As Bernie Kosar's life around him crumbles, the former QB's game plan is familiar: Emerge unscathed
MIAMI -- The IRS and the creditors and an angry ex-wife and an avalanche of attorneys are circling the chaos that used to be Bernie Kosar's glamorous life, but that's not the source of his anxiety at the moment.
He is doing a labored lap inside his Weston mansion, the one on the lake near the equestrian playpen for horses, because he wants to be sure there are no teenage boys hiding, attempting to get too close to his three daughters.
He shattered a Kid Rock-autographed guitar the other day while chasing one teenager out of his house because he doesn't mind all of the other boys within the area code thinking the Kosar girls have an unhinged dad.
"There are a million doors in this place," he says. "Too many ways to get in."
So up and down the spiral staircases he goes, a rumpled mess wearing a wrinkled golf shirt, disheveled graying hair, and the scars and weariness from a lifetime's worth of beatings.
He has no shoes on, just white socks with the NFL logo stitched on because he has never really been able to let go of who he used to be.
He is coughing up phlegm from a sickness he is certain arrived with all the recent stress of divorce and debt, and now he doesn't walk so much as wobble his way into one of the closets upstairs, where he happens upon some painful, wonderful memories he keeps sealed in a plastic cup.
His teeth are in there.
So is the surgical screw that finally broke through the skin in his ankle because of how crooked he walked for years. He broke that ankle in the first quarter of a game against the Miami Dolphins in 1992; he threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter anyway.
Don Shula called him the following day to salute him on being so tough, but Kosar is paying for it with every step he takes today on uneven footing. The old quarterback shakes the rattling cup, then grins.
There are about as many real teeth in the cup as there are in what remains of his smile.
"I never wore a mouthpiece," he says. "I had to live and die with my audibles. We played on pavement/AstroTurf back then. Getting hit by Lawrence Taylor was only the beginning of the problem."
So much pain in his life. He heads back downstairs gingerly.
"I need hip replacement."
He pulls his jeans down a bit to reveal the scar from the surgery to repair his broken back.
"Disks fused together."
"A lot," he says. "I don't know how many."
He holds out all 10 gnarled fingers. "All of these have been broken at least once," he says. "Most of them twice."
Broke both wrists, too.
The game was fast and muscled. He was neither. He was always the giraffe trying to survive among lions. Still is, really. He has merely traded one cutthroat arena in which people compete for big dollars for another, and today's is a hell of a lot less fun than the one that made him famous. More painful, too, oddly enough.
Kosar holds up his left arm and points to the scar on his elbow.
"Have a cadaver's ligament in there," he says.
And that's the good arm. He bends over and lets both arms hang in front of him. His throwing arm is as crooked as a boomerang.
The doorbell rings. It's his assistant with the papers he needs to autograph.
She puts all the legalese from four folders in front of him on a coffee table that is low to the ground.
A groaning Kosar, 45, gets down very slowly onto the rug until he is symbolically on his hands and knees at the center of what used to be his glamorous life. And then he signs the documents that begin the process of filing for bankruptcy.
"Let me tell you something, bro," he says. "It was all worth it."
Brett Favre has made a spectacular public mess of his career punctuation because of how very hard it is for even the strongest among us to leave behind the applause for good.
It is difficult for any man to retire when so much of his identity and self-worth and validation is tied up in his job, what he does invariably becoming a lopsided amount of who he is.
But it is especially hard on quarterbacks because of how much of America's most popular game they literally hold in their hands. That kind of control -- over other strong men, over huddles, over winning, over entire swaying stadiums and their surrounding cities -- is just about impossible to let go ... as is the attendant attention, ego, importance, popularity, fun and life.
There's no preparing you for the silence that comes after all you've heard is cheering. A quarterback will never feel more alive anywhere than he does at the conquering center of everything in sports. His is by consensus the most difficult job in athletics, and it requires an obsessive-compulsive attention to detail.
But sometimes they sculpt their singular and all-consuming skill to the detriment of the balance needed for the rest of life's tacklers.
Bills? Errands? Adulthood?
Those things get handed off sometimes because, whether it is the offensive line or family and friends huddled around their income source, the quarterback must always be protected or everyone loses.
Kosar was one of the smart ones. He graduated from the University of Miami in 2 1/2 years. He was smart enough to go a record 308 pass attempts without an interception. Smart enough to help build several businesses after football, with a 6 percent interest in a customer-service outsourcing company that sold for more than $500 million. Smart enough to have a wing of the business school at the University of Miami named after him. But now that the maids and wife are gone, you know how he feels walking into a grocery store by himself for the first time?
"Overwhelmed," he says.
He never had to grow up, really, as anything but a quarterback.
Do you know how to wash clothes, Bernie?
"No," he says.
Iron a shirt?
"No," he says.
Start the dishwasher?
"No," he says.
When his new girlfriend came over recently and found him trying to cook with his daughters, she couldn't believe what was on the kitchen island to cut the French bread. A saw.
