After blocking for a Heisman-winning quarterback at the University of Southern California, Ken Ruettgers left for the NFL in 1985 as the seventh overall pick by the Green Bay Packers, a team he played for his entire decade in the league.
It was time well-spent, too. Ruettgers ended up as the Packer’s 1989 offensive MVP, a 1996 Super Bowl champion and with a place in his team’s hall of fame. The NFL had been good to Ruettgers, and entering retirement, it made no sense to expect much different.
“I thought it would be nirvana, that the tensions in my marriage would just melt away, that we could more or less retire, go on vacations, spend more time with the family. Really, I thought it would be the American dream,” Ruettgers, 51, said. “But when I got to that place, that wasn’t what I found.”
While many players struggle financially, Ruettger’s problems were largely with his marriage, as he struggled with a desire to micromanage his wife, Sheryl. After working through the transition out of the NFL, a path that took Ruettgers into marriage counseling and a new career in publishing, he chose to dedicate his life to athletes facing challenges after retirement. At first, Ruettgers worked through a nonprofit he founded, Games Over, but in 2007, he graduated from the Oxford Graduate School in Tennessee with a doctorate in sociology. Ruettgers wrote his dissertation on what he terms the “sport career transition,” and he now teaches sociology courses at Central Oregon Community College, including one on the role of sports in society.
“What triggered all of this was when I got a call about a guy I played next to named Tom Neville,” Ruettgers said. “It was one of our teammates, and he said, ‘Did you hear the news?’ What happened was, Tom was shot and killed by the police. He was recently married and had a new son, and he had been unemployed for seven years and depressed. Who knows what was really going on? But I think athletics is often a coping mechanism for the multitude of issues we face in life, and when that is gone, what’s going to be your new mechanism?”
Ruettgers said the key to understanding the difficulty of the sport career transition is a close look at identity.
“When you’ve sunk so much of your life and self-worth into what you do, then who do you become when what you do becomes what you did?” Ruettgers said. “So if someone comes up to you and says, ‘I know you, you used to be Ken Ruettgers,’ well then the question is, ‘If I used to be Ken Ruettgers, who am I now?’ It’s hard to be in your thirties and asked what you do at a cocktail party and have to say ‘I’m retired.’”
Ruettgers said when he’s asked what he does, he says he teaches at COCC. For players just beginning their transition, he encourages them to be frank and say, “I’m in a transition, which is something everyone can relate to.”
“If I could boil down what I think the transition is about, I’d say it’s about the opportunity to do things for others,” Ruettgers said. “When you’re 20-something and playing sports, the world is all about you, but how do you best adjust to a new world, one where your poop stinks like everyone else’s? I think we get most of our purpose and meaning from the impact we make on others.”
Ruettgers is working on a book for athletes dealing with the transition, but the project was put on hold when the oldest of his three children, Matthew Ruettgers, 24, was killed in August 2012 in a motorcycle crash in Bend.
“My wife and I have been focused on the hard work of grieving, and it’s made everything hard, but teaching has been good,” Ruettgers said. “I think I’ve just had to take care of myself, focus and work hard at teaching.”
At COCC, Ruettgers leads a full load of sociology courses, ranging from introductory work to classes specialized in everything from sports to religion to gender.
“He likes to say we’re going to ‘unpack’ a topic, and he really means it, as we dig deep into the subjects through conversation,” said Kellie Calkins, 45, a COCC student. “He’s been able to lead us from thinking about things from our personal perspective to a sociological perspective, where we are outside of ourselves. And he’s encouraging and warm the whole time.”
Ruettgers does not make a point of mentioning his past life to his students, but it seems to have a way of coming up.
“There was kind of an off comment one day about football, and so I went home and Googled his name, and said, ‘Holy crap, he was a top pick for the Packers,’” said Loren Baily, 44, another of Ruettger’s students. “The funny thing was that he made a similar comment three weeks later, and I watched a young lady Google him on her smart phone in class, and she turned to me and said, ‘Oh my God, can you believe this?’”
Ruettgers said he considers his NFL career to be “ancient history,” but he does bring it up when prompted by students, especially in his courses focused on the sociology of sports.
“Recently we started talking about the Richie Incognito bullying story, and we were able to ask him about the culture of NFL locker rooms and whether or not he ever saw anything like that,” Bailey said. “It was cool having the insight of someone who had actually been there.”
Tom Barry, a colleague of Ruettger’s in the sociology department, said the study of sport “is an important area, as the field is a place where you can see what’s going on in society played out, whether it be issues of gender inequality or class or race. There are also the issue of power dynamics in sports, especially the role of the university in college athletics.”
Ruettgers said he would someday like to do more research in the area of sports.
“I think it’s an under-researched field, but athletes are interesting to look at, in one way you can see them as the power elites, as they certainly have status and can likely accomplish more than the average person,” Ruettgers said. “But I think the owners are the real power elites, and there’s the question of if they are oppressing the athletes, as a social conflict analysis would suggest. But of course, to the average Joe making $40,000, they are nowhere near oppressed.”
Typical for an academic, Ruettgers spends his free time reading John Locke and Karl Marx, but he has also found a way to enjoy football as a spectator.
“It was hard to watch at first, it was such a reminder of this huge thing that was no longer part of my life,” Ruettgers said. “But now I follow the Packers and like watching the Ducks and Beavers, but I think my wife’s the bigger sports fan. What I really like is showing up early to a game, football or a Blazers game, and watching the players prepare, seeing them visualize the game and try to get to that peak level just at the right time. That’s what I really like.”
— Reporter: 541-633-2160, firstname.lastname@example.org