovich, has remained in the New England area and is just starting to find his post-football life. He works out first thing each morning, spends lots of time with his wife and young kids, and works with a few charities and local businesses. Vollmer also moonlights as an NFL broadcaster for German-language TV back in his home country.
Vollmer is cognizant of, but not worried about, CTE or long-term effects of football.
“We all played for a long time, assumed a risk to a certain degree, but I can’t worry about it. I can’t worry today what might happen tomorrow in 10, 20, 50 years,” he said. “Yeah, you probably try to stay active. But I think even if you didn’t play, you shouldn’t give up on reading and Sudoku.”
He carries plenty of pain from his eight NFL seasons — lingering back, shoulder and hip injuries, a broken leg, arthritis. But he is also fit and trim — he lost so much weight right after retirement, 75 pounds, that he has put about 15 back on.
“Certain things I won’t be able to do and I’m in pain every day, but there’s also a lot of things I can do, so I try to concentrate on the good things, and that’s the way I’m doing it,” he said. Football “worked for me, and I don’t regret it one bit.”
Anthem policy in need of dialogue
The biggest surprise on Thursday night wasn’t that the NFL announced that it is putting its new national anthem policy on hold following three months of confusion and criticism.
It was that the NFL didn’t see all this coming in the first place.
To recap: At the owners meetings in May, the league adopted a new policy for the national anthem giving players the right to stay in the locker room if they choose; but anyone who displayed any sort of protest during the anthem would draw a fine for his team, and the team could then punish the player for “conduct detrimental,” which could be as small as a fine or as big as a four-game suspension.
The owners passed this new resolution despite not holding a formal vote — only a quick show of hands around the room — and not consulting the NFL Players Association or the Players Coalition that has included Devin McCourty and Malcolm Jenkins. Surprisingly, 49ers CEO Jed York and Jets’ acting owner Chris Johnson immediately said they wouldn’t punish their players.
The rule unnecessarily put the issue back in the spotlight and created fresh feelings of resentment from the players. The NFLPA filed a grievance against the rule and was ready to go to court. “This is dumb,” McCourty said in May. “I think the NFL is a group where you have owners and players, but it can work together, you know what I mean?”
The rule created plenty of confusion as to how it would be applied.
Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey said last week that he’s going to continue raising his fist, and “I’m going to take my fine.” But Titans president Steve Underwood said, “We think there may be some misunderstanding on his part. . . . We’re not exactly sure why he suggested that he would, as he put, ‘take his fine’ because there will be no fines levied against him.”
Meanwhile, the Dolphins, who allowed three players to kneel all last season and have put a big emphasis on social justice initiatives, put in their team handbook last week that players could be suspended up to four games for protesting during the anthem.
The implementation of the rule was strange, as the issue had mostly died down, and Packers president Mark Murphy said last week that the kneeling had almost no effect on the NFL’s business.
“There’s been a lot of talk about ratings that have gone down,” he said. “But really, relative to ratings overall, the league remains very strong.”
And of course, the new rule did nothing to keep President Trump at bay. He has continued to bash the NFL over the issue, and reportedly plans to make it a big part of his midterm election strategy.
So the NFL smartly put a moratorium on the anthem rule Thursday night, announcing that the league has reopened talks with the NFLPA and “no new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced for the next several weeks while these confidential discussions are ongoing.”
And the NFL has taken McCourty’s advice to heart, noting in the press release that “our shared focus will remain on finding a solution to the anthem issue through mutual, good faith commitments, outside of litigation.”
The NFL and NFLPA don’t work together harmoniously often, but the league has realized that this is one issue that needs more thoughtful conversation, not a heavy-handed quick fix.
Ups, downs of business in NFL
■ The Packers released their annual statements last week, and boy, is business booming in the NFL. For the fiscal year ending in March, Green Bay generated $454.9 million in total revenue, up 4.9 percent from last year. Of that, $255.9 million came in the form of national revenue — money from TV contracts and league-wide revenue sharing. Put another way, all 32 teams received a quarter of a billion dollars before selling one ticket, beer, or T-shirt last year.
