Kevin Mawae played 16 seasons in the NFL, earning eight Pro Bowls and three All-Pro honors. Yet the former offensive lineman found himself struggling to walk in the summer of 2017.
With each step came stabbing pains because of severe plantar fasciitis.
The Breakfast Club came to his rescue by figuring out what caused his pain instead of focusing only on the symptoms.
"I started through the program, and it turns out for me I just got to stretch and take care of my body instead of being complacent in that area," Mawae said.
The Breakfast Club is a free six-week program for former players with at least two credited seasons at EXOS workout facilities or YMCAs, bringing them together for three workouts a week, along with physical therapy and a nutritionist. The club started in February 2015 in Arizona through The Trust, which developed out of the 2011 labor agreement following a lengthy lockout. The Trust was created to help players transition to non-football lives once their careers end.
Mawae, a former president of the NFL Players Association, joined such former players as Pittsburgh linebacker Levon Kirkland and long snapper Jason Kyle, who played for four teams, in the club session in Scottsdale, Arizona. Mawae also spent four weeks with the club this summer before reporting for fall practice in August in his new job as a quality control analyst at Arizona State for coach Herm Edwards.
The man who played center his final 14 years in the NFL had a simple issue: He never stretched.
"So to finally get from where I could barely touch my shins to where I can put my hands on the ground now in a straight-legged stretch, that's a huge accomplishment for me," Mawae said.
A nutritionist also helps each player with an individual eating plan and teaches them how to pick healthy foods when shopping. They also get a cookbook developed to assist with making better choices.
Support comes from The Trust, which assists former players with career counseling, finances and education. Connecting former players and helping them take care of their bodies is where the Breakfast Club comes in. Bahati Van Pelt, executive director of The Trust, credits former player Aaron Taylor for creating the group workout concept by asking if EXOS could provide a workout plan if he got 10 players together in San Diego.
The concept quickly grew from a couple groups to five a year, then 12, and now through expansion with about 400 former players have taken part.
The Breakfast Club has been in the Dallas area; Miami; Tampa; Birmingham, Alabama; Jacksonville, Florida; Brentwood, Tennessee; Kansas City, Missouri; and New Orleans. Van Pelt said they went to New Orleans last year because several former players reached out to Tulane, a medical partner of The Trust, when they had a large enough group for a Breakfast Club.
"Anytime we can have a player-driven, organized community that players are willing to buy into and incorporate and be active in, a part of that's a no-brainer for us," Van Pelt said.
With so many former NFL players in the Atlanta region, The Trust needed another gym option in areas without EXOS facilities. That led to the YMCA, where a free one-year membership is renewable and keeps former players working out once the club's six-week sessions end.
Former players only have to register with The Trust, which is identifying more cities to host future Breakfast Clubs. The current club started Oct. 8 in Carlsbad, California, near San Diego, with players including former offensive tackle Vaughn Parker, now 47 who played 10 of his 11 NFL seasons with the Chargers.
The biggest benefit may be recreating the locker room vibe that disappears after football. Van Pelt said they've had former players ask when the club is coming back to their towns.
"It brought back that feeling of being in the locker room, of having a workout in your position group and having an accountability partner with your wellness," Van Pelt said. "So if I don't come work out on a Monday and Wednesday, I have teammates that are going to check in on me and find out what's going on and make sure I'm there on Friday."
Getting moving again with a routine matters most for players accustomed to living by practice and meeting schedules through high school, college and the NFL.
But Mawae said no former player wants to be a statistic, and the club can help men live longer, healthier lives.
"It doesn't mean you can't have a drink every now and then, you can't indulge in sweets or candies or whatever, you can't just relax for a week. That just means you don't live a sedentary lifestyle where all your previous injuries can pile up and debilitate you," Mawae said.
"And unfortunately for a lot of the players that retire, that's exactly what happens."