Football

Homeless former UNC football player balks at offers of help

Ryan Hoffman tears up while talking about his daughter at Harry's, a restaurant in Lakeland, Fla., Jan. 7, 2015. Hoffman, once a 287-pound starting left tackle for a top-ten ranked University of North Carolina football team, renowned for his toughness and durability, is now plagued with short-term memory problems and lives on the street, sometimes begging money from passing cars.
Ryan Hoffman tears up while talking about his daughter at Harry's, a restaurant in Lakeland, Fla., Jan. 7, 2015. Hoffman, once a 287-pound starting left tackle for a top-ten ranked University of North Carolina football team, renowned for his toughness and durability, is now plagued with short-term memory problems and lives on the street, sometimes begging money from passing cars. NEW YORK TIMES

Ryan Hoffman, the former college football lineman at North Carolina who is now homeless in Florida, is hard to find. I had spent weeks trying to connect with him for a column I wrote last week about his life after football. So when I received an outpouring of offers from people who wanted to help him, I knew it wouldn’t be simple for those people to follow through.

Hoffman and his family believe football damaged his brain, leaving him incapable to function normally. When I caught up with him in January, he was begging for money at an intersection in Lakeland, Fla., and talked about abusing drugs, finding comfort in alcohol, struggling with life in so many ways. He was a shell of the 6-foot-7, 287-pound left tackle for the Tar Heels, more than 100 pounds lighter.

Former football teammates who had not talked to him for nearly 20 years now wanted to know how they could get him off the streets. An elementary school friend offered to pick him up and drive him to rehab.

Officials at UNC-Chapel Hill called to say they wanted to fly him in a private jet to Chapel Hill for a medical evaluation. Could he leave in just a few days?

I haven’t been able to reach Hoffman. So I called his sister, Kira Soto, who relayed the news to him. She said that all the offers were too much for him to process. Besides, he did not want people from his past to see how far he had fallen. Each time another text or phone call came in, she said, he cringed.

Hoffman, 40, was recruited and coached at North Carolina by Mack Brown. When I talked to Brown on the phone Tuesday, he said he had heard of Hoffman’s situation and was haunted by it.

“Sometimes those players that are struggling don’t want to reach out because they want to accomplish everything on their own and don’t want their teammates to know that things aren’t going well for them,” said Brown, a head college coach for nearly 30 years. “Ryan was one of those players I lost. I hadn’t talked to him for so many years. But now that we’ve found him, we have to do all we can so we don’t lose him for good.”

Brown said Hoffman showed up at North Carolina in the mid-1990s quiet and aloof. He often kept to himself. Brown said he did not recall Hoffman having any head injuries, and said he could not be sure – like everyone else, really – what has caused Hoffman to get so far off track. Brain disease from repeated head trauma cannot be diagnosed in a living person. One of the things we know for sure is that Hoffman graduated from UNC in 1998, and has declined ever since.

For Brown, the bright side of hearing this sad news has been seeing so many of Hoffman’s former teammates rallying to Hoffman’s side.

One player who was on the offensive line with Hoffman first shared the story with Brown and other former teammates, who then spread the word via email, phone calls and social media. Another former teammate set up an online crowdsourcing account to raise money for Hoffman.

Another former Tar Heels player, Rick Steinbacher, who is a senior associate athletic director at North Carolina, reached out to university officials to see what they could do. Bubba Cunningham, the athletic director, checked with the NCAA to make sure the university was allowed to provide Hoffman with transportation, services, housing and clothing – “those human necessities,” Cunningham told me. He got the OK, but details of those efforts are still in development.

Kevin Guskiewicz, a concussion expert and UNC professor who runs the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes in Chapel Hill, offered to evaluate Hoffman at the center, free. Hoffman’s brain and body could be thoroughly examined to try to identify the source of his problems, Guskiewicz said.

Speaking generally, Guskiewicz said experts at the center examined players by conducting tests such as cardiovascular exams, blood work and neuropsychological screenings, and the goal is to get players back on their feet. Social workers draw up a life plan, which often includes ways to attain public assistance and medical coverage. (Two things Hoffman does not have.)

“We never fully know whether repetitive concussions or subconcussive hits played a role, or perhaps substance abuse or steroids or some genetic factors are the cause, but I don’t think we miss much, in terms of piecing together the puzzle,” Guskiewicz said.

Helping a player such as Hoffman, however, is easier said than done.

When Hoffman heard that UNC wanted to bring him in for three to four days of testing, he was not exactly enthusiastic. His sister said he grumbled about it. He did not want to leave his girlfriend behind. He also was terrified of what doctors might find, Soto said.

“Here we have all of these people offering to help him, from all over the country, and he won’t agree to get that help, and that’s exactly what the past 20 years have been like for him and our family,” she said. “Some people have asked why his family hasn’t helped him, to keep him off the streets, but that’s insulting. We’ve tried everything. Those people have no idea what we’ve been going through.”

UNC has tentatively scheduled Hoffman to fly to Chapel Hill on Tuesday to be evaluated, but Soto has not been able to assure officials there that Hoffman will agree to step on the plane. He recently made his way to Jacksonville from Lakeland, where he had been panhandling and living in abandoned buildings. He stayed at Soto’s house for several days but has since disappeared.

Soto wonders whether Hoffman’s trip to UNC would be worth it right now. Maybe it would be better, she said, to check Hoffman into a rehab facility in Tampa that has offered a free 30-day session, or to accept an offer from the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund – a foundation that supports retired NFL players – for a longer rehab stint, in California. (In this case, the foundation has agreed to work with Hoffman, who never played in the NFL.)

On Tuesday morning, Soto finally reached her brother by calling one of his friend’s cellphones. “I’m so overwhelmed,” he told her. “There’s no hope for me.”

She reassured him, telling him that he just needed to take a deep breath and accept the opportunities in front of him – that this might be his last chance at getting himself out of his very deep hole.

“This could be your springboard to a new life, and in a year’s time, you could be completely better,” she said she told him. “I will help you. It’s going to be OK. But I need to know whether you are you going to UNC or not. I have to give them an answer.”

Hoffman said “it’s just so hard” and that he needed to get back to her.

In hopes of compelling him to call her back, Soto told Hoffman she would wire money to him for cigarettes and food, but that he would need to contact her for the reference number, so he could pick up the cash. He said OK.

She hasn’t heard from him since.

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