Head Case

What we can learn about playing it safe from retired NFL fullback Chris Hetherington.


Chris Hetherington retired from the NFL in 2006, after 11 seasons of playing professional football. He last played fullback for the San Francisco 49ers; before that, he played for the Oakland Raiders, the St. Louis Rams, the Carolina Panthers, the Indianapolis Colts, and the Cincinnati Bengals, where he was first signed as an undrafted player in 1996. Hetherington, 40, graduated from Yale University, where he was the school’s starting quarterback and majored in psychology. Now, he works for a hedge fund in Santa Monica, California. We talked to him about injuries, being prepared, and the biggest lesson he learned along the way. 


When I was 10 years old, I was a good student and had a lot of natural athletic ability. I played baseball, football and hockey. My dad loved sports, coached Little League and was very involved—he was a good influence. I took advantage of my natural athletic ability, worked extremely hard, made sacrifices and created opportunities and that enabled me to progress throughout the levels. 


I dealt with a lot of injuries. I took a lot of pride in being tough. But I tried to take care of my body as best I could by eating well, understanding my body and knowing that my body was my asset so I better treat it well. I did my best to focus on flexibility and strength and taking care of myself.


I played for six or seven weeks with a torn planter fascia. It was a nightmare. I just had to play through the pain. There was no way I was not going to be on the field. I learned how to survive. 


The turning point in my career was when I tore my groin in St. Louis and missed a good part of the season. It was a very tough year for me. During the off-season, I found a top strength and conditioning coach in Arizona. I worked out with him in the off-season and had a better understanding of diet, nutrition, health, and fitness. It turned my career around.


Mentally, it’s tough. The NFL is a tough grind, mentally and physically. I survived by being hardheaded: I refused to be taken off the field, even when I was injured. Also, I learned how to rely on experts to get me back on the field as quickly as possible. 


I was more of a blue-collar player. I was on one-year contracts or at most two-year contracts. So, for me, if I didn’t play then I had this fear that they were going to replace me with someone who could play. It was a tough situation for me. But I learned to embrace the grind.


Back in the day, you’d run down 70 yards on kickoff into two guys who weighed 300 pounds each. There were some big collisions. You’d come off to the sidelines and you’re not sure what your name is or what’s going on. They’d hold up three fingers and you’d say, ‘Three,’ and then you’re going back onto the field.  


Now, I think everyone’s doing a much better job understanding the safety issues and the dangers of playing such a physical sport. The guys are so big and strong and fans want to see a fast, physical game. So players end up putting themselves in dangerous positions. I think the NFL is doing a better job and the doctors are doing a better job of being aware of the dangers and holding players out. They’re more conservative now than they’ve been in the past for sure. 


I always knew there was life after football. I had a good education. When I retired from the NFL, the transition wasn’t as tough for me because I was well prepared. But playing football for 27 years and then not playing the next year was really hard. You miss the game, you miss the lifestyle, you miss competing on Sundays. I’m lucky to have played as long as I did.


The biggest lesson I learned: I looked at the guys who were older than me and tried to learn how they approached their job and how they took care of their bodies. I respected the guys who were true professionals. You need to understand the game and understand its dangers. And prepare yourself the best you can. It’s a tough, very physical game, and the key is preparation: Get yourself in shape, always work to improve your football IQ, make sure you’re wearing the proper equipment, and make sure you’re taking the necessary steps to prepare both physically and mentally for the grind.  

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