Former Denver Broncos Tight End Julius Thomas Is ‘Pissed Off’ for Player Health

Tight end Julius Thomas walked away from the NFL, and he did it to help the players. We look at Thomas' work in neuroscience, and what he learned.

Former Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Julius Thomas had a remarkable career. As a seven-year veteran — a starter for five — Thomas played in some of the biggest games the NFL has to offer. But at the end of his 2017 season with the Miami Dolphins, he called it quits.

Thomas decided to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology, with a focus on neuroscience, putting in 100 credits of postgraduate coursework and 2,000 hours of clinical work. He told Pro Football Network exactly why.

“It was not an easy decision to walk away from the game of football,” said Thomas. “I mean, a lot of people looked at me like, ‘Dude, you’re leaving one of the best jobs in the world? Why would you ever do that?’ Because I’m told to go help people.”

“I would sit in the locker room,” he said, “I would say somebody should help that guy, somebody should help that guy, why aren’t people doing this? Why aren’t people doing that? And it took a little bit of wisdom of ‘You’re the one that sees it. Why don’t you go be a part of the change?’” And in order to do that, I had to be the one to go get the education.”

Following his NFL retirement, Thomas attended Nova Southeastern University in order to study clinical psychology. In so doing, began a journey that might allow him to make a bigger impact on NFL players than any MVP.

Julius Thomas Has a Calling: Helping Others

“I really started to recognize that it doesn’t matter how much money you make. It doesn’t mean that life doesn’t have its struggles. It doesn’t mean you have well-being,” said Thomas. “I noticed that I had some emotional challenges, so I started to read a lot.  And I started to realize, ‘Wait, every human being is suffering in some way.’”

That guided Thomas’ journey, as he realized that he gets fulfillment from helping others achieve their best selves, which usually meant finding emotional well-being. “You play football long enough and you see the behavioral things that people do, and you say, ‘Everything’s not all good in that guy.’ But everybody goes, ‘doesn’t matter, he’s playing well.’

“That’s when I decided to step away from the game,” said Thomas. “And that’s what made me come commit to living a life supporting other people.”

Thomas decided the best path for that was to study the mind, emotional health, and psychology. In addition to his research at Nova Southeastern, he works with the Football Players Health Study group at Harvard. On top of that, he’s the vice president of the Society for Neurosports and the CEO of Master Development.

Former Denver Broncos Tight End Julius Thomas Is 'Pissed Off' for Player Health
Julius Thomas speaks to participants at a recent PAC Business Combine.

Thomas has also taken the lead on the development side of the Pro Athlete Community Business Combine, an event designed to prepare players for their post-NFL careers. This means more than providing lessons on corporate finance or tax law (though the PAC Business Combine provides those). It means preparing players emotionally and psychologically for the end of their football life.

“Everything we do at PAC, we run through that psychology lens,” said Thomas. “For me, that’s what I realized at the end of my career. And I actually have this thing I called the three buckets of health. It was a mental bucket and the physical bucket and emotional bucket.”

For Thomas, he had done a great job of filling up his physical health bucket. But he had done very little for his mental bucket and even less for his emotional bucket. “I have this drive to be the best. I always want to be the best I can be. I had to ask myself if I was being the best version of myself I could be,” he said. “And the answer was no.”

“What’s the whole point of life if you’re not satisfied with it? If you don’t have joy and meaning, these psychological, intrinsic factors that matter to life?” he asked. “So now I help companies, organizations, and teams build their employees or their athletes from the inside out.”

That kind of psychological well-being and post-career mental health expands beyond the more commonly understood issue of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly called CTE. Even so, there’s still quite a lot to be said about the condition and how poorly it has been covered.

What CTE Taught Thomas About the Mind and the Brain

“When I left the game, I knew nothing about CTE. I remember specifically asking one of the trainers, ‘Hey, what’s up with all this CTE stuff?’ And he goes, ‘It’s not a big deal. No one knows what’s happening about it, don’t worry about it, just play.’”

Did he feel misled by that answer, knowing what he knows now? “No, I actually kind of laugh at it,” he said. “Because it was an inappropriate question for me to ask an athletic trainer. That’s not his space. And it’s tough on his part that he got that question.

“So, I look back on it now, I go, ‘Wow, that shows you how far we still have to go with our understanding of CTE,’” he said. “And where we’re at currently, most people don’t know what’s happening with CTE. Researchers are still trying to figure out what’s going on with CTE. But the good thing that’s happened in the last decade, is we’ve got the world to wake up and recognize that the mind and the brain can be injured.”

