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Retired series: Fabini wonders about physical future

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Fifth in a series of eight

Few professional athletes get the choice when to retire, and every other one is usually angry about it. Injuries happen, age limits their physical abilities or employers decide they no longer are necessary or don't want to pay the current rate.

Even fewer leave their professions healthy, partly because they retire one year too late versus one year too early.

But what happens to someone who has had to retire and lost their dream before reaching middle age? What's next after the only thing you ever wanted to do is no longer possible? How do you plan the next 30 years of your working life or replace that competitive appetite which has driven you for so long?

Former Dwenger star played 11 years in the NFL

Monday, July 28, 2014 - 12:01 am

Though he wanted to play for one or two more seasons and had teams interested in signing him, five years later Jason Fabini knows he was fortunate when he was forced to retire from the NFL. The Bishop Dwenger product was traveling in Europe when he started experiencing headaches.

"I'm kind of a hypochondriac when it comes to my health," Fabini said recently. "I went to the doctor and got a scan and they found a blood clot. Thank God they didn't have to go in and bust it out. I was lucky. I never looked back."

Today, Fabini, who turns 40 next month, is relatively healthy, which is not necessarily normal for someone who played 11 years in the NFL as an offensive lineman where there is physical contact on every play. He's had surgeries on both shoulders, a pectoral muscle, his left knee twice, his foot once and then a sinus surgery so he could breathe when he played.

Currently, he's having some trouble with back stiffness and has had three injections within the last year. He also works regularly with a chiropractor. He has to be careful with his workouts or he knows he'll end up in bed for a few days.

"I know my limits now," he said.

After playing with the New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, Fabini retired after the 2008 season. He spent the next two years trying to understand his health issues, moving back to Fort Wayne and adjusting to a new family life where getting his four sons to events became the priority.

He now coaches with the St. Charles and Bishop Dwenger football teams in the fall, and works for Merrill Lynch as a client associate on a team of six. That allows him to use his business degree from the University of Cincinnati.

Because he's 6-foot-7 and maintains some muscle, he carries his weight well, but he also knows he's a few pounds north of his 310-pound playing weight. He likes to eat and likes to cook, which can sometimes be a problem for former professional athletes who are no longer working out every day to keep in top conditioning.

"I weigh more now, and my back has been bothering me so it's a struggle," he said. "I've seen friends go both ways where they lost a lot of weight or gained a lot of weight. I haven't stepped on a scale in about a month. I'm afraid to."

When he was in college and in the pros, he could eat however much and however often he wanted because he'd work it off the next day. He also had to maintain his size as part of his position.

Now that he's stopped playing, he has to be even more aware of his body.

Still, that was not as big a challenge in retirement as finding out what Fabini wanted to do next with his life.

"You have always been identified as a football player, and it's something I've done since I was a little kid," he said. "The other thing is finding meaningful things to do. There's only so much you can sit around. That was the toughest thing in the beginning.

"I had friends who were players and we all talked. You want to do something meaningful. Your identity is being a football player and having people cater to you. You get catered to a lot so how do you transition? You find out a lot about yourself."

There was also finding what he wanted to do the next day and what he wanted to do for the rest of his working life. Most people's working careers last 40 years, but a football player is extremely lucky if he can play for 10 years. They are well-paid for that time, but that money might have to last a long time.

"Let's say you play one or two years, and I think the biggest thing is a lot of kids aren't prepared," he said. "They think they are going to play 10, 11, 12 years and sometimes they see what some of the veterans are doing and how they spend their money and think they can do that.

"I think the NFL has done a great job of trying to educate, but you have to be with people that you trust and have a good relationship with. When I was young, I didn't know a lot about investing and I asked a lot of questions. When you ask questions, you don't feel stupid. You have to live within your means. I think sometimes it's hard when you are a young kid and you get money and you've never had it before."

Fabini does wonder how his body will react in the future. He loved playing the game, but there are always physical payments for professional athletes.

"I go to a couple of Jets games per year, and you always do these events when the alumni come back and you can see an older lineman," he said. "You could tell they were in pain.

"I wouldn't trade how I feel now. Everybody says, 'Would you not do it again?' No, I loved it, and the experiences, the people you meet and the stuff you get to do. I absolutely loved it."