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When the Cheers Fade
By Chuck Nowlen
The high of it all was the main thing. It drove him; it ruled him. And no matter what people told him, Thad McFadden never really believed that it could end.
He’d been a football star his entire life – All State at talent-rich Beecher High School in Flint, Michigan; All Big Ten at UW-Madison; and All-Rookie in the pros. Surely it would last forever – or at least until he reached a financially secure middle age.
“It was like candy,” McFadden says of his days at Wisconsin in the mid-1980s, playing alongside such future NFL standouts as Al Toon, Randy Wright, Nate Odoms and Richard Johnson.
“You’re on TV all the time, and everybody, even strangers, wants to do you a favor. You get offered spending money. You go into a restaurant, and you hear people say, ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Oh, that’s Thad McFadden, he plays for the Badgers.’ And the women – they all want to meet you. I knew right then that this was the type of life I wanted to live.”
And live it he did – that is, until he broke his foot and was released by the Minnesota Vikings in 1987, ending his professional career. After that, Thad McFadden’s life sank like a stone: cocaine addiction, burglary and a six-year guaranteed contract with the Wisconsin state prison system. Looking back on it now, it all seems like a dream.
“With me, it was the fact that I had never been rejected before,” he says of his nosedive, which surprised even his closest friends.
“That really hurt. I started messing with cocaine, which I never touched in college. I lost all my goals. I lost my self-respect. I lost the will to do the things you need to do to keep going in life.”
McFadden, who blames only himself for his downfall and who could be released from prison as early as this summer, is an extreme case among UW athletes. Coaches generally stress academics; eligibility requirements are high; and most athletes do well after graduation – at least as well as the rest of the student body.
Still, anyone who has ever broken a sweat in a Badger-red uniform knows how it feels when the glory days are over: All of a sudden, you’re nobody special anymore. It’s easy to crash and burn even if you think you’re ready for it.
“It’s like one day the light’s on, and the next day it’s completely off,” says one of Wisconsin’s all-time greats, Rufus “Roadrunner” Ferguson, a former academic All Big Ten who suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after he was cut by the Atlanta Falcons in 1973.
Adds Marcus McCoy, a former high school All-American who starred on the Badger basketball team from 1972 to 1975: “For some, it’s almost like post-traumatic shock syndrome. You’ve got your extreme examples, but I know of too many athletes who end up being walking wounded. They don’t even know they’re hurt, but they still literally stop doing some of the most enjoyable things in their lives.”
McCoy, who got a master’s degree in guidance and counseling, and who is currently in private practice, cites the example of a former teammate who struggled as a carpenter after college. The young man stopped playing basketball altogether, refused to attend alumni gatherings and avoided his former teammates. One day, McCoy bumped into him and invited him to do some work at his home. The young man accepted, but left in a huff for no apparent reason soon after he started.
“It was an awkward situation,” McCoy recalls. “I was sitting there watching him work, and on one hand I wanted to help him. But on the other hand, I didn’t know if he wanted me to since I was paying him. Then all of a sudden he goes off big-time and storms out. We got together later and talked about it. But, to this day, if you mention his name to any of the fellas, they’ll say, ‘Man, you saw so-and-so? I haven’t talked to him since we played together.”
Adds former UW distance runner Cindy Bremser, a fourth-place finisher in the 1984 Olympics who is now a health consultant for Wisconsin Physicians Service: “You can tell that some of the kids think track and winning are their whole life, their whole identity. I tell them before a race, ‘Just remember, no matter how you do, we’ll still like you the same amount.’ And they’ll look at me like they’re almost relieved. Those are the types you worry about.”
Alan Zussman, assistant to UW-Madison Athletic Director Pat Richter, notes that most Badger athletes are eventually able to make the transition, even after a fall. The department’s Office of Student and Academic Affairs offers tutoring and career counseling services, for example, and many athletes make the most of them while they are in school.
The more intelligent and athlete is – the more he or she is able to see past the press clippings and take advantage of a university’s educational opportunities – the better the chances of a smooth transition, Zussman says. It also helps if an athlete’s family sends him or her to a college with programs that emphasize life after athletics. For some, a close call with an injury can provide a much-needed reminder that the limelight can end suddenly at any time.
