North Carolina

On the phone, Ryan Hoffman’s voice sounded hopeful

Ryan Hoffman with a panhandling sign that reads “Trying 2 get back on my feet, God bless” at a busy intersection in Lakeland, Fla., Jan. 7, 2015. Hoffman, once a 287-pound starting left tackle for a top-ten ranked University of North Carolina football team, died Nov. 16 after struggling with addiction and memory problems and living on the streets.
Ryan Hoffman with a panhandling sign that reads “Trying 2 get back on my feet, God bless” at a busy intersection in Lakeland, Fla., Jan. 7, 2015. Hoffman, once a 287-pound starting left tackle for a top-ten ranked University of North Carolina football team, died Nov. 16 after struggling with addiction and memory problems and living on the streets. NYT

The voice on the phone was hoarse but the tone hopeful.

It was Ryan Hoffman calling to say he was not living on the streets in Florida, not panhandling for money, not destitute.

Hoffman said he didn’t have a full-time job but wanted one. He didn’t have a place of his own to live, but said he was staying with his sister until he did. He didn’t have the money to pay child support for his daughter and stepson, but was determined he would do it.

More than anything, Hoffman had called to say he didn’t want anyone to pity him.

“I’m not trying to blame anybody and I’m not looking for any handouts,” he said that day in early September. “It has been a frustrating time for me but I want to be productive again. I’m trying to get things turned around. I’m trying.”

But Hoffman’s life has been cut short. The former North Carolina football player died Nov. 16 in Haines City, Fla., killed while riding a bicycle when hit head-on by a car on a poorly lit stretch of highway. He was 41.

An offensive lineman at North Carolina in the late 1990s, Hoffman had dropped out of sight as the years passed after college. Few knew of his whereabouts until this past March, when a story in The New York Times described his plight, his homelessness in Lakeland, Fla.

Hoffman was dealing with serious mental-health issues. He said he was addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. He had been arrested for stealing food, been in jail.

A photo of Hoffman, holding a sign that said “Lost Job, Laid Off, Homeless,” circulated on the Internet.

Hoffman, in The Times story in March, claimed some of his mental problems and dementia could have been caused by playing football, by concussions. He said much the same in the phone call.

“I’m not a doctor but I was told some of my issues could have been caused by concussions,” Hoffman said in the September call. “They say it can cause problems 10 or 15 years after you’ve played, that there can be personality changes. I definitely had changes and have had mental health issues. I had a couple (concussions) in football and two bad (head) injuries after football.

“But I don’t want to be a catalyst for any lawsuit or sue anyone. I wouldn’t trade my years of football for anything. I’m proud to be an alumnus of Carolina. Playing football there was a positive experience for me.”

After the stories in The Times and the News & Observer, UNC offered to bring Hoffman to Chapel Hill. UNC officials, citing federal privacy laws, would not say how Hoffman was being treated or evaluated, but athletics director Bubba Cunningham said “appropriate resources” were used to help him.

Former teammates reached out, he felt a part of the UNC football family again and it renewed his spirits, Hoffman said.

“Everyone at Carolina was really nice and I really appreciated it,” Hoffman said. “They were limited in what they could do but they ran tests and I had a full physical.

“It was awesome to see my old teammates. But I knew there was only so much they could help me, that there were things I needed to do on my own.”

After leaving UNC, Hoffman was placed in a recovery center at Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla., for two months and said he did not phone or text anyone in that time.

Once leaving the recovery center, Hoffman said he struggled to be able to find work to help pay for the prescribed medication he needed. He had no medical insurance and said without a government identification card he had trouble finding even day-labor jobs.

“It’s difficult to explain to someone how tough it is without an ID until it happens to them,” he said. “It’s also tough when you have a prior abuse problem. It’s rough.”

Hoffman was contacted by Charlie Wysocki, the former star tailback at the University of Maryland in the 1980s who later had gone through a similar life experience. Wysocki had lived on the streets, had severe depression and almost committed suicide.

Wysocki, helped by former teammates, recovered and now gives lectures in prisons, schools and churches in Pennsylvania, raising awareness about mental illness. He was able to reach Hoffman by phone and Hoffman later emailed to say Wysocki was “a really good dude” with a positive message.

One of Wysocki’s former Maryland teammates, David Pacella, had lunch with Hoffman in Florida in September and found Hoffman coherent and positive.

“He seemed like someone who wanted to lift himself up and make it,” Pacella said. “He just seemed like a guy down on his luck but who wanted to turn things around. It’s really tragic how it ended, but I’d like to think he went down swinging, doing the best he could.”

Near the end of the September phone call, Hoffman was upbeat. His voice was clearer, stronger, and his words still resonate.

“It has been a really difficult time but I’m going to work through it,” he said. “I want to be successful or die trying.”

Chip Alexander: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip

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