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Katzenmoyer, Reluctant Phenom, Finds What It’s Like to Be Normal
By PETE THAMEL
Katzenmoyer didn’t make it in the N.F.L. He is happier now, he said, away from football.
It is indeed strange how things turned out for Katzenmoyer, the can’t-miss prospect who did. He left the New England Patriots’ training camp without permission in 2001 because of a neck injury, retired after two injury-plagued seasons in the N.F.L., and proceeded to avoid the public spotlight as if it were, well, a blitzing linebacker.
After a bumpy road to a typical American life, Katzenmoyer has found serenity.
“My life is so regular,” Katzenmoyer, 30, said in his first sit-down interview with a national publication in a decade. “It’s so bizarre to think back 8 or 10 years ago and how my life has changed. What’s most strange is that I’m happier now living a normal life than I was back playing football.”
After leaving training camp in 2001 and retiring from the N.F.L., it took Katzenmoyer a few years to find himself. He said he plunged into depression, having to find an identity outside football. But with a wife, a 5-month-old daughter and a business that he, his wife and his brother-in-law opened in March, Katzenmoyer has found contentment.
“I was worried about him, and I feel I don’t have to anymore,” said Amy Lyberg, one of Katzenmoyer’s two older sisters. “He’s really come into his own, and I’m happy for him.”
Drafted by the Patriots in the first round of the 1999 N.F.L. draft, Katzenmoyer began his pro career under Pete Carroll, the current Southern California coach. But a helmet-to-helmet collision with Buffalo fullback Sam Gash in his rookie season caused a serious neck injury that never got better.
After two operations that included fusing two disks, Katzenmoyer gave football one last shot in 2001. After a day of full contact, he felt the pain return and panicked. He quietly left training camp after breakfast and had not been heard from since.
“I knew that staying in the spotlight and my name still being around wouldn’t help me discover who I was,” he said.
For so many years, Katzenmoyer’s life was not normal. He was the country’s top defensive recruit coming out of high school and wore Archie Griffin’s No. 45 at Ohio State.
He had so much success, including consensus all-American honors as a sophomore, that he was briefly tempted to challenge the N.F.L.’s minimum-age requirement, which states that a player must be three years removed from high school to play.
Off the field, things became absurd. A round of golf would draw 35 gawkers on the tee box. He would get requests for autographs during exams. His sister Laura Mowad called her credit card company in South Dakota and the person became extremely excited because she was related to Katzenmoyer. Shy and private by nature, Andy Katzenmoyer didn’t get it.
“I’ve always wanted to be just a regular person,” he said. “I know it’s weird to say. I never did think what I did by playing football warranted any kind of celebrity.”
Then Katzenmoyer landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated before his senior year in 1998. The magazine ranked the Buckeyes No. 1 with an asterisk: “If Andy Katzenmoyer makes the grade.”
Two articles in the magazine lampooned Katzenmoyer’s academic course load. To be eligible to play, he needed to pass Golf 1, Music 140 and AIDS: What Every College Student Should Know. Not helping his image, he had also been arrested for drunken driving that March.
Katzenmoyer said it took years to overcome the perception that the article created. It stung so much that he has not opened an issue of the magazine since.
“I wouldn’t say that I hold grudges,” he said, “but to this day it still bothers me.”
His mother, Dianne Katzenmoyer, choked up on the phone while reflecting on the story.
“We were pretty sure that the Sports Illustrated article was going to be the most terrible thing ever written about any of our children,” she said. “We were also sure that there wasn’t anything we could do about it. In the long run, Andy’s integrity and character would have to win out. And it has.”
“I have my own kids now,” Murphy said, “and probably would feel the way that Dianne felt if someone handled the situation like we handled it. Again, we stand by the story, but I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do it differently the second time around.”
Katzenmoyer said he receives two or three copies of the magazine each week in the mail with requests for autographs. Jon McMillen, a good friend of his, said he would meet people who asked, “How can you be friends with someone who is so stupid?”
Katzenmoyer said the stigma at Ohio State loomed over him so much that he made a conscious decision not to use his name in the gym he recently opened: L.I.F.T. Fitness in Westerville.
“If you look at chat boards or do a Google search, every chat board says how dumb I am, how I ruined the Ohio State name and how I disgraced Archie Griffin,” he said. “To me, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Katzenmoyer, who made roughly $3.5 million for his three years in the N.F.L., worked odd jobs when he returned home. He and his mother bought and sold houses. He did some construction work with a friend. He volunteered at his high school, Westerville South, as the defensive coordinator. He took classes part time at Ohio State, where he read about himself in the sociology book, and worked in the weight room. His mother recalled him saying, “I’m 25 and I’m a has-been.”
His family worried. As his friends married, had children and moved away for new jobs, Katzenmoyer was still searching for himself.
“I was in a depression,” he said. “I didn’t know what I wanted, where my life was going and what I was going to do. For so long my identity was being a football player. I was scared.”
Mowad added: “I was pretty worried. He was at the bottom.”
His family credits a close circle of about 15 friends from high school for their support. His football support system, which includes his agent, Neil Cornrich, the former Ohio State Coach John Cooper, the Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta and Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio, also helped.
But everything turned for Katzenmoyer in 2003, when he met his future wife, Ashleigh Quint, at a gym. She shared his interest in working out and later encouraged him to leave Ohio State and study where she earned her degree, Otterbein College in Westerville.
She brokered a meeting with Katzenmoyer and Kim Fischer, an associate professor in the Health and Sports Sciences department at Otterbein. Katzenmoyer arrived wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt pulled over his head. Fischer said he did not have a lot of confidence; Quint did most of the talking.
But Fischer said Katzenmoyer has blossomed since transferring. He is a regular contributor in class, a solid student, and he has taken a special interest in neuromuscular therapy. The quiet guy in the hooded sweatshirt now stops by during office hours just to chat.
“It’s been really fun to be part of his change and growth academic-wise,” Fischer said.
Katzenmoyer said he was a year and a half from completing college and may consider coaching football or working as a strength-and-conditioning coach.
But for now, he is writing training programs, changing diapers and chatting with McMillen about their fantasy teams. He would not want it any other way.
“I have everything that I want,” he said.
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