Survivalist Ruettgers Came Full Circle With Green And Gold

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*As part of the Green Bay Packers' celebration of the 10th anniversary season of the Super Bowl XXXI Championship, Packers.com is running a series of stories about the people responsible for bringing the Vince Lombardi trophy back home to Titletown.

"Only the strong survive."

That just might be one of the most overused, overstated clichés in all of sports. But in the case of Ken Ruettgers, that phrase was accurate for the majority of his career.

While some may believe that athletes have it made simply because they are being paid handsomely to play the game they love, there's more to it than that. Sure, playing time, where you play and how much money you make all factor into the life of professional athletes. Yet to men like Ruettgers, winning is of the utmost importance.

Considering he was the only player from the 1996 Super Bowl roster to play in the Forrest Gregg and Lindy Infante eras, the 6-foot-6, 286-pound left tackle clearly paid his dues. But just when it appeared that Ruettgers would come full circle and enjoy the Super Bowl season, he suffered through a knee injury and only played in four games.

Though Ruettgers, 43, was on that '96 roster and earned a Super Bowl ring, he was forced to sit through the last five games as well as the playoffs.

"Oh my goodness, it was so painful," Ruettgers explained. "It was so hard to get that close, and to have something happen where I couldn't physically make it."

Despite not getting the opportunity to finish out that special season, Ruettgers was still part of something great in Green Bay. He played five years under Mike Holmgren, contributing to a winning situation.

Ruettgers was a force at left tackle, and based on his ability to stick around for three different coaches in 12 years, he was always one of the team's best players when healthy. And now when he reflects on that time, he does so with pride.

"That was a great feeling to be part of the turnaround in Green Bay," Ruettgers said. "It was hard to do. There was a big turnover when Holmgren and (Ron) Wolf came in. By the time we got to the Super Bowl there was a big turnover.

"But you know, 50 percent of NFL players play three years or less. That's just the nature of the NFL."

The nature of the NFL is what led Ruettgers to the life he leads today. He lives in Sisters, Ore., with his wife Sheryl, and their children, Matt, 18, Katherine, 16, and Susan, 14.

After seeing what old teammates and opponents went through after they retired from football, Ruettgers was on a mission to help former professional athletes cope with the transition to a new career outside of sports. This led to a nonprofit organization called Gamesover (www.gamesover.org).

Ruettgers is the executive director and is also working on his Ph.D. in sociology. It's only fitting that his dissertation will focus on retired NFL players.

While he was in Green Bay, Ruettgers got the idea of what life might be like after football.

"In '93, I think Mike Holmgren brought a group called Invest in Yourself in, and it was kind of a preparation for retirement and I thought that was really interesting," Ruettgers said. "He brought them in during training camp and everybody on the training camp roster got some help and I thought 'Man, that is really cool.'"

Though he may have thought about his post-football career, it's not as if Ruettgers really worried about it. In fact, his mindset was just the opposite.

"It was challenging for me to go through transition," Ruettgers admitted. "I didn't think I would have any challenges at all because I had my MBA, I wrote the book, and we were well networked with the community. So, I thought, 'Man, no problem.'

"Guys I played with were ending up bankrupt, divorced, they were unemployed for years and I kept thinking, 'What is going on?' And then (former Packers teammate) Tom Neville ended up getting shot and dying in that police standoff and I wondered what is going on for a guy to lose himself in a situation like that. I thought 'Gosh, is anybody doing anything for these guys once they leave the game?' And nobody really was."

Fortunately for retired athletes, Ruettgers is here to help, especially those who feel they are taking on the "real world" by themselves.

"A lot of it is when these guys leave the game, they are so isolated," Ruttgers said. "They feel like they are the only ones going through it. I try to hook them up with life coaches, and we have a network of businesses around the country that we try to connect them with for educational counseling.

"But the greatest challenge that I found is not getting them jobs or getting them back into school, it's just working through the challenges of transitions they face. Types of relations, lifestyle changes, relational challenges, loss of structure, uncertainty, and of course the biggest one is when identity becomes an issue."

Obviously football was, and probably always will be, a huge part of Ruettgers life, and many of his clients come from that arena, However, that doesn't mean he helps only retired football players.

"I speak to a couple hundred active professional athletes a year," Ruettgers said. "Probably 100 of those are football players. I was recently down in Brazil talking to retired World Cup players. You know, golfers, gymnasts, cowboys. I haven't talked to any motorists yet, but hockey, baseball, basketball players are common."

According to Ruettgers, his line of work is very rewarding, especially when he helps somebody turn a bad situation into a good one.

"Recently I was working with a football player who had been separated from his wife and he was unreachable," Ruettgers explained. "But I kept working with him and talking with him, and eventually he and his wife are back together. I also worked with one guy who had been going from job to job and now he wants to become a doctor. He's going to med school."

Like any exciting job, Ruettgers said the stories and situations he deals with vary.

"I just recently got a call from a guy I played against," Ruettgers explained. "My last year or two he was a rookie. He played nine (years) and now he's been out for four, and he's broke. So, I just started working with him.

"It's active guys, retired guys, I just try to encourage them on the phone and talk to them about typical challenges guys face. Occasionally, my wife will talk to their wife on the phone."

Another perk to the job is the travel requirements that Ruettgers must meet. In fact, it sometimes leads him back to where it all started. Typically, Ruettgers attends training camp and made it to one Green Bay game last season. He said he's taking his son Matt, who graduates from high school this year, to Lambeau Field next fall.

It's only fitting that Ruettgers can show his son where it all started. After all, he endured some down times earlier in his career with the Packers, but in the end, everything has worked out very well.

But then again, if you really do believe that only the strong survive, then you had to know Ruettgers would be here all along.

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