Ricardo Lockette got hit so hard and so unexpectedly six months ago his Seahawks career instantly ended.
Out of nowhere, his football life was over. At age 29.
Yet he says he was already prepared for that abrupt ending.
That’s because of Maurice Kelly, the most important Seahawk you may never have heard of.
“The great thing about this organization is we have a very special guy named Mo Kelly,” Lockette said during his press conference last week to announce his forced retirement.
“He talked to us about life, and life after football – every day – in preparation. So from Day One, we’re prepared to leave. We’re prepared for the next step.”
Kelly’s official title is vice president of player engagement for the team. More practically, Kelly, the former Seahawks’ player from 15 years ago, is their life coach.
It’s a side of football opposite the touchdowns and tackles, passes and punts.
Everyone thinks about how NFL teams prepare for seasons and games – we can’t escape the nonstop, year-round coverage of that. Few think about how those teams prepare those who play the games for life after they stop.
But Pete Carroll does. Seattle’s head coach says Kelly may be the most “crucial” person in entire Seahawks’ program.
Kelly has likened his office upstairs in the Virginia Mason Athletic Center to a barbershop, with players dropping by to talk about absolutely anything. Sometimes, it’s even about football.
As Lockette’s neck injury and surgery shows, football often ends abruptly. So abruptly many players aren’t prepared for the rest of their lives, even though that lasts 10-15 times longer than their NFL careers do. The league’s players’ union notes the average length of a career is 3.3 years.
As Carroll said: “It’s as real as it can get.”
When I asked Carroll about Kelly moments after Lockette mentioned the life-skills coach last week in that press conference at team headquarters, Carroll started gushing.
“I’m really proud that Ricardo mentioned Mo and his efforts. But even more than that, how important it is for us to recognize that our players do need a great deal of help as they make the transition,” Carroll said. “Thanks for giving me the chance to talk about this.
“When these guys are football players, they are football players from the time they are 8, 9 years old. And they grow up loving the game, believing in the game and connecting almost their life with the game of football. For all of us, it comes to an end, it stops somewhere. That identity, that just embedded connection with the game, all of a sudden is over, in a sense. And you are not recognized as a football guy anymore and the purpose of your life has been built around football.
“Well, the transition our players need to make between that and finding purpose in our life beyond football is a crucial, crucial transition to respect. And Mo is leading and Sam Ramdsen (the team’s director of player health and performance) and those guys are working really hard to help our players get prepared for finding and helping our players get a purpose that maybe they may have lost a sense of.”
Not every player, of course, gets lost after football.
Tacoma’s Marcus Trufant is a local example of a former player who appears to be thriving after football. After starting 125 games over 10 seasons for his hometown Seahawks, including their first Super Bowl at the end of the 2005 season, the former Wilson High School star, Washington State Cougar and Pro Bowl cornerback bought a house in suburban Newcastle with his wife Jessica. That’s where they raise their five kids. He has his Trufant Family Foundation. He’s started a youth football team in Tacoma, the Northwest Cougars. He’s co-hosted a popular Seattle radio show, “The Barber Shop,” online and Seattle’s KIRO radio. Last summer he even skydived into Seahawks’ training camp in Renton for a promotion.
Thursday, Trufant was in Lacey answering questions from 8- to 14-year-old members of the Thurston County Boys & Girls Club. Trufant was a prominent member of the Tacoma Boys & Girls Club growing up.
Kelly, from Orangeburg, South Carolina, found his life’s second calling after playing two seasons in the NFL, both with the Seahawks. The husband and father to a son played 24 games with three starts as a safety in 2000 and ’01, Mike Holmgren’s second and third seasons as Seattle’s coach. Kelly was a three-time all-star in the Canadian Football League in the late 1990s, and his playing days ended in 2004 in the CFL with Winnipeg. He joined the Seahawks as Holmgren’s director of player development in 2005, Seattle’s first Super Bowl season. He got promoted to his current title of vice president last June.
