Former German NFL Player 'American Football Is Like a Nuclear Explosion'
Patrick Venzke was the first German national in the NFL, but he says he paid a high price both physically and psychologically. His case raises questions not only about the neurological problems linked with American football but also about a culture he describes as Darwinism run riot.
Patrick Venzke only recently turned 40, but even though his face looks youthful, his body is ravaged. He suffers terrible backaches, his left shoulder is wrecked and he also has knee trouble. "It's the price I paid to pursue my dream," he says as he drags himself up the steps of a café in Essen, Germany.
Venzke became the first German national to make a National Football League roster when he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in April 2001 -- although he was never fielded in any of the team's games. He began playing American football at home in Essen. At 18 he went to the States. After high school he was awarded a scholarship from the University of Idaho, where he studied marketing and spent four years playing college football. It was there that he caught the eye of the Jaguars' scouts. After a year in Jacksonville, Venzke moved to NFL Europe, where he played for Rhein Fire in Düsseldorf and Frankfurt Galaxy. He also had a spell in the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles squads. Today he describes American Football as Darwinism run riot. He lost count of the number of times he threw up during training. He retired in 2011.
Football is a game that rewards aggressive behavior. Ever since medical experts established an increased frequency of brain damage amongst NFL players, Venzke has been seriously worried. He's married and lives in Idaho, where he works as a realtor. In Germany over Easter to visit his father, Patrick Venzke got in touch with SPIEGEL to suggest an interview. He arrives with a notebook, in which he's jotted down some thoughts about what he wants to get off his chest. "When I was still playing I wouldn't have been in a position to give this sort of interview," he says. "It would have cost me my career."
SPIEGEL: Six NFL players retired in March. The oldest was 31. Twenty-four-year-old Chris Borland, who played for the San Francisco 49ers, explained his decision by saying he wanted to lead a long, healthy life and didn't want any neurological diseases or to die younger than he would otherwise.
Venzke: It's such a courageous decision. He'll be mocked because NFL players don't usually talk about their problems. They sweep them under the carpet. In my day it would have been inconceivable for a man his age to quit American football after just one season. But today we know more about the neurological problems linked with the game. Another decisive factor is that guaranteed salaries have gone up. I wouldn't have been able to afford a decision like that.
SPIEGEL: Is it a sensible decision?
Venzke: You play for the glory, the fame, the status. But if you win the Super Bowl and get inaugurated into the Hall of Fame only to forget you were a footballer by the time you're 60 because you have Alzheimer's, it's just not worth it. Players still put up with broken bones, but not with a destroyed brain.
SPIEGEL: Borland said he saw stars after one collision. Sound familiar?
Venzke: Completely normal. If I had a concussion I'd keep it to myself because I didn't want the scouts or coaches knowing, and that was easy enough. If you take a blow to the head no one can see that you can't make out the numbers on the display board because your vision's blurred. If you look unsteady they pass the smelling salts and then you're up and running again.
SPIEGEL: How often did you play with a concussion?
Venzke: About 15 times, since I was 16. I'm not sure exactly. I was the offensive tackle, so it was my job to get the opponent out of the way for the offense, or to protect my quarterback from attack to give him a couple of seconds to pitch. I was a battering ram, a kind of bodyguard. There'd be hundreds of collisions during training every day. Collisions similar to mini accidents -- the equivalent of hitting a wall at 15 miles an hour. Looking back I can see that it wasn't always the healthiest.
SPIEGEL: How is your health now?
Venzke: I'm okay. Today. I'm okay about 350 days of the year. But it's the other 15 that I worry about. Then I'm grateful I don't keep a gun in the house. Because I don't know what I might do with it.
SPIEGEL: Roughly one in three NFL players suffers cognitive impairment, such as memory loss, depression, speech disorders, paranoia and apathy. What happens to you on the days you don't feel well?
Venzke: I get aggressive, the way I was on the field. I could hurt someone very easily.
SPIEGEL: Just like that?
Venzke: Anything might trigger it. A barking dog can make me explode. The sound of kids screaming. When my two daughters start arguing then I go and take refuge in my man cave. But even happy shouting when they're playing can do it. Kids yelling in restaurants -- it can be very bad.
SPIEGEL: But you have it under control?
Venzke: Let's put it this way -- I have to be very disciplined in order to prevent things from getting out of control. So far the situation has never escalated, fortunately, but I tend to drink a lot to cope with the stress. I can put away 20 beers in no time at all. But it doesn't help, it makes it worse. Sometimes I tell myself that I have life insurance worth over $3 million, enough to provide for my family for the rest of their lives. But I don't think like that every day. Not even every week and not even every month.
