On February 3, 2015, Nick Hardwick held his retirement press conference after spending his final season on injured reserve. Most players don’t get the luxury of a farewell press conference, let alone the opportunity to retire on their own terms. But the 2006 Pro Bowler and 11-year veteran had earned it.
"In two weeks you can hear me on the local FM channel,” explained Nick while on the podium. This was where the former San Diego Charger was going to ride off into the sunset, becoming a radio DJ on the same classic rock channel that he had listened to ever since moving to San Diego in 2004.
Nick had done everything that he had been encouraged to do to save himself from the struggle of retirement. Nick was swapping his helmet for a headset and seamlessly moving into life after the game — or so he thought.
“Two weeks after that retirement press conference, I started working and I did that for about two months,” explains Nick. “But then, the world came crashing down on me.”
When explaining his struggle, the former Pro Bowler described his descent as far more than simply taking a stroll down to the bottom of the valley. Instead, it was as if he had 'fallen out of an airplane and hit the ground on the bottom of the valley'.
Just four months after starting his new career as a radio host, Nick abruptly called his boss and co-host and told them, “I’m not coming in on Monday, and I’m not coming in any day after that either.”
“I’m not coming in on Monday, and I’m not coming in any day after that either.”
Despite a seemingly successful transition, Hardwick still felt a sudden and inexplicable lack of purpose. It was an all-too-common feeling found in NFL athletes who are in the midst of the nasty spar between two chapters: football and the-life-after. Although he had checked all the boxes, the recent retiree had a “tough time knowing who he was anymore".
“I thought I had done everything right,” says Nick. “I lost the weight, I had gotten my health in order, I had a (new) career going and I still found myself in a really dark spot.”
“I lost the weight, I had gotten my health in order, I had a (new) career going and I still found myself in a really dark spot.”
When he quit his radio position, he confided in his wife and decided to get help, beginning with a medical check-up.
"If you don’t lay the foundation for physical health, you’re not going to be able to find mental health.” Hardwick said.
Having been off the field for only seven months at the time, the results of his tests were staggering. “I had the testosterone levels of a 90-year old man,” recalled Nick. “In fact, my wife had more testosterone in her body than I did.”
Nick’s test results shed light on a taboo topic: the physical and mental changes that can take place upon retirement from the league. Nick remembers one of his old strength coaches advising players to be very careful when navigating their next chapter.
“You’re not lifting heavy weights every day, you’re not around the guys and you’re not fighting another human on a daily basis. Male or female, if you don’t have your hormones in check, even to just normal levels, you’re not going to be able to function at the level you want to,” Hardwick explains.
He took the next several months to stabilize himself both mentally and physically, and once his body was back in working order, so was his brain.
After getting back on his feet, Nick’s old boss from the radio station reached out to him and asked if he’d want to be a part of the Chargers radio broadcast for the upcoming year. Without hesitation, he jumped on board.
He became a field reporter for the Chargers at the start of the 2015 season, performing that role for the year while simultaneously hosting a morning radio show five days a week.
Hardwick had found his new direction.
“I found identity," Hardwick said. "I found something I needed to work towards goal-wise, which allowed me to have something that I could start to build upon for personal growth,"
“I found something I needed to work towards goal-wise, which allowed me to have something that I could start to build upon for personal growth."
Four years later, Nick continues to thrive— and not a single part of him misses strapping on the shoulder pads. Now, the 220-lb entrepreneur has an entirely different purpose than the 305-lb offensive lineman – a purpose found in being a father, husband, business owner and podcast host.
Among Nick’s post-football ventures, including co-owning Renegade Fitness and radio hosting, one of his most successful accomplishments is creating his own podcast, Finding Center, which launched its second season a few weeks ago.
During 13 episodes in the opening season of Finding Center, Hardwick interviewed a handful of well-known individuals across a variety of industries, focusing primarily on what he calls the four F’s: fitness, family, food and football.
“I like talking to people, but I didn’t want to talk exclusively about sports on a daily basis.” says Nick. “I wanted to also talk to people who have written New York Times bestselling books, Harvard, Stanford and Yale doctors, and some of the leading experts in different fields.”
Nick’s strategy for securing interviews, inspiring others and kick-starting his podcast has been one that all current and former players have been encouraged to follow — use your platform.
“My intention is to try and figure out who my audience is, and determine how I can get useful information to them,” says Nick. “Selfishly, I love that I can write, DM or email someone and because I played in the NFL, they’re willing to talk to me.”
Nick’s drive to help former players is at the core of his post-NFL life. In fact, when giving advice to players who are contemplating retirement but are uncertain of what’s ahead, he keeps it real.
“It’s going to be rough for a while. The further out (of retirement) you get, the easier it becomes, but only if you put the work in on yourself. You’re going to get your soul ripped out momentarily, but if you’re willing to be patient and put in the work on yourself, your relationships and your career, you’re going to get that soul back and it’s going to be better.”
"You’re going to get your soul ripped out momentarily, but if you’re willing to be patient and put in the work on yourself, your relationships and your career, you’re going to get that soul back and it’s going to be better.”
After hearing about his journey, from struggling and searching for purpose, to radio hosting and creating his own podcast, Nick’s comments for transitioning athletes appear to ring true.
“I can honestly say, five years out now, that there’s not a single part of me that misses being in the NFL - at all,” Nick said. “Life is so good on the other side, but you have to make it there first.”