For nearly twenty years, Tommy Maddox lived for the thrill of a new football season. From his days as a quarterback with a national profile at Lawrence Dale Bell High School in the Fort Worth suburb* of Hurst, all the way through his nine years in the NFL, September signaled the start of a months-long adrenaline rush. So it was a hard fall when in December 2006, still clinging to a fading career, an invitation to a workout with his hometown team, the Dallas Cowboys, didn’t lead to a spot on the squad. Since that day seven years ago, Maddox, the emblematic comeback kid with a knack for remaking himself, has struggled to come back from the biggest challenge of his life: retirement.

“You go through this grind your entire life and then suddenly it all stops,” he told me on a recent evening as he drove home with the sunset flooding through his windshield. After the workout with the Cowboys fizzled, Maddox spent an aimless year in Texas. He wandered through life, spending most of his time playing golf, burning through money, looking for ways to fill his days. Then everything disintegrated for Maddox one night in 2008 when his wife of 16 years, Jennifer O’Dell, intercepted a text message that revealed a one-night stand. She kicked him out of the house and filed for divorce.  

Living alone, estranged from his wife and two children, Maddox felt like he was starting over. For better or worse, it was a predicament that was all too familiar. The former three-sport-star at Bell High is no stranger to starting over: by the time he turned 23, he had been a number one draft pick, heir apparent to John Elway, and cut by two NFL teams.

Running his hand over a scar across his chin, Maddox recalls his first season in the NFL and, most clearly, the first time he looked across the defensive line to see the crazed, cocaine-laced eyes of Lawrence Taylor, who, as Maddox recalls, was leaning forward, dangling his mouthpiece out far enough to scream with that trademark high-pitched voice: “I’m going to kill you, Maddox!” Trying to get as far from Taylor as possible, Maddox dropped back in the pocket only to be knocked to the ground by 250 pounds of Pepper Johnson muscle. When Maddox finally gathered his wits, he saw Lawrence Taylor hovering over him, screeching again: “I didn’t kill you. But he killed you!” 

“I was so worried about Lawrence, I let Pepper hit me,” Maddox said, laughing. He is 43 now and his figure has filled out but he still wears the scar with pride. It is a reminder of that time he picked himself up. There would be more times to come. 

Maddox bounced around with several teams until 1995 when he left the NFL altogether. He sold insurance for a while then got restless. In 2000 he joined Arena football and played for a year before moving to the short-lived XFL, where he led his team to the championship and became the league MVP in 2001.  It was enough to catch the attention of the Pittsburgh Steelers who invited him for a tryout. He landed a job and started for a couple of seasons, winning Comeback Player of the Year in 2002 and a Super Bowl ring in 2005. 

After he was turned away from Cowboys and his personal life dissolved, Maddox felt paralyzed by his reality. It took three years, but desperation for connection finally set in. He needed someone to talk to about the unraveling of his marriage. He called Madison Michener, an old friend from his high school days in Hurst. “There’s two sides to every story,” Michener recalls thinking as he drove to meet Maddox over early morning coffee. “I didn’t go there to yell at him. I just wanted to be his friend. I let him talk.”

A few weeks later, Maddox reached out to Michener again. “He called me on a Sunday night,” Michener said. “He said, ‘I want my family back. I don’t know how to work and I don’t know what I’m going to do.'”

Michener, who manages a hunting ranch and deer breeding operation in Jacksboro, had an idea: “I told him, ‘God rewards hard work. If you get up and you put in a hard days work and you go to bed tired, good things are going to happen. I’m not saying once a week, twice a week, I’m saying every day: sweat and work.'”

Maddox drove out to Jacksboro and started working with Michener. The Comeback Player of the Year found himself cleaning out mud from a rain-soaked feeding trough. His starting pay was $400 a week.

“I thought I’d be out there for a little bit,” Maddox said. “I was out there for three years.”

Shortly after Maddox started at the ranch, learning to sweat for a weekly salary he used to spend in an hour, his divorce was finalized. Michener remembers hearing Maddox in tears on several nights. But, Michener noted, Maddox still got up at sunrise every morning and worked without bitterness that some might expect from a former Super Bowl champion made to cut grass and feed deer. “It was a great experience for me to work hard,” Maddox said. “And be among the wild life and animals and out in the country. It was a great opportunity to take a step back and see what I wanted to do with my life.”

After three years, the hard work paid off. Maddox began to reach out to his ex-wife, and eventually, she accepted him as a changed man. They remarried on July 20, 2011 in an unassuming ceremony with no fanfare or limousine. Maddox wore shorts and the officiate doubled as a bartender. The second time was less about ceremony, more focused on sentiment.

Reunited with his family, Maddox saw how much of his kids’ lives he had missed: “As my daughter was going into her senior year in high school I sort of realized how fast it goes by.” He knew it was time to move on from the ranch. “It was a hard place to leave,” he said, remembering his metamorphosis out in the Texas country.

Maddox started informally coaching baseball for his 13-year-old son (despite the football resume, Maddox says baseball is his first love). Soon the informal workouts expanded to involve some of his son’s friends, and it continued to evolve into a new calling for Maddox—the former quarterback started a youth baseball club called Steelers Baseball. Seven years after getting knocked off his feet by retirement, he has now built an operation with a 7,500 square foot training facility in Justin, 25 miles north of Fort Worth. Hundreds of kids have passed through the program.

In a new climate for the NFL in which headlines about criminal charges eclipse headlines about professional achievements, Maddox tries to mentor beyond the field. “I stay in the kids lives and try to prepare them for not only sports but life in general,” he said. “The sad reality of it, I think a lot of kids are kind of shocked when you do care about what’s going on in their lives outside of sports.”

Maddox knows as well as anyone how the challenges of playing mirror the challenges of living.

“Just like everybody else I’m human and I’ve struggled at times and been through some bad times,” he said. “We’d all love to have a career like Peyton Manning but that’s the exception to the rule. It’s a hard life. It’s a hard journey.”

*Correction: A previous version of this article called Hurst a suburb of Dallas. Hurst, in fact, is in Tarrant County, and it is considered a suburb of Fort Worth. We regret the error.