A life after professional football can be a scary one for a lot of NFL players.
Many players grow up playing football their whole lives — it’s a major part of their identity, who they are as a person. When they retire, get cut or are medically no longer able to play the game, it can be tough for them to find their footing and determine what to do with their rest of their lives.
Former Bears fullback Freddie Stevenson is doing his best to help those who were once in his shoes. In his first book, Trials to Triumph, he elaborates on his journey to the NFL and the obstacles he had to face to get there, as well as the struggles that he faced once his playing days came to an end.
“It’s an amazing story that relates to anyone that’s overcame a struggle in their life, which is pretty much all of us,” Stevenson told Windy City Gridiron. “Even though all of our struggles are different, I’ve had people that aren’t even tied into the sports realm, they’ve come to me saying how they can relate to my story and [that] it’s impacted them. I just think that it’s a story that’s inspiring. When people read the story and see the things that were overcome to get to the level that I made it to, it’s just going to give them that drive to feel like they can do anything at all.
“If you dive into the story and see the environment that I came from,” Stevenson explained. “The obstacles I overcame, being homeless, and growing up in the environment that I grew up in, a lot of people didn’t make it out because they gave up hope. They didn’t believe that there was better out there for them in life. Me just continuing to believe in the midst of that struggle, I could make something out of my life. When somebody reads my story, they’re going to get the feeling that they can, too. A lot of us have the tools we need to be successful, but the one thing that’s lacking with a lot of us is that confidence, that belief. Seeing someone going through a struggle that’s similar to yours that you can relate to, it gives you that edge to keep pushing forward and not quit.”
Growing up in Florida, Stevenson’s family was far from affluent. With a single mother who had to work multiple jobs to feed five children while his father was in prison, he experienced firsthand what effect poverty can have on a person.
“We were homeless, moving around from place to place,” he said. “My mother [was] working multiple jobs just to make ends meet because my father was incarcerated for drug trafficking. We didn’t know when he was going to come home, so we didn’t have any money. The feds possessed everything that he had, so we went from living a great lifestyle to not having anything at all.
Stevenson’s primary social media handle is @strugglemade105, using the moniker on both Twitter and Instagram. He touted that handle as a guiding force for his motivation, noting that the name comes from a particular story he experienced while he and his family were homeless growing up.
“One day in particular, we hadn’t eaten — it’s about 8 at night — and there were five of us: five kids,” he explained. “My baby sister, she was crying because we hadn’t eaten. My mother, she gathered everybody up together, and she walks us to McDonald’s. She didn’t have a car, so she was pushing my baby sister in her stroller while she’s walking us to McDonald’s. We get up there, and she orders a cheeseburger, and the total comes out to $1.05. We’re like, ‘hold on. She’s ordering a cheeseburger, but there’s five of us.’ We didn’t really know, but she pulls out a dollar. We didn’t know she had a dollar at the time, I was like, ‘okay, wow. This is tough. We’re all going to have to share the cheeseburger.’
“I watched my mom have to beg somebody in McDonald’s for a nickel, because the clerk wouldn’t allow her to get a burger with that dollar. Somebody was generous enough to give her that nickel. By this point, we’re embarrassed. She takes us outside, she begins cutting the burger into five slices and passing it out to all of us. As we’re eating, my older sister asked my mom why she wasn’t eating. We all tried to offer our mom a slice of the burger, and she wouldn’t take it. She just burst out into tears. That’s what stood with me. Whenever I wanted to give up, I saw the sacrifices that she was making and said, ‘man, listen. I know it’s rough, but she’s going through way more than we’re going through, and she’s continuing to get up each and every day and keep fighting, so I have no excuse.’”
That motivation helped him keep fighting in high school once he started playing football. Despite suffering a broken leg in his junior year which resulted in doctors telling him he would be unable to play football again, Stevenson kept pushing. Knowing that he made a promise to his mother that he would play in the NFL, he fought hard to get back onto the field, even though he didn’t have any offers to play collegiately at the time.
Being a parent himself now, Stevenson is even more appreciative of his mother’s love and dedication to help him and his siblings. She made sure her children didn’t see her break a sweat and struggle with her given situation, and now that he finds himself in a parental role, Stevenson has come to further understand how she did what she needed to do to help her kids.
Stevenson’s play on the football field eventually caught the eyes of colleges, being named as a four-star recruit at linebacker coming out of high school. He committed to Florida State prior to his senior year of high school in 2012. Once he arrived in Tallahassee, though, he was moved to fullback. He played primarily as a backup in his freshman year but stepped into a starting role in 2014.
Stevenson took on the job as Florida State’s main fullback for three seasons, rushing for five touchdowns and catching two passes for scores over the course of his collegiate career. Known as an aggressive and athletic lead blocker coming out of the backfield, he was seen by many as one of, if not the best fullbacks in college football.
While at Florida State, Stevenson was a member of a National Championship-winning team, as the Seminoles defeated Auburn 34-31 to close out his freshman year. The experience of being on such a historic team was a remarkable one for him.
“It was amazing for me,” Stevenson said. “Because one, not even a year and a half before, I’m being told by doctors that I’m not going to play ball again, and I had no offers to my name. Now you fast forward, and I’m holding up a National Championship trophy. It’s surreal, but it’s also ironic, too, because in high school, we never made the playoffs. We were always trash, we’d win three games a year, and now you fast forward and I’m winning the National Championship. I had to pinch myself; it was hard to believe at first.”
