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Eddie George lost himself after the NFL, until he found himself on Broadway

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The Tennessee Titans all-time leading rusher struggled to find his way after his football career ended. Then he discovered another talent.

Jeremy Daniel, 2015

He had spent nine years preparing for this very moment. Acting classes twice a week. Dance lessons, singing lessons, trips to New York City to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman perform Death of a Salesman and to see what life Jude Law could breathe into Hamlet.

Now here he was, wearing a black suit, black tie and top hat, standing backstage in the remarkably plain-looking Room No. 1 of the Ambassador Theater, one of Broadway's most prestigious halls. Eventually he was told they were ready for him to come out on stage. He paced gingerly, his mind racing as he considered all the greats -- names like James Naughton and Nathan Lane -- that had performed under the very lights he was about to step into.

"Do you know the song?" the piano player asked him.

"I guess we'll find out," he said.

He had never performed alongside a piano before. Most of his experience had come in small productions --€” Julius Caesar, Othello -- and while he had spent weeks, and even years, practicing some of Chicago's tunes, the show's soundtrack had always been his guide.

The new sound threw him off. It was taking longer than usual to nail the right key. Concerned that he was blowing his chance, both his body and voice began to tremble.

"It's okay," Leslie Stifelman, the musical director said to Eddie George. "Calm down, you're doing great. It's obvious you've had some singing lessons, just do your thing."

He paused and considered her advice.

Just leave it all out there, he thought. If you crack a note, you crack a note. So be it. George took a deep breath, gathered himself, and then spent the next 20 minutes performing every one of Billy Flynn's numbers. We Both Reached for the Gun. Razzle Dazzle. And of course, All I Care About.

"I don't care about expensive things. Cashmere coats, diamond rings," George sang. "Don't mean a thing. All I care about is love."

After that it was time to bring out Barry Weisler, one of the show's top producers. For years Weisler, a Broadway veteran, had been interested in hiring an athlete to play his male lead. He had recently gotten wind that George, the former Heisman winner and All-pro running back, had been spending his time reciting monologues and tackling Shakespeare while donning white robes and crowns made out of olive branches. This, he thought, was the man he'd been searching for.

But first he had to make sure George had enough skills to pull off the role. With his effervescent smile, broad shoulders, muscular 6'3 frame and dark brown eyes George certainly looked the part of a Broadway star. And there was no question that since retiring from football he had put in the work honing his craft.

Performing on Broadway, though, in front of an audience full of savants and couples who spent hundreds of dollars on a pair of seats, is an entirely different beast. Weisler wasn't interested in orchestrating a publicity stunt. Sure, he liked the idea of using to George as a means to introduce an entirely new faction of fans to Broadway. But not at the expense of his beloved production.

He watched with a keen eye as George went through the songs again. He concentrated on every word and every note. Eventually he made up his mind.

George was offered the part.

The former NFL star giddily skipped backstage, took out his phone, and quickly dialed up his wife so that he could share the exciting news.

"Oh my god, we're going to Broadway!" she screamed back. "Broadway. I can't believe it!"

Even more incredible was how much George had overcome to get there.

*  *  *

To the outside world George's life always looked like a perfect one. He had a long and successful NFL career -- but also appeared to get out relatively unharmed. He had money and fame. Two children. A beautiful wife, Tamara Johnson, a member of the R&B group SWV.

He was intelligent and eloquent and well-liked, the epitome of an NFL player seemingly prepared for his post-football life.

George retired from the NFL in 2005 -- after eight seasons with the Oilers/Titans and one with the Cowboys -- eager and excited to tackle the next phase of his life. He had plans. After spending four years at Ohio State but failing to graduate, he had decided to go back and get his degree in landscape architecture while recovering from a foot injury in 2001. About a year later he launched a landscaping and design company called Edge. He also did some broadcasting work after retiring and opened up a couple restaurants, too.

But none of that addressed the issue gnawing at him every minute of every day: now that he was no longer a football player, who, then, was he? That uncertainty, combined with the constant migraines, a reminder that all those vicious hits do, in fact, leave scars, began to slowly derail his life.

He had spent the previous 20 years of his life focused on one thing and one thing only. Every day, from his childhood in Philadelphia to his tenure at Ohio State to his nine-year NFL career, had revolved around football

Suddenly, at the still-young age of 31, that was no longer the case.

"To wake up and not know what you're going to do with your time because you can no longer do the one thing that you've been doing your entire life, it's daunting," George says over the phone from his Nashville home one afternoon in December. "I had saved my money and started businesses, but none of that helped me in terms of figuring out what my life purpose was going to be from there on out.

"The days where I just had nothing to do, those were the ones where I become self-destructive," George adds. "Hanging out late. Going out and trying to get back into old habits. Chasing women, clubbing, just searching for ways to bring myself joy."

Those nights he did come home he'd often have trouble falling asleep. The anxiety was just too much. He'd toss and turn and stress as he pondered his life and the emptiness awaiting him the next day.

And so he did what so many shattered former football players do after stepping out from under the lights.

He turned to pills.

"Ambien, man," George says. "At first I'd take one Ambien, and then that would lead to one-and-a-half and that would lead to two and then two-and-a-half and then three and then suddenly I'm relying on them and taking them all the time."

One moment, a morning maybe a year or two after he retired, sticks out more than the rest. George woke up in his bed with no recollection of how he arrived there. He had some vague memories of the night before. He remembered sitting at his kitchen counter, talking to his wife and his assistant. He remembered taking three Ambien. After that everything was a blank.