“I think you’re more susceptible to trouble if you’re that really gifted athlete, the athlete who has always been a superstar in a high-profile sport,” Zussman adds. “If I were [current UW basketball stars] Michael Finley or Tracy Webster, for example, I’d think a lot about how it could all end like that if you get badly injured just once.”
According to female athletes interviewed for this story, the crash-and-burn syndrome is far less common among women than men. One reason is that until recently, women’s athletics drew little media attention, and there was no lure to the professional spotlight, which reduced the chances of an athlete getting obsessed with a pipe dream.
That seems to be changing fast, though, says Bremser, and the increased attention to women’s sports may soon carry with it the psychological pitfalls that men have faced for years. UW Women’s Track Coach Peter Tegen notes, for example, that a top-flight female professional runner can now make up to $250,000 a year in shoe contracts and endorsements alone.
“My first year racing at Wisconsin, we won a national championship, and all we got was a little blurb in the paper,” recalls Carolyn Hegge, a former member of the US crew team who is now a successful business lawyer in Madison.
“I wasn’t a celebrity, but it still had a profound impact when I quit racing. I’m a little worried about what will happen when women’s sports become more prominent and doing well becomes something more that validates you in the community.”
According to Bob Suter, a star defenseman on the Badger hockey team in the late-‘70s and a member of the gold-medal-winning 1980 US Olympic squad, one key to post-stardom success is an athlete’s expectations.
Hockey was always a passion for Suter, and he knew early in life that he was a special player bound for a certain amount of success. He even dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League someday, and he got a brief shot with the Minnesota North Stars after the Lake Placid Winter Games.
But somehow, maybe because of his blue-collar upbringing on Madison’s East Side, maybe because he married his wife, Diane, as a senior, Suter never had much use for grandiose fantasies about life in the fast lane.
For him, a stable family and a decent job were always about the best things life could offer – as long as there was a hockey rink somewhere nearby.
“I hit the books, but only about as much as I had to to stay eligible,” Suter says of his college days. “I wanted to play hockey for a couple years after school, but what I really expected was to get into the construction business. I was out digging holes and sweeping sawdust off floors a week after I got back from the Olympics.”
These days, Suter and his wife have three kids. He coaches the Madison East and Madison Capitols hockey teams, and he is the sole proprietor of Suter’s Gold Medal Sports, across the street from Hartmeyer Ice Arena on the city’s Northeast Side. He is clearly a contented man.
“Look at me,” he says from behind the counter of his store as a group of teenagers checks out hockey equipment. “I’m still wearing the same work boots and torn blue jeans I wore in high school.”
Randy Wright, a former teammate of Thad McFadden’s who went on to become the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, says the key for him was discipline – on the playing field, in the classroom and in the business world. Now the owner of Wright Vending and Distributing in Middleton, he credits his parents with making hard work a lifetime habit that kept his feet firmly planted o the ground.
“When I was 10 years old and my mother wanted me to do something, she’d say, ‘You want to be a pro football player? Okay, then take out the garbage.’ Or she’d say, ‘You want to be a pro football player? Okay, then make your bed every day.’” Wright smiles and shakes his head as he speaks. “When I finally made it to the pros, I called her and asked her what the deal was back then. She told me, ‘I didn’t make you a better player, but I taught you discipline. I knew that if you had that, you’d be successful.’”
Rufus Ferguson, now sales manager at Tyson Ford in Vienna, Virginia, and a director of the Wisconsin Alumni Association, echoes Wright’s sentiments about discipline. Another attribute of any good athlete with an eye on the future, he says: a willingness to trust a coach’s directions. That, he says, can help you go far.
Ferguson asked that special mention be made in this article of Les Ritcherson, a former UW assistant coach who took Ferguson under his wing after the nervous breakdown.
“You have to remain coachable,” Ferguson says. “When a coach tells you that you have to go to class and get your degree, you have to buckle down and get it done. It’s easy to cop out, but you have to remember that even as an athlete, your primary job in college is to prepare yourself for life. If you don’t go to class, you might as well go on skid row right now.”
