ATHENS – Mike Gilliam looks back now and realizes that what he was feeling was depression. Maybe he had left football by his own choice. Maybe he loved being a stay-at-home father. Something was still missing. Something major.
The longer the emptiness lingered, the more it grew, feeding into hopelessness: All his knowledge was football, all his connections were in Georgia, and here he was in Virginia, not knowing how he would find anything.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do after a lifetime – at that point what seemed like a lifetime – in football,” said Gilliam, who played at Georgia from 2001-05, a defensive back.
Paul Oliver was his teammate and friend, and it shook Gilliam like everyone else when Oliver shot himself in 2013, shortly after his NFL career ended.
Gilliam’s story has now become a happy one. He is the latest success story for the Paul Oliver Network, set up by Mark Richt to help his former players transition into real life once the football dream ends.
It became Richt’s passion project over his final few years as Georgia’s head coach, and Gilliam’s case showed a new reach for the network.After a rigorous effort by the network and Gilliam himself, he’s now working as an account executive in northern Virginia for a company called TML.
The network has also helped former Georgia players Brandon Burrows and Lee Jackson find work outside of football, assisted Kenarious Gates in finding a high school coaching job, and has recently begun work with Xzavier Ward, an offensive lineman whose career ended two years ago.
But what happens to the network now that Richt has left Georgia?
It goes on.
“Yes I will remain involved in the P.O. Network,” Richt said this week from Miami. “Financially and any other way they need me.”
WHY IT STARTED
Going forward, the idea is for the network to remain an independent, autonomous organization, but with a collaborative relationship with UGA’s athletic department. Richt might or might not remain its leader, and new head coach Kirby Smart could also become involved down the line. But the people who worked behind the scenes to help Richt set up the network – and prefer to remain anonymous – are still involved, and doing the key legwork.
Gilliam’s case is an example of how the network is supposed to work.
His dream was to be an NFL general manager. When his playing career at Georgia ended, Gilliam went to graduate school, then to work for the Jacksonville Jaguars as an intern. But after three years with the Jaguars, in which he coordinated team travel and worked in the scouring office, the toll of work on his family life – he had three kids – was too much.
Gilliam left the job, gave up the G.M. dream, and moved to northern Virginia, where his wife is from. He became a house husband to their three children. (Another child is due next month.)
Yes, Gilliam loved being around his family. But as time went on the lack of a career, and lack of any prospects for one, began to take a toll.
It’s familiar territory for many former college football players.
“When your football career ends you lose your identity, you don’t know who you are,” said Des Williams, a fullback at Georgia from 2002-06 who has been the P.O. Network’s point of contact among players.
Richt had always tried to help former players on an informal basis. He started setting up the formal network – which is nobody’s full-time job – before Oliver killed himself. But Oliver’s death hit Richt hard, and the process of setting up the network accelerated.
“When Paul died I think that weighed heavily on coach Richt’s heart,” Williams said. “He really wanted to do something special for the guys.”
HOW IT WORKED FOR ONE PLAYER
In the spring of 2014, a weekend event was held at UGA’s football building in which former players and business leaders met, made connections and even held seminars. Players who had launched successful post-football careers (like David Greene and D.J. Shockley) mingled with those still finding their way – including a few who Richt had dismissed from the program.
Gilliam’s wife pressured him to go to the event, but he passed, thinking it would just be a bunch of ex-players hanging out. But last year Gilliam decided to go.
“She thought it would be good to get back in that environment, and be around my brothers,” Gilliam said. “She was very right, in more ways than one.”
The network put him in touch with a psychologist it uses to test what careers would be good for former players. The test wasn’t as useful as a connection that arose from it: The psychologist had a client who was a vice president of a company, and he called Gilliam to encourage him to apply for a job with one of its affiliates in northern Virginia.
That job didn’t pan out, but by that point Gillliam was all-in on wanting to be back in the work force.
“I had lost my confidence,” Gilliam said. “I didn’t know this at the time, but the network helped me re-gain my confidence, and once I did I was more willing to put myself out there.”
Gilliam eventually accepted a job as an account executive for a company called TML, which is owned by Xerox. He directly credits Richt – “I am in awe of him,” Gilliam said – and the network.
“They weren’t going to let me drop the ball, and I wasn’t going to drop the ball,” Gilliam said.
Most of those who the network will assist were not the biggest names on the team. But those are often the ones who need the most help. Burrows, whose career ended quietly after the 2013 season, has been working for a commercial real estate firm.
The ones who make the NFL and have longer careers can use it to make more contacts. Although cases like Oliver show that even those who make it for a few years may need help too, when the dream ends.
“Most of us thought, and dreamed, that we would be in the NFL. When that doesn’t happen, and you’re going through life, that is a transition. It’s easier for some than others,” Gilliam said. “It’s kind of like college football: It’s about momentum. Whoever has the momentum in life.”
One of the first cases that spurred the network was Darius Dewberry, whose playing career ended in 2008, and he later himself working on the grounds crew at UGA. Richt and then-staffer Dave Van Halanger hooked Dewberry up with a NASCAR team, where he became a strength and conditioning coordinator.
“Why did that happen? He just had a little help,” Richt told this reporter in the summer of 2014. “Now who knows what’ll happen to him, and his kids, and his grandkids, just because he got a break. … That’s how the network should work.”