But that doesn’t necessarily prove that last year’s protests didn’t have any effect on the NFL’s business, either. National revenue, which represents 57 percent of the Packers’ revenue, is mostly derived from network TV contracts that were negotiated years ago. If the protests were going to hit a team anywhere, it would be with local revenue — ticket sales, concessions, etc., which makes up 43 percent.
The Packers generated $199 million of local revenue, up 0.8 percent, but they weren’t one of the “protesting” teams, either. It’s certainly possible that the Trump-NFL battle had some effect on local revenue in cities like Dallas, Houston, and Cincinnati. And owners don’t like to lose money.
■ Franchise valuations continue to skyrocket. Stephen Ross bought the Dolphins for $1 billion in 2009, and they are already estimated at $2.575 billion, per Forbes. Shad Khan bought the Jaguars for $770 million in 2012, and Forbes estimates their value now at $2.075 billion, a 169.5 percent increase in just six years.
Forbes rated 29 of the 32 NFL teams among the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world (only the Bengals, Lions, and Bills missed the cut). The Cowboys are No. 1 in the world at $4.8 billion, while the Patriots are No. 6 (and No. 2 in the NFL) at $3.7 billion.
Why the massive spike? It’s hard not to see a connection to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, which was a massive win for the owners and has the league printing money.
|Team||Owner||Year sold||Price||2018 Forbes Value||Percent increase|
|Bills||Terry and Kim Pegula||2014||$1.4b||$1.6b||14.30%|
■ Watching Rob Gronkowski squabble annually with the Patriots for more money, and seeing Le’Veon Bell unable to come to terms on a long-term deal with the Steelers, drives home how backward the NFL can be.
Gronkowski and Bell are arguably two of the top three offensive weapons in the NFL, yet their teams can get away with not paying them as such simply because of the positions they play, tight end and running back.
Gronkowski is set to make $9 million this year, while the Steelers’ best offer to Bell reportedly topped out at $15 million per year. Meanwhile, Sammy Watkins and Brandin Cooks, who don’t even belong in the same sentence as Gronk and Bell, each signed contracts this offseason worth $16 million per year, simply because they play receiver.
Welker: No ill will toward Belichick
Wes Welker didn’t leave New England on the best terms in 2013, going to Denver after contract talks with the Patriots seemingly fell apart. But Welker said he harbors no ill will toward Bill Belichick or the Patriots, and now that Welker is a coach, he understands Belichick’s perspective a lot better.
“There were never any bad feelings,” Welker said. “Being on the coaching side now, you kind of understand a lot of the moves that coach Belichick makes. And they’re hard decisions. There’s tough decisions to make, and you try to make them for the betterment of the team. So being on the other side, you’re able to understand what he was saying, and why he went a different direction. I get it.”
Welker is back for his second season on the Texans’ coaching staff. Believe it or not, he’ll help coach the tight ends this year, as well as the punt returners. Learning the intricacies of other positions will help round out his skills as a coach.
“Really wanted to learn the run game, and the protections, and all that stuff,” Welker said. “We drafted a few rookies, and I’m in the same boat they are, learning a lot from that.”
The Cardinals suspended GM Steve Keim for five weeks and fined him $200,000 following his July 4 arrest for extreme DUI, when he was found to have a blood-alcohol content of 0.19. The timing won’t help the Cardinals, as Keim will now be out during the first few weeks of training camp, when he is not only supposed to be evaluating his own talent, but also other players and free agents across the league. That said, Keim will be back by the middle of training camp to help with roster evaluation and complete David Johnson’s contract extension. The punishment probably should have lasted throughout all of training camp for it to have real bite . . . Patriots first-round guard Isaiah Wynn, taken No. 23 overall, is the highest drafted first-rounder not to have his entire four-year contract fully guaranteed this year. His four-year, $11.4 million deal is 99.1 percent guaranteed, but technically the Patriots could save $102,013 in Year 4 if he doesn’t work out. Draft picks 1-22 get the entire four years fully guaranteed . . . Eagles center Jason Kelce will be blowing some hot air next week. He will join the Philadelphia Orchestra on stage Tuesday to play “Fly, Eagles, Fly” on the baritone saxophone. “Music was a big part of my childhood, and it helped shape me into the person I am today and helped make me, believe it or not, into a better football player,” he said in April.