"I was 25 and everyone was telling me that I was the smartest; now I'm 45 and realize I'm an idiot," he says. "I'm 45 and immature. I don't like being 45."
The only post-quarterback jobs that have given him any sort of joy are the ones near football: broadcasting Cleveland Browns games; running a company that created football Web sites and magazines; buying an Arena Football League team. But it isn't the same. Not nearly. As he tries to reorganize his life in a dark period that leaves his mind racing and sleepless, the people he quotes aren't philosophers and poets. They are coaches.
Like when he was at Miami, for example. He was the weakest kid on the team. He was mortified when his statuesque competition, Vinny Testaverde, walked onto campus and bench-pressed 325 pounds a bunch of times. Kosar got 185 up just once, with arms shaking. So he went to coach Howard Schnellenberger and, sweating and trying not to tremble, told him he was going to transfer. And now he quotes the old pipe-smoking coach and applies those lessons from nearly three decades ago to today: "Son, I'm not going to lie. It doesn't look good for you. But wherever you go in life, there's competition. The guys who run home to mommy tend to be quitters their whole life."
Kosar won. Won huge. Won the job and the national championship in a flabbergasting upset of Nebraska to begin Miami's unprecedented football run through the next two decades.
As creditors close in and his divorce has gotten messy in public, Kosar has had some suicidal thoughts, but he says, "I couldn't quit on my kids. I'm not a quitter.
"I got here with hard work. I'll get out of this with hard work. No wallowing. No 'woe is me.' I'm great at making money. And, as we've found out, I'm great at spending it. What I'm not great at is managing it."
It is hard to believe he filed a bankruptcy petition in June, but a bad economy, bad advice, a bad divorce and a bad habit of not being able to say "no" have ravaged him. He says financial advisers he loved and trusted mismanaged his funds, doing things like losing $15 million in one quick burst. There's a $4.2 million judgment against him from one bank. A failed real-estate project in Tampa involving multi-family properties. A steakhouse collapsing with a lawsuit. Tax trouble.
A recent Sports Illustrated article estimated that, within two years of leaving football, an astounding 78 percent of players are either bankrupt or in financial distress over joblessness and divorce. And through the years, a lot of those old teammates have asked Kosar to borrow a hundred grand here, a hundred-fifty grand there. He knew then that he wouldn't be getting it back. But, as the quarterback -- always the quarterback -- you help your teammates up.
How much has he lent teammates without being repaid?
"Eight figures," he says.
Friends and family?
"Eight figures," he says.
Charities, while putting nearly 100 kids through school on scholarships? "Well over eight figures."
Then there's the divorce. It has been a public disaster, with him being accused of several addictions, of erratic behavior and of giving away the couple's money. He speaks with a slur and admits there has been drinking and pain medication in his past, but says the only thing he's addicted to is football.
Drugs? Alcohol? "Would my kids be living with me if that were really the case?" he asks. "If I did 10 percent of things I'm accused of, I'd be dead."
He says the divorce has cost him between $4 and $5 million already.
"That's just fees," he says. "And they keep coming. Attorneys charge $600 an hour just to screw things up more."
And here's the worst part: "I don't want to get divorced," he says. "I'm Catholic, and I'm loyal, and I still love her."
He has poured himself into being dad, but it isn't easy. Kids listen more from 2 to 10 years old. But now there are the perpetual parental concerns of cars, driving, drinking, drugs, sex.
"I'm outnumbered now."
He has found therapy in learning how to clean the house with the kids and dealing with life's smaller headaches. Just the other day, while in a 10-hour bankruptcy meeting with 10 attorneys that left him "humbled and in pain and feeling betrayed" as he took a detailed inventory of his life, he excused himself with a smile because one of his daughters -- the oldest of his children lives with him full time, the others part time -- was calling with some sort of popularity crisis.
"The worst feeling in the world is being dad on Friday night at home at midnight and they haven't gotten home yet," he says.
"This other chaos is just stuff. Money. I'll make more. It feels bad. It sucks the life and energy out of you and is a relentless drain. But I'm going to come out of this fine. I always get up."
There are photos all over his mansion. Many of them are not up. They are on the floor, leaning against the walls. He'll learn how to hang them soon enough. He goes over and grabs the one by the fireplace.
In it, he is in the pocket with the Browns, and everything is collapsing all around him. You can see Kosar's offensive linemen either beaten or back-pedaling. His left tackle is on the ground, staring as his missed assignment blurs toward the quarterback's blind side.
But the ball is already in the air, frozen in flight, headed perfectly to the only teammate who has a step in a sea of Steelers. It is a work of art, that photo. You can see clearly that the play is going to work. And you can see just as clearly that Kosar is going to get crushed.
Kosar runs his fingers along the frame. This is what his life once was and what it is now -- a swirl of chaos and pain and danger surrounding a man who has to remain in control for the people around him as everything feels like it is falling apart.
"I just wanted to play football," the old quarterback says.
A laugh and a pause.
"Actually, I still do."
First Published July 13, 2009 12:00 am