SPIEGEL: Nine former NFL players have committed suicide since 2010.
Venzke: I know players who killed themselves at the age of 25 and others who are homeless by the time they're 40. What they all have in common is that they were defeated by life post-football.
SPIEGEL: Are you getting any help?
Venzke: I look after myself. I meditate everyday for 20 minutes when I get up. I read a lot. I make a constant effort to keep my brain elastic and to boost my synaptic plasticity. I train my brain by not letting anything become a habit, I never take the same route to work, I clean my teeth using my left hand every other day. And the NFL has a hotline that you can call when you're having a bad day and need someone to talk to.
SPIEGEL: Have you ever called it?
Venzke: Once or twice. When I couldn't take the kids anymore. The guy on the other end of the line asked me if I was hearing kids' voices in my head, and I said, no, they're in my living room. It was pretty funny.
SPIEGEL: So it didn't help.
Venzke: No. It's just a publicity stunt -- the NFL showing that it's there if players need it.
SPIEGEL: What makes you think that these high levels of irritability are due to head injuries you suffered?
Venzke: Because I wasn't always like this. Twenty years ago I could have worked in children's day care center. The reasons are also physiological. Head injuries damage the frontal lobes, which control the emotions. Then there are there all the steroids, painkillers and uppers I took. And of course the psychological factors. In American Football the coach motivates his team by baiting them to make them aggressive. That's how the sport works and that's the root of my problems today.
SPIEGEL: How do you bait someone in order to make them aggressive?
Venzke: They say things I wouldn't want to repeat.
SPIEGEL: Please do.
Venzke: First of all, homophobic insults. You're a fucked-up faggot, that sort of thing. Why did Germany lose the war? Because of faggots like you. You hear that sort of thing 35 times a week. Then they tell you you're not man enough. If you're not playing properly, you're a pussy. You make a mistake, the head coach sees it and yells at the co-coach and he yells at you. Shit rolls downhill. So the next time you give it your all so the coach praises you. It's a brutal business. If you want to make it, you have to eat shit.
SPIEGEL: No one forced you to play in the NFL.
Venzke: And I'm not complaining. I don't want to demonize the NFL -- I'm not criticizing it, I'm just telling it like it is. American Football is like a nuclear explosion -- there are no winners, only survivors. This may sound over the top, but it's the truth.
S PIEGEL: The NFL had revenues of $11 billion in 2014 and 45 of the 50 most-watched TV events last fall were games. Why is football so popular in the US?
Venzke: The public loves the players' aggression, their devotion to their team. The winner takes it all in America -- either you're king or you're nobody. European society is built on the Olympic principle -- it's okay to be runner-up. If you're a competitive swimmer and you get a bronze medal, that's good too. But in the NFL you can't afford to miss a single training session because the hordes of people waiting to take your place are getting bigger by the day.
SPIEGEL: Only 650 of the 10,000 young men playing high school football make it on to a university team, and only 2 will reach the NFL.
Venzke: The pressure's not off once you make it, either. During my time with the Jacksonville Jaguars we had Tuesdays off -- because every Tuesday the club would invite 50 new players along for drills, and if anyone of them were better than you, you'd be replaced the next day. They only had to give you 24 hours' notice. They were always telling me that I only had to make one mistake and I'd be on the damn plane back to Germany. I was on tenterhooks all the time.
SPIEGEL: How did that constant threat affect you?
Venzke: You get very tough with yourself. My definition of an injury is when you're carried off the field on a stretcher. Anything else is just business as usual. Once when I tore muscle fiber, I took a couple of morphine pills they give people dying of cancer and drank some Red Bull on my way to the stadium, then I was good to go. I took growth hormones to make injuries heal faster. Once when I played for the German national American Football team I brought along my bag of meds and the doctor almost had a heart attack.
SPIEGEL: In soccer a game is now interrupted for a maximum of three minutes if it looks like a player gets a concussion.
Venzke: Soccer players and American football players are very different. With soccer you have fouls and so on -- they're very dramatic. If an American Football player says one day he can't train because he's not feeling well then they take his white jersey and dye it pink because he's acting like a girl. He's on the outside looking in.
SPIEGEL: You don't seem very tough and aggressive, though.
Venzke: That's right, but you change on the field. You get into the zone -- you listen to music through your headphones that gets you pumped up. Pantera, Manowar, assertive stuff. Then you take all sorts of meds, caffeine pills, ephedrine, whatever. These are the rituals you have to get you in the mood.
SPIEGEL: How do you see the others on the pitch? As enemies?
Venzke: No. I'm not a soldier. I see an opponent who has to be taken out so that the game keeps moving.
SPIEGEL: Did you ever injure anyone?
Venzke: Of course.
