When faced with retirement after 15 seasons, transitioning to life after football is a common challenge for NFL athletes. For former NFL linebacker Takeo Spikes, approaching the future was no different. Fortunately, however, a childhood hobby of photography eased the transition into a passion project that shines a spotlight on a rare side of professional athletes, NFL linebackers to be exact.
“Behind the Mask: The Linebacker Edition,” written and photographed by the two-time NFL Pro Bowler, is a collection of stories and photographs highlighting the journey of NFL greats including Harry Carson, Mike Singletary, Kevin Greene, Cornelius Bennett, and more. From the civil rights fight to battling depression to being guided by faith, these Hall of Famers express a rare vulnerability that’s impossible to unsee in Spikes’ coffee table book.
This week, All Sports Everything caught up with Spikes to discuss the inspiration behind “Behind the Mask,” life after the NFL, how the game has changed since his rookie season nearly 20 years ago, and of course his Super Bowl picks.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation* with Spikes. Tune into All Sports Everything Radio on FLOEmpireRadio.com on Monday at 2:30pm/et to listen to the full interview where we discuss more of the above in greater depth, as well as the evolution of the NFL (good and bad), officiating, CTE, guaranteed contracts, and more.
ASE: When I was prepping for the interview, my plan was to skim the majority of your book. Before I knew it, I’d read the entire thing in less than two hours. What inspired this [Behind the Mask] because you don’t hear a lot of NFL players retiring and then becoming an author. And I should note that you took the photography in the book, as well.
SPIKES: Yeah, I did. And what inspired me was, in 2012, I was trying to figure out my transition [into retirement]. I was trying to figure out what was next. I knew it was important to chase my passion. And my passion had photography in it. At that time, I wasn’t as good as I am now. I’m still striving to be one of the best.
But here’s what happened. People always came up to me and asked, ‘How did you accomplish this? How did you become great? What did you do to attain these certain things?’ And I was like, you know what, I’ll put it in a book. The more I kept thinking about it, I was like, I’m a fan of the game. So, to pay homage to the guys who gave me an opportunity, I thought, I’ll share their stories with the world. I’ll share the rest of my linebacker brederen’s stories, especially in a time where we have so much hatred going on and people need to be inspired. That’s how I came up with the concept. I’ll let each guy be the author of their own autobiography and share their moment of how did they become great. What made them become that outlier? And they all are Hall of Fame players.
ASE: What I love about this book, and what differentiates it from a lot of sports books out there is that it’s written by a linebacker, it’s about linebackers, but I don’t think it’s necessarily only for linebackers.
As an NFL fan, I found that there were so many interesting things, pieces, and facets that you included in the storytelling. So talk to us a little bit about the vision and how that developed for you overtime.
SPIKES: Well, coming up with the vision, I understood people are not like you and I when it comes to reading books. Some people don’t like to read books so I knew I had to format this book in a way that it was an easy read, but the content was strong.
I thought I accomplished that in the end. The other part of it was, by people not reading, I wanted to highlight an aspect to make them read, so I made sure I brought my video guy around. I went through a whole strategic plan of what to capture and how to capture it.
ASE: There are 12 stories total, including your own. You feature stories from Harry Carson, to Willie Lanier, to Mike Singletary, to Cornelius Bennett, but what I was most drawn to was that no two stories are the same. They’re very different, but there is the common thread in which they all share a certain level of vulnerability and honesty that is not expected from NFL players. So, how did you capture that?
SPIKES: That’s that 20% that we as athletes, or we as celebrities, we don’t want to share with everybody because we feel like everybody is not deserving. I was able to pull that and/or extract that out of the guys just from having that sit down conversation with them. When I made this project, it took me two years to complete but I spent at least a day, most of the time it was a day-and-a-half, with the guys while I did this project. I think there’s a level of trust that you have to have. They know I’m not going to do anything to exploit them because I’m one of them. I lived the same trials and tribulations.
ASE: I think that you’re one of the fortunate ones who had discovered your passion early. And in the book you share how you became passionate about photography. Do you mind telling that story for us?