After his time at the collegiate level, Stevenson entered the 2017 NFL Draft. With the fullback position falling out of favor among some NFL teams, though, he went undrafted. He signed with the Bears soon after the draft’s conclusion, entering a roster battle for the team’s starting fullback role.
Unfortunately for Stevenson, it was not a battle he would win, as he was waived prior to the regular season. He would sign with the Orlando Apollos of the AAF prior to their 2019 season, but the league folded midway through its opening year. He would announced his retirement from football in June of that year.
Although his time in the NFL didn’t last as long as he hoped it would have, Stevenson still takes plenty away from his time in the league.
“[I liked] the relationships that I built,” he said of his time with the Bears. “Of course, just living your dream, that’s cool. To just wake up and have the opportunity to live your dream — you go in, and you have to pinch yourself. ‘Okay, I told myself when I was four years old that I was going to make it to the NFL, and I’m here,’ so you have to pinch yourself. Just the relationships you make that last the test of time. I’m still cool with guys I met at the Combine, the Senior Bowl, while I was in Chicago, and other teams, as well.”
Since his retirement from professional football in 2019, Stevenson has not only written a book, but he also has his own clothing line, Triumph 105. Both endeavors are rooted in overcoming obstacles and working hard to achieve one’s goals.
“When you talk about the transition after ball, that’s my biggest thing: life after ball,” Stevenson stated. “Everybody’s not able to make that transition. I remember coming in, thinking I was going to [be a] 10-, 15-year, Pro Bowl-caliber guy, and I was that, but Ia lot of things didn’t happen in my favor. It kind of caught me off guard. There was a political side of the game that I had never experienced before...my career ended before I wanted it, and I went down with a phase of depression, just trying to find out what my purpose was.
“I tried to bounce around the league, but there was kind of a dark cloud around my head, because some teams felt I should’ve won that [fullback] spot in Chicago, and they had some questions about whether I was a locker-room cancer, and it was weird to me because I had never been known to be that. Everywhere I went, I was always voted the team captain, so it was kind of weird to see that painted about me at that point.”
Upon the end of his career, Stevenson initially found himself down a dark path. Having played football for a lot of his life, he had to search within himself to find out what his identity was. He fell into a state of depression, resorting to drinking and smoking — he noted that he was just a social drinker and had initially never smoked, but began drinking heavily every day and smoking regularly.
With his father being a drug trafficker, he found himself falling back into the lifestyle that he experienced growing up. He had actually shown interest in drug dealing in high school to make some money on the side to help his family, but he was denied so that he could focus on football.
“A lot of these guys, they come from these environments,” Stevenson mentioned. “So whenever football doesn’t work out, that’s all that they know. Me going through that cycle, that phase...I almost lost my freedom because of it. When I had my daughter, it made me understand, ‘yo, you got to chill out. You got to make a change.’ To see some of my teammates and guys that I played against going through that phase where they don’t know what their purpose is, they don’t know what life has for them after ball. Some of these guys played over five years in the league, some didn’t get that opportunity, but they’re all struggling with the transition.
“That’s the biggest reason I wanted to get my story out there. A lot of us do come from these environments, and the worst thing when you come from these environments is going back to them after your career wasn’t what you wanted it to be and going back without. A lot of resources to start your future. A lot of guys, their only option is to go back to that, because that’s all they know.”
Stevenson stated that he doesn’t believe that there are enough resources for collegiate athletes to succeed after football. In sharing his story and how he has managed to come back and succeed in his life after football, he hopes to not only help out former football players, but anybody going through struggles, as well. He also noted that he is in the process of starting a non-profit organization to help former professional football players obtain the resources needed to succeed after their life on the gridiron.
Though his football career is over, Stevenson still has a whole life ahead of him to make an impact, and he intends on working hard to be a source of inspiration to others.
“[I want people to look at me and say] he impacted lives,” he detailed. “He touched lives all over the world. I wanted to be known as Freddie Stevenson the football player, and that’s ultimately where I almost lost myself: almost cost myself freedom, almost lost my life because of it. I was so tied into that persona — I know Freddie Stevenson the football player, but I didn’t know Freddie Stevenson the person. Using my story to impact lives: that’s the biggest thing. Using my story to give back and accomplish all of those things with transitioning to life after ball, helping underprivileged youth out, and tapping in with like-minded people to teach people that come from areas where I come from about entrepreneurship and all the different avenues of life that you have to be successful.
“The weird thing about the environment you come from is, if you don’t make it in ball, you automatically think, ‘alright, I have to be an entertainer, you have to be in the streets.’ That’s weird to me. We have to get out of that way of thinking, and I’d be a part of that change. You could be a doctor, you could be a lawyer, you could be whatever you want to be. Don’t allow this world to lock you in the box. The biggest thing is impacting lives, and it starts with my community first, and I’m getting linked up with like-minded people from different types of backgrounds: I’m tied in with people who did have privileged lives, but they’re invested in making impacts in these communities.
“It’s going to be something that’s, without a doubt in my mind, is going to make waves all over the world, and I’m just building a foundation for it right now.”
Make sure to check out Stevenson’s book Trials to Triumph, which is available now. You can purchase a copy from the links attached on his website.