"My assistant told me that I was sitting there talking to them, softly mumbled ‘help me,' and then just passed out," George recalls. "She said that the two of them carried me into the bed and that they were both terrified."

The incident left George spooked. It also changed his life.

"That's when I realized I needed to stop self-medicating," he says. "That's when I realized that if I didn't work out the core of these issues, it was going to lead to something worse."

Eddie George in Chicago

Photo via Jeremy Daniel, 2015

It's blistering cold January night in New York and in just a few hours Eddie George will be making his Broadway debut. Outside, a building-sized billboard featuring the 6'3, 255-pound George, in a black tuxedo and bow tie and with a pair of smiling women clinging to each of his still-bulging arms, hangs over Times Square. Inside the Ambassador Theater, George is preparing to step onto the stage as Billy Flynn, the hotshot defense lawyer at the center of Chicago, for the first time.

"Opening night!" the 42-year-old former Oilers/Titans star writes in a text message to Anna Maria Franzella, his acting coach and close friend. "This is everything we've been working for."

George was introduced to Franzella shorty after the Ambien incident. He had started seeing a therapist, which helped him jump start the process of sorting out his various demons and fears. But he also needed more, something to address that still-burning desire to figure out who he was now that he was no longer suiting up for battle every Sunday. As he puts it now, "I wanted to find something that I loved to do, that I would do for free, just like football. Something that would become my life's purpose."

Acting, it turned out, was a perfect fit.

In a way, it was similar to his previous profession. Preparation was key. He had teammates. There was a live performance and an audience and all types of pressure and at the end of it all you received an instant reaction. Possibly even a rousing applause.

"I absolutely loved it," George says. "I fell in love with the art of telling stories. I was able to take a lot of the fear, frustration, anxiety, excitement — all that stuff I was dealing with — and put that into an art form."

There was just one problem.

"I had done some cameos and auditions beforehand," George says. "But I had no clue what I was doing."

But around the corner from his Nashville home lived someone who did, Franzella, a former actress and singer who just happened to be friends with the wife of George's personal chef. Her name was passed along and soon after George was visiting her home studio for 2 1/2-hour sessions twice a week.

She started him off on fairy tales. They'd read them together and then he'd act them out. Then they moved on to improv. She'd call out an emotion --” fear, excitement, sadness --€” and George would interpret and respond. She brought in her sister to teach him how to dance. She could also tell from his speaking voice that, somewhere inside of him, was a man who could sing. They gave that a shot, too.

One of the first songs they worked on: All I Care About, from Chicago and sung by Billy Flynn.

"He didn't know anything about theater, show business, singing, performing, interviewing, any of it," Franzella says. "But he had a wonderful personality, a big heart and he was a wonderful student with the desire to work."

As the years went by the two grew incredibly close. Franzella would text him tips while he was broadcasting games. They'd read the Bible together. He'd share details about his post-career struggles. Even his decision to enroll in Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management couldn't keep him away. Instead, George commuted between Nashville and Chicago as frequently as possible so that he and Franzella could keep building on all the work they had put in.

But he'd also do plenty on his own. He'd binge-watch episodes of Inside the Actors Studio and try out the exercises he'd hear discussed. He started an acting troupe in Nashville and would do table readings whenever he could. At the urging of Franzella he sought out a local bookstore and purchased a copy of every Shakespeare play they had in stock.

"I treated all that stuff like my training camp," George says. "That was me building the foundation, learning how to read and break down scripts, how to understand what the writers are saying about their characters, what other characters are saying about the characters, how there's a beginning, middle and end to each story and how it all ties together."

Because of his good looks and famous name, George kept getting offered the same type of roles, namely, arm-candy. He accepted a few of them, and even had a part in a Steven Seagal flick titled Into the Sun, but pretty quickly he realized he was searching for something more.

"I wanted to learn all the nuances of acting," George says. "And I wanted to do so in a way that could help me with my struggles."

Finally, about three years ago, George got a shot on stage in Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog. Later he joined up with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, where he was given the title roles in both Julius Caesar and Othello. All the meanwhile he continued to meet with Franzella, who helped him come up with ways to imbibe the personality of Billy Flynn.

Since auditioning for the role last November, and then being offered it in August, George has carried with him a small notebook full of notes and details on Flynn. Who he is. Where he came from. Who his parents were, who his mentors were, why he become a lawyer. If he was an animal what kind of animal he would he be.

"How would he move his body, how that would affect his posture, small stuff like that which adds life and color to the character," George says. "The whole idea is to understand the character so that when you make statements as Billy Flynn they come from a truthful place."

George has also been devoting time to another project, one that he says might be more important that anything he's ever done. He's been working on it for 5 1/2 years now. He started thinking about it in the wake of Independence Day, 2009, when the body of former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, a man George had spent seven seasons lining up behind, was found dead in a downtown Nashville apartment after McNair's mistress had shot him four times in an apparent murder-suicide.

Since then George has been working on a one-man show. He wants to share his story, the highs that he enjoyed on the field, the depths that he fell to off it, and how, today, he's feeling more vibrant and joyful than ever before.

"I'm not sure if it's going to stick, but right now it's called Where Do the Warriors Go?" George says. "Where do the warriors go when our days are done? Where do we go after being a hero one minute and a zero the next?"

For George, the answer turned out to be midtown Manhattan, 49th street to be exact, between 7th and 8th Avenues.

"Ed-die, Ed-die," the crowd at the Ambassador Theater chanted following his Broadway debut, the first time George had ever sang on stage. As the applause filled the room, George smiled, was handed a bouquet of roses and then took a bow.