SPIKES: Ahhh, man it was my mother. She used to take pictures of me playing sports when I was younger and she would have good shots, but they were blurry. And I didn’t say this, but I was thinking to myself, ‘Dang, Ma. Why can’t you just take a picture the right way?’ So that’s where it all started. That’s where it all developed. Then, when I went to London with my team. I was playing with San Francisco and we played in the International Bowl series in London against the Broncos. I got on the plane with my camera. And I realized that it was my 13th year and I knew that I wasn’t going to be playing much longer. I brought the camera and all of the guys were like, ‘Spikes what is your big ass doing with that camera? Oh, so now you want to show us your artistic, creative side?’ So, they were janking me.. They were all on me, ribbing me up. By the end of the trip, I was showing guys the shots that I took and then before we had a chance to land, some of the guys came up to me and they were like, ‘Hey, Spikes. Hey man, you mind sending some of those pictures over to me to my email?’ That’s when I knew I had something. And to me that was addictive because I felt like I could tell a story just from a single image.
ASE: It seems you’ve been successful at transitioning from player to retired athlete, but a lot of other athletes struggle with that transition. How was that experience for you?
SPIKES: It’s been tough. I still deal with it; and even though I make it seem like it was an easy transition, it wasn’t an easy transition. I want to remind everybody, I played for 15 years but my last game I played at the age of 36. And so, 29 years out of my life, I was playing organized football. So for me to have to stop, not that I couldn’t do anything else, but I just didn’t want to do anything else because it was a childhood dream that came true for me. It was tough being able to find something that I was passionate about to occupy my mind. And I think that’s the most important thing for guys trying to make the transition now. Try to find something that you genuinely care about because like the old adage says, you’ll never work a day in your life if you do what you love. And so, I enjoyed doing what I do, I enjoy telling stories, and I enjoy just receiving stories.
ASE: We often read about so many athletes who mismanage their money. Did you have a good team around you?
SPIKES: Yeah, I had a good team. And I think, the majority of the guys, they do have a good team, but there are so many factors that go into it. The league is damn near 80% black, maybe even more than 80%. You look at a lot of guys who come from impoverished areas. Never had the opportunity to own certain things. And when you get a little money in your pocket, I get it. You’re gonna do [spend] it. It’s kind of ridiculous for us to sit up here and think, ‘Hey, you save every penny,’ when you never had anything.
ASE: You’re literally a millionaire overnight.
SPIKES: Yeah, you’re a millionaire overnight. There’s a lot that comes with it. You know as an athlete who makes $5 million per year, it’s no different from an executive who makes $5 million a year. They’re both going to have a high burn rate as far as spending money. The difference is, an athlete’s earning potential is based off of his physicality, his body. An executive at any Fortune 500, or any place that you’re making $5 million a year, you’re making that off of your intellectual properties, as far as your mind, what you’re able to do . You can afford to have a high burn rate. You can afford to burn $4 million a year being in that position and still be ok because you know you can make it for 30 years and nobody will never talk about you because you know what you know. You know what you can make. Football wise, I can sign a six-year deal getting paid $5 million a year, but at the end of the day, if I’m not performing at the end of year three then they can come back and make me take a pay cut in year four. Or, if I get hurt in year two, I can come back year three. And I don’t play as well and then they see that maybe I won’t get my step back, then they can release me at year four.
ASE: What are your Super Bowl predictions?
SPIKES: I actually like Atlanta to advance. And then I like the New England Patriots.
ASE: So then between Atlanta and New England, who do you have winning? Do you think Matty Ice can do it this year?
SPIKES: I think so. I haven’t seen anybody stop him. In the times he was stopped, I think he stopped himself, the entire team. So, when I look at it overall, those boys are rolling. That’s a different football team. They believe they can win. They know they can win now, versus going out trying to see if they could win earlier this season.
ASE: And if Julio Jones is healthy. I don’t know who on the Patriots can stop him. As we look at the four final teams remaining, it’s quarterback matchups. Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger. So, defense isn’t as big of a story. Of those four teams, which team do you think has the strongest defense? I think that’ll probably be the X-factor because offensively, the teams are pretty evenly matched.
SPIKES: I’d say neither team has a dominant defense. None of the four teams.
ASE: If you had to give the edge to someone?
SPIKES: If I had to give the edge, I would seriously take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their linebacking core is pretty damn good. I like watching those guys play, especially Bud Dupree. He’s been coming on lately. But, to me, when you don’t have a dominant defense that compliments your offense, you have to look at who has the most momentum going into these games. And for me, I really like what the Atlanta Falcons are doing defensively because you had like four rookie starters and three second year players who they heavily rely on to come in and not just play a role, but they gotta play a big role. And so for these guys to win as many games as they’ve done and to force, I think they had 13 turnovers in the last six games. So you know, for me, that’s the belief. That show’s me, when I walk out on this field I expect something good to happen versus waiting on it. So I give them the edge.