Joe Chrnelich, a star forward on the Badger basketball team in the late-‘70s who was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1980, says many athletes are blind to the rare advantages that college stardom gives them. Some players see all those fans as window dressing for their own success, he says, when they should be seeing them as links to the real world.
“The real benefits of athletics come after you make the transition,” says Chrnelich, who runs a successful lobbying firm on the Capitol Square. “Sports, and the confidence sports gives you, can really give you a leg up on other students in making contacts in the business world. I’m still amazed at how often people come up to me and say they saw me play.”
At the same time, Chrnelich remembers well how hard he chased his dream of playing in the NBA. After a quick exit from the Knicks’ rookie camp, he labored for three years in the European leagues before he finally faced the fact that he would never make it to the big show.
“I was in Italy in 1983,” he recalls, sitting across from a prominent picture in his office of him guarding Magic Johnson in college. “I was having a contract dispute, and as the only American on an Italian team, I had a lot of solitude, a lot of time to think about what I wanted in life.
“One day, I called my agent and told him I was done; I didn’t even finish the season. It was kind of sad, but at the same time, I felt comfortable with the decision. I felt like I had accomplished what I wanted to do.”
Chrnelich recommends that all gifted young athletes sit down before choosing a college and write down some post-stardom goals. Next, they should do some research on which institutions offer the best path to those goals – then they should follow through.
“Talk to people and find out what’s best for you,” Chrnelich says. “It sounds so simple, but a lot of kids fail to do even that.”
Former UW sprinter Pam Moore, a onetime Wisconsin Athlete of the Year who had the nation’s fastest indoor time in the 400-meters in 1981, had a larger life plan in mind well before her athletic career ended. Maybe that’s why her life proceeded without a hitch after an injury ruined her bid for a Big Ten championship in 1982.
“I sat down with my coach [Peter Tegen], and I said to him, ‘I have a lot of good job offers; I’m hurt; and I have to decide whether to keep running or start looking for employment like normal people do.’ I asked him, ‘Do I have a realistic shot to make the  Olympic team?’ And he told me that I had a real chance. I weighed all of that and just decided that it was time to get on with my life.”
Moore, now an underwriter for American Family Insurance and the mother of five-year-old son Wesley, agrees that women are less prone to the crash-and-burn syndrome than their male counterparts. The difference, she says, is less a matter of media attention and professional opportunities than a matter of basic ego structure.
“I’m a fairly arrogant person,” she admits. “I did not like losing either. But my focus was to be in the best possible shape I could be. I didn’t seek out the camera. I preferred to stay away from it. Men tend to hype on that a lot more than women. I believe men’s egos are a lot bigger in that regard.”
If for only that reason, Marcus McCoy thinks college head coaches should employ a full-time assistant coach – a mental health pro with athletic experience – whose primary concern is getting players ready for life after the limelight. Current counseling services are fine, he says, but a young ego can prevent a player from taking advantage of them. What is needed, McCoy says, is someone who deals with each athlete every day.
“You need to have somebody on the bench with you, someone you’ll talk to when you’re traveling or hanging around after practice,” he says. “By the time they get to the major college level, these are fairly pampered kids with egos as big as a whole team. At the same time, they’re going through the most traumatic psychological development stage in a human being’s life.”
All of the athletes interviewed for this story agree that there is a fine line between the positive thinking that is part and parcel of athletic success and the delusion that can bring disaster once the glory days are over. The trick is to find the balance, they say, and nobody succeeds at it all the time.
But no matter how the chips fall, there is something about becoming a successful athlete that breeds an inner confidence that will always be there.
“I’m totally embarrassed about what happened to me,” Thad McFadden says in an interview room at Oshkosh State Penitentiary. “But I’m thankful as well because maybe this is what it took to get me to change. People look at me like this is the end or something, but I know that’s not the case. I’m going to come out and look people in the eye and show them that I can still do great things in life.”
McFadden says that someday he’d like to work in a community program that helps young people stay away from drugs. He’d like to show them what can happen if they don’t.
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