But there are many other former NFL players who aren’t so well-adjusted, most often those who didn’t play for as long or as well as Trufant did.
Carroll said the Seahawks’ research has shown “we have a lot of guys that have problems” after NFL careers.
“Some guys are fine. A lot of guys aren’t,” Carroll said. “So we’ve made a really big deal about it. We are trying to do everything we can. We have a long ways to go before we can really figure out how to support our guys.
“But I think that there is nothing more important than recognizing the tremendous value that these guys bring to the game, and not with just their play on the field but the spirit that they bring to it. We need to be there for them when they are done, and help them connect and find whatever their purpose is, to live a great life after football. We have a lot of guys that have problems; we have a lot of numbers to support that. And we all could do a much better job. That’s why I am so proud of Mo and Sam for recognizing that we have to find our ways to connect.”
Kelly doesn’t simply hand out staff jobs around the team once a player’s days on the field end. Indeed, the Seahawks haven’t even talked to Lockette about that.
“It’s not just, ‘OK, here’s a job when you get out.’ It’s a mentality that you build through the time that they are here so that when they are faced with the transition they are ready to take the proper steps to be successful and find the proper meaning that is so important,” Carroll said. “So we are really tuned into it.”
That’s why Lockette went out of his way to thank Kelly for preparing him for his sudden end in football.
What exactly did Kelly tell Lockette from that first day he entered the NFL as a raw, undrafted rookie free agent in 2011 out of Division-II Fort Valley State?
“Hey, save your money. Hey, looking into this. Hey, you should listen to this guy,” Lockette remembers.
“This guy’s a great mentor. This organization prepares you for life after football, prepares you for the obstacles you face during your career. They prepared me really well, so when it happened, it was like, ‘Hey, now it’s time to put Plan B into action.”
When the woman new tight end Jimmy Graham considered like a mother passed away 12 months ago, it was Kelly the Seahawks sent with quarterback Russell Wilson on an overnight flight to be in Miami with Graham and represent the franchise at the funeral.
Kelly doesn’t just prepare Seahawks for the during and the after of their playing careers. As Lockette said, Kelly is there for the starts, too. He works with players’ and ex-players’ plus their families in financial education, career internship programs, continuing education, community-outreach initiatives. He does extensive work educating players in what they are entitled to in insurance and career benefits from the NFL. He also helps in relocation arrangements – moving trucks, appointments, allowances – when players come to and leave Seattle. Or the game.
Some players have even come to Kelly to get haircuts.
ESPN.com’s Sheil Kapadia wrote a great, first-person piece this week on Kelly bringing in a psychiatrist from Harvard to help Seahawks rookies succeed in transitioning on their own and into the league.
"If you’re the smartest guy in your crew, you need to get a new crew. Know that,” Kelly told the Seahawks’ rookies this week, according to Kapadia.
This year the NFL ended its annual rookie symposium, leaving it up to each team to provide guidance of their huge life move.
Kelly is the Seahawks’ guidance machine, from rookies such as the team’s 10 newest draft picks through Lockette, a veteran who won’t contribute on the field for the team ever again.
“I am thrilled that he recognized how integral a part that Mo plays,” Carroll said of Lockette recognizing Kelly publicly. “But that’s just part of it. We have a lot of responsibility here, in my opinion.
“It’s an ongoing process of elevating their awareness of where they are in their lives and what’s coming up. As he said, getting you in connection in the kind of thoughts you have to have in living your life without the game – and really, without the identity that you’ve grown up with.
“It’s as real as it can get. It’s a true connection that has to be honored and respected differently. It’s just not an easy move to make. It’s a lot like our guys coming back from fighting overseas. It’s extraordinarily difficult to make this transition ... so we need to prepare them to get prepared. You can’t do it, you can’t really face it until you get there.
“Like I said, some guys are fine. But the great majority of guys need to reconnect, and that’s what we are getting them prepared for. It’s everything from finance to counseling to culture shift. There’s just so many things that we are dealing with. We are just trying to elevate their awareness.”