Thomas has well-developed thoughts on the difference between the “mind” and the “brain,” and why those can be two important concepts. How stroke victims have a consciousness independent of the damage to their brain and why we consider a phone’s hardware to be separate from its software.

If that’s the case, why did he go into neuroscience to study the hardware instead of the software?

“I started going back to school to get a doctorate in psychology,” Thomas explained. “I had a mentor, and she would ask, ‘When you play football, how worried were you about your brain?’ And I would tell her, ‘Not at all.’ She’s like, ‘What? How are you not worried?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know what to be worried about. I was worried about my knee, my ankle, because those are the things and the injuries that affected me in the moment.’”

She handed him research that focused specifically on the impact that physical injuries had on the brain. He’d read through it, miss the meaning of half of the words, then began researching the meaning of everything he missed. Thomas read reams of neuroscience research and took invitations from his mentor to her neuroscience lab to learn more.

Thomas would take her courses and then began doing research alongside her. Through that, he fell into neuroscience, relishing the challenge of understanding what he characterizes as “the most complex tissue system” in the human body.

That gave Thomas insights into the workings of the physical health aspect of the brain, but he needed more. While the science of CTE is much more complicated than the public discourse surrounding it, he also acknowledged the shortcomings of the developing studies.

Many of those issues are difficult to resolve without brain tissue from a random sample of former NFL players, which is near-impossible. So, how do you solve that problem?

Julius Thomas
Nov 13, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Julius Thomas (80) runs to the bench after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter of a football game against the Houston Texans at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Why Do Football Players Go From the Healthiest to Least Healthy?

To that, Thomas recharacterizes the question. “It just depends on what you call the problem,” he said.

“For me, the problem is, why are some people having severe declines in their health and well-being?” he said. “Why don’t we fix that? Why do we go from having some of the healthiest individuals in our country at the end of their careers to, before age 60, the least healthy?”

Thomas pointed to a study about how former players saw a health trajectory similar to people aged 10 to 15 years older. The study discusses a wide range of health factors, from cardiovascular to neurological, and characterizes participation in football as “a risk factor for early aging as reflected by the presence of premature chronic disease and reduced healthspan.”

“While they were playing, they had elite health,” said Thomas. “And then they don’t. What happened in that space?”

The bulk of Thomas’ efforts are focused on that last question and specifically on finding ways to produce the structures necessary to continue providing player health. “In my opinion, they lost the support [that they had]. When you have all the support, and you have all the lifestyle factors that are keeping you really healthy, [it’s easy to be] really healthy,” he said.

“How do we keep them healthy?”

Once a player leaves the NFL, many of the relevant risk factors impacting them are what they are. So the goal is to find ways to improve their health outcomes given what they have in front of them.

And for that, Thomas believes players need a reason to get out of bed every day. Without the NFL, they don’t have many of the intangible things they’ve gotten used to — a daily routine, motivation, clear goals to strive for, and natural metrics to evaluate oneself. They’ve had baked-in social interaction with a wide variety of people across all walks of life, a travel schedule, and a support staff ready to help them inside and outside of their work environment.

To that end, Thomas’ insights are invaluable to the Football Players Health Study group at Harvard. He can provide a unique perspective both as a former player and as an experienced neuroscience researcher. When a study is presented to the working group, he can go over variables missed by researchers, like playing position, snap count, and so on, and discuss changes to study design that can account for his feedback.

This experience has allowed Thomas to co-author papers as a researcher with the Football Players Health Study group as well as independent research conducted with Nova Southeastern University. In that way, Thomas can have an impact both as an academic and as a hands-on practitioner.

Julius Thomas Is Pissed Off for Player Health

“When I started master development, it was simple. I wanted to help people find balance between their performance and their well-being. Because I had performed at the highest level my whole life. But I wasn’t mentally and emotionally where I wanted to be at.”

Thomas advocates for ways to find players to find motivation in their post-NFL life. But what motivates him?

“My biggest thing is I’m pissed off. And I’m upset that the former football player population goes from being one of the healthiest in the country, to one of the least.”

That’s why Thomas didn’t become purely a clinician — he wanted to spend more time proactively promoting player health. “We have an illness healthcare system. We wait for people to get sick and come to the doctor,” he said. “I couldn’t understand it. I’m an anticipator. I want to stop the bad thing from happening. And that’s how I got very interested in prevention.

“I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna go out. I’m not gonna wait for people to get an illness and then try to help them to get back to the norm, not back to their best, just the norm. I’m gonna go out and try to prevent it.’”

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