Everyone sat, shoeless, in a circle on mats in a steamy midtown Manhattan martial arts school, so it was easy to forget how prominent some of the faces around it were.
There was Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Strahan. Here was Mets Hall of Famer John Franco. There were UFC Hall of Famers Royce Gracie and Randy Couture. Here was Fox Sports reporter Jay Glazer. There was NFL general counsel Jeff Pash, one of the league’s most powerful figures.
But none of that mattered once everyone started talking, especially the combat veterans whose stories of battle experiences, suicide attempts and losses of friends illustrated the point of the meeting.
This was on Wednesday night at the Renzo Gracie Academy for the launch of the New York chapter of “Merging Vets and Players,” or “MVP,” joining existing ones in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and Atlanta.
The program began four years ago as a joint project of Glazer and Nate Boyer, a former Army Green Beret who played in a preseason game for the Seahawks as a 34-year-old rookie in 2015.
MVP’s mission, Glazer said, is to help both military veterans and elite athletes navigate the transition from that life to the rest of their lives by giving them a new, close-knit group to lean on.
“The biggest thing is these guys losing their team,” Glazer said. “It’s easy to blame PTSD and CTE and all this stuff. The thing that’s hard is you lose your team, and that other stuff, it exacerbates when you’re home and isolated.”
Glazer helped fund the L.A. chapter, and Couture the one in Vegas. Falcons coach Dan Quinn funded Atlanta, and new Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy the one in Chicago.
The New York chapter was funded by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Weekly meetings feature a 30-minute workout followed by sitting and talking, peppered with many expletives and other blunt words and emotions.
Glazer said the goal is to remind soldiers and athletes that their jobs do not define them but rather that they define themselves. “You playing in the NFL is not who you are,” he said. “It’s what’s behind your rib cage.”
Strahan, who seemingly made the ultimate smooth transition to life after football and now is a television star, shared in the circle how difficult it was for him.
At a recent meeting in Los Angeles, Glazer said Hall of Fame tight end and TV analyst Tony Gonzalez cried as he discussed his insecurity.
“He said, ‘I realized after my [football] career, I’m never going to be great again,’ ” Glazer recalled. “Think about that. This is Tony Gonzalez. They’re all looking at him thinking, ‘What are you talking about? You’re Tony Gonzalez!’ But he goes, ‘I’m never going to be great again.’ ”
Strahan, who calls Glazer his best friend, said, “He gives people hope, gives them a family, a team, which is the thing that you miss when you transition away from the military and away from sports.”
Strahan saw his father, a military man, have to adjust to civilian life. Then Strahan had to confront being a former football star.
“I was as scared as anybody else, even though I knew I had a job at Fox,” said Strahan, who left the NFL after the Giants won Super Bowl XLII 12 years ago.
“I’m on set doing that show thinking that I should go back and play football, because it was the thing I was most comfortable with and the thing I didn’t doubt myself in.”
Boyer stated the obvious, that “combat and playing a sport have very little in common, to be completely honest.” But he said the two pursuits have much in common when it comes to the adjustment to what comes next.
“The mentality, the camaraderie, the brotherhood, that’s all the same,” he said. “You identify so much with that title and that uniform, and it’s easy to sort of isolate. Even the guys that don’t isolate, the ones that move on to other opportunities and other jobs, someone like a Michael Strahan, it’s not the same in a lot of ways.”
Boyer considered returning to the military after the Seahawks cut him, “because I didn’t know what else to do. I knew I had to have a high-operation tempo, and I started to feel the lack of traumatic stress rather than post-traumatic stress. It’s something I’m just very accustomed to.
“Luckily, Jay said he wanted to start a charity, we had conversations about it and it just made sense.”
Constance Schwartz-Morini, Strahan’s business partner, said the Los Angeles chapter has as many female athletes in its membership as male ones. Said Strahan, “This is not about men and women; this is about people.”
One of MVP’s most urgent missions is preventing suicides by veterans, who have a far higher incidence than the general population does.
Of the men and women who have been touched by MVP, Glazer and Boyer are proud that the suicide rate is zero.
“It’s incredible, especially since we’re working with thousands of people,” Boyer said. “The reality is we do have to understand that at some point that may happen, so how are we going to bounce back from that, how are we going to react to that?
“I hope to God it never happens. If it does, we’ll move forward, we’ll find a way to learn from that and hopefully honor that person.”
Said Glazer, “The reason we’ve had so much success is we put the elephant right in the room. The fact we’ve had no suicides, I tell them all, ‘Hey, we’ve got [expletive] zero. Don’t be one.”
JC Glick, who lives in Baldwin and is MVP’s national director, completed 11 combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, most recently in 2011, and attempted suicide four times. He once was on two dozen different medications.
Glick was a guest speaker at an NFL owners’ meeting in Orlando when he met Glazer at the hotel gym.
“I didn’t know who he was, to be honest,” Glick said. “He said, ‘I’ve got a job as national director.’ I said, ‘Hell yes, I’m interested.’ The opportunity to have purpose and serve something other than myself is what I was missing.”
Glick spoke movingly of his experiences at the launch meeting. He will run the New York chapter until someone is hired to take it over.
“I don’t think you need any special skills to be involved with this group,” Strahan said. “When you’re around this group, it’s just being honest and being open.”
Still, the power of talking to men and women who understand one another best drives the conversation.
“Being successful is [expletive] hard and lonely, but they all have it in them; they have to be reminded of that,” Glazer said. “We’re not therapists. We’re coaching each other. It’s badasses empowering other badasses.”