When Don Davey dashes into Lake Eva this coming Sunday to begin Ironman 70.3 Florida, he’ll pay extra attention to his knees and hips, both of which are prone to pain. Davey, 44, played eight seasons in the NFL as a defensive end, first with the Green Bay Packers and then with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He escaped with a comparatively light load of battle damage: one mangled ACL, four surgeries and, by his count, a dozen or so concussions. But as a triathlete, Davey must constantly monitor his body during his races and training to prevent a debilitating injury.
“Twenty five years of smashing into 300-pound lineman isn’t good for your body, and it’s starting to bother me,” Davey said. “Most of my buddies run 3-4 times a week. I can’t train as much, so I modify my schedule. I have to be smart.”
Davey said the pain in his joints is overshadowed by the role triathlon has played in his post-NFL life. He believes the sport helped him overcome the challenges that greet all retired NFL players, from obesity and heart disease to depression and chronic pain. The recent suicide of NFL great Junior Seau has shone a spotlight on the lives of NFL retirees. Davey said the social and physical changes facing retired NFL players are challenging, and he believes triathlon can help.
“When your NFL career is over, it’s over, you’re kicked out of the club. You literally have to redefine yourself completely,” Davey said. “And you don’t get into the NFL unless you’re an ultra competitive person, so you have to channel that competitiveness into something else. These guys need to find something.”
The need to feed his over-competitive attitude steered Davey to triathlon shortly after he retired in 1999. During his final year with the Jaguars, Davey made a bet with team trainer Michael Ryan, who was an accomplished Ironman racer, that he would finish an Ironman within five years of his retirement. Davey then signed up for a local sprint triathlon after making a barroom bet with a friend the night before the race. He said he showed up on race day nursing a hang over toting his old mountain bike.
“I got probably no more than 100 yards into the swim and flipped on my back to rest,” he said. “This surfer paddled up and asked me if I realized swimming was part of the event.”
Davey walked most of the run and finished well in the back of the pack, but he was hooked. He bought a road bike and signed up for swim lessons. He found a group of local triathletes to train with. He progressed through the sport like most budding triathletes, first competing at sprints and then Olympic-distance races.
He lost weight, slimming down from a meaty 280 pounds to a svelte 225. He developed friends and training partners in the local endurance scene, even though he sometimes struggled to keep up with the lighter, more experienced athletes. He scheduled workouts in the early mornings, before work, and in the evenings, bringing a new structure and rhythm to his life.
“I redefined myself as ‘Don Davey the triathlete’ instead of ‘Don Davey the NFL player,’” he said. “I liked being able to do that.”
In 2005 he completed Ironman Wisconsin, making good on his bet with his former trainer. Since then he’s finished three Ironman races and dozens of Olympic-distance events. Florida will be his first crack at the 70.3 distance. After Florida he will race Ironman Germany on July 8, and as part of his race plan Davey is raising funds for the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, which funds life-saving resources for emergency crews. His fundraising is part of the Ironman Foundation’s Your Journey, Your Cause program.
Davey said his primary goal this Sunday is to finish, but he’s hoping to qualify for Kona at the Germany race. Whether he accomplishes that task or not, Davey said he’s committed to the triathlon lifestyle. And while he recognizes that not all NFL retirees are in the physical condition to pick up endurance sports, he still points friends who have played in the NFL toward triathlon. Davey works as a financial advisor for retired pro athletes, and said he’s a walking endorsement for the practice he preaches.
“I’m 44 years old now and in the best shape of my life,” he said. “I’m in better shape now than when they paid me a million bucks to just work out.”