SPIEGEL: Did you feel sorry for them? Or were you proud?
Venzke: I never felt sorry about anything I did on the field. Afterwards, I was always the first to go and buy them a coke and say sorry, I'm praying for you, and so on.
SPIEGEL: Did you ever wonder what you were doing?
Venzke: I was on a mission to become the first German in the NFL. I would always contrast my suffering with what my grandfather went through in the war. He marched 1,864 miles through Russia: He couldn't call his dad and ask to borrow his gold credit card to buy a ticket home. Anyway, you can put up with a lot of fear and pain when there are 80,000 people watching. And when we won, then I was in heaven. I felt like god's gift to football. Even if I was just a reserve.
SPIEGEL: A super hero.
Venzke: The elite, absolutely. The tackle is the biggest, heaviest and fastest guy on the field. I'm 6 feet and 7 inches tall, I weighed 331 pounds and I could still run 131 feet in five seconds. I was as good as an Olympic sprinter. I ate 6,000 kilocalories day, including 10 to 15 eggs for breakfast. When you play in the NFL you get chauffeured to autograph-signing sessions in a limo and carte blanche to get into any club. You're a celebrity. Women google you on their smartphones to see what your net worth is. They go off to the powder room together and discuss who's worth $3 million, who's worth going after, and who's just a reserve and not worth the time of day. The problem is that you think it's going to last forever. But at some point you're finished.
SPIEGEL: And then what?
Venzke: You think you're worthless because you're not a star anymore. You're back in the real world and having to do things you're not very good at. Football players aren't like good German husbands who can take their kids out for a walk. It doesn't work, we're not like that.
SPIEGEL: Are you serious?
SPIEGEL: What do you mean, exactly?
Venzke: The problem is the system. Even in high school, when you're only 12, you have a special status because you're taller, faster and stronger. You make your coach happy, he gets a bigger salary and before you know it, everyone's smoothing the way for you. At the age of 12. If you have problems in school, they get you a tutor. That's how it starts. The NFL sorts everything out for you. You know that so long as you deliver the goods the club will take care of you, even if you have trouble with the cops. You lose touch with reality, you're living in a bubble. So now that I no longer play football I am completely overwhelmed by everyday life.
SPIEGEL: For example?
Venzke: I find it very, very hard to buy diapers and baby powder. I can't deal with having to do that sort of thing, given what I used to do.
SPIEGEL: Maybe you're just a chauvinist.
Venzke: I'm not. But the price I paid was so high that I just can't bear to do that sort of thing. I can't stand in line at a concert because I'm used to using the VIP entrance. A football player is highly qualified for his sport. He can lift 440 pounds, but where does that get him in the real world? He can be a furniture remover who earns $7.80 an hour. Communication is everything in the 21st century world we live in. But football players are cavemen. They can destroy you on the football field but off it they're nothing, they know nothing useful, nothing about team work, cooperation, communication.
SPIEGEL: Running back Ray Rice was in the headlines last year when he was caught on camera in an elevator punching his fiancée in the face. Is he a caveman too?
Venzke: I don't want to name and shame but yes, sure.
SPIEGEL: How do NFL players view women?
Venzke: That's not what that was about. It's got more to do with social background. These guys are usually pretty simple, they come from poor inner-cities, they lack education. They're cannon fodder for the NFL. That's not to excuse their behavior. Rice was under a lot of pressure, he probably wasn't seeing his wife in front of him but an opponent on the field that he needed to wipe out if he wanted to stay on the team. Because if you're not on the team, you're not a star. You're just some loser from the ghetto. A nobody. Those are the extremes players live with.
SPIEGEL: The NFL has introduced new rules designed to make the game safer. As of 2013, runners and defenders are prohibited from lowering their heads and striking a forcible blow with the crown of their helmets when they are outside the tackle box. Do you wish these rules had been in place in your day?
Venzke: Not at the time, but in retrospect, yes. But these rules are just window-dressing. These days players don't weigh 250 but rather 350 pounds -- and at the same time, they're faster than ever. The combination of mass and momentum ups the stakes so there's more going on than there was 20 years ago. But the brain hasn't changed.
SPIEGEL: When you look back at your career, would you say it was a good time?
Venzke: For me personally, yes. But I wonder what it would have been like if I hadn't been the first German national in the NFL. Everything would have been different. The cost-benefit analysis wouldn't have added up. I don't want my son to play football.
SPIEGEL: Why not?
Venzke: Because I don't want to see him injured. I don't want him treated the way I was treated. I don't want his every whim being catered to just because he's a talented athlete. It's too risky. It's in my will: Lukas Patrick Venzke will only get his inheritance if he doesn't play football.