Former Packers’ linebacker George Koonce on giving back

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George Koonce

George Koonce

MILWAUKEE — By his own admission, former Green Bay Packers player George Koonce had a wonderful wife, beautiful children, money in the bank and a Super Bowl ring. So why did he try to end it all?

“It’s been a tough road, and I’ve had some ups and some lows, but I’d get on that plane all over again — at 10 a.m., a flight leaving out of Raleigh, Durham, heading to Green Bay Wisconsin. I would get on that flight again. It has been a tremendous journey,” Koonce said.

Koonce is a former Packers linebacker who owns a rags-to-riches story. Coming out of east Carolina, he experienced glory, but only as a player on the “Ohio Glory,” of the short-lived World Football League.

Number 53 signed with the Green Bay Packers as a free agent in 1992, and became an eight-year starter and Super Bowl champ.

“They don’t care if you’re drafted in the first round, or you are a free agent, or you are drafted in the third or fourth round. They’re all about giving you opportunity, and they gave a kid from eastern Carolina an opportunity and I took advantage of it. I really, truly have lived out the American dream. I love the Green Bay Packers so much because they instill so many values and so many principles that I live by today,” Koonce said.

Koonce has given back. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University, where he serves as Director of Development — raising money for the Urban Scholars Program.

That’s why it was so shocking to learn that Koonce survived what he calls, in retrospect, a suicide attempt in 2003.

“I was in a bad place. I was fortunate enough to play football from the age of nine to 32, but when the lights cut out for me, personally, in the stadium, that was tough to take. I was drinking a lot and spending time alone. I was isolated and didn’t have anyone I could talk to about the issues that I was dealing with,” Koonce said.

One day, Koonce was scoring a touchdown for Seattle, where he ended his career. The next, he was sitting on a couch watching the teammates and opponents he’d battled with and against.

“That was tough to take, and what purpose do I have to be here?” Koonce said.

Fortunately, Koonce had someone who truly loved and believed in him — his wife, Tunisia.

“I found someone to help me redefine who I am. Not to necessarily reinvent who I am, but to redefine who I am. That and my faith enabled me to work through the demons that I had going on on the inside,” Koonce said.

Sadly, Koonce lost Tunisia in October 2009, when breast cancer claimed her life at the age of 38.

“She was instrumental in pulling me out of the ditch – literally in 2003 when I went around that curve – that 25-mile-per-hour curve going 75 miles-per-hour. Didn’t really care about if I survived or not, but she pulled me out of the ditch and got me going in the right direction. I’m very, very thankful and indebted to her,” Koonce said.

Perhaps as a way of honoring her, Koonce wrote his doctoral dissertation on transitioning from the NFL.

“I knew I was in that place, in a dark and lonely place, a year-and-a-half or so after leaving the National Football League. I knew a lot of my teammates and a lot of guys that I competed against are in that same place,” Koonce said.

The two greatest gifts Koonce’s wife left him are the couple’s two children — a 15-year-old daughter and a young son.