Lawrence Jackson now has a post-NFL career plan that includes his own ice cream company and a literacy program designed to help youth from urban areas.
But as the former Southern Cal defensive end and Seattle Seahawks first-round draft choice will tell you, finding that path wasn't all cookies and cream.
Jackson admits his difficulty in adjusting to life after football caused him to consider suicide.
"For a long time, as crazy as it may sound, I would wish that I didn't wake up," Jackson told co-host Zig Fracassi and me Saturday on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "It was almost as if, 'Why can't you just say I don't want to wake up tomorrow?' But every time I woke up it was like, 'sigh, I'm up. I have to fight through it another day.' "
The NFL was rocked in recent years by the suicides of former players like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. Both experienced mental-health issues most likely connected to brain trauma (CTE) that was diagnosed following their deaths.
Whether this triggered Jackson's problems is unknown because CTE can only be diagnosed postmortem.
Jackson's struggles with depression began in the months following his final NFL stint with the Minnesota Vikings during the 2013 preseason. Jackson, who was the No. 28 overall pick in the 2008 draft, already had realized beforehand that his NFL career would be more short-lived than hoped because of chronic ankle problems dating back to his days with the Trojans.
Jackson first began thinking about walking away from the game after he was traded from the Seahawks to Detroit during the 2010 preseason. He stuck it out for three seasons with the Lions, registering 13 sacks in 37 games before becoming a free agent.
"I knew that my time was coming to an end," Jackson said. "Football wasn't really fulfilling me. I wasn't happy when I was playing, so I knew that once my contract was up I would be looking to move on with my life and get going."
The problem with that: At age 28, Jackson wasn't exactly sure where he wanted life to take him. Jackson admits he should have done a better job taking advantage of the post-football career programs offered by the NFL and NFL Players Association that are designed to help with the transition away from the game.
"I was researching things I was interested in ... but I really wasn't ready to commit fully to it," Jackson said.
Initially, Jackson had a blast in "retirement," hanging out with friends and family. He enjoyed some of the luxuries he never could during a football season, like attending concerts or spending a whole day reading.
But escapism was soon replaced by reality.
"I hadn't taken advantage of the situation I was in to really solidify relationships and network to have solid mentors," Jackson said. "It kind of hit me like, 'Hey, I need to get going. I have this nest egg, but I don't have any income coming in outside of my investments and things like that. I'm almost 30. I need to figure something out.'
"The pressure for that mounted to the point it was overwhelming. I started to look back at every decision I made financially. Did I need to buy this? Did I need to buy that? Do I need to find a better credit card so I could use my reward points and maximize my money better? It created a perpetual cycle of questioning and criticism that really left me in a bad place."
Jackson, who earned $8.7 million during his NFL career, according to spotrac.com, compared trying to leave his football past behind and reinvent himself to "grieving."
"You have to let that part of yourself die out," he said. "You're not the lion that's going out there hunting the animals any more. You're kind of back protecting the village. That transition hurt a little bit."
Jackson said he was hesitant to admit he needed help. This is a common problem among struggling NFL retirees who have had it engrained that mental-health issues are a sign of weakness because of stereotypical attitudes pervasive in the sport's machismo culture.
"You feel like you could fix it on your own," Jackson said. "You don't really feel it's a huge issue. But when you put it off, it just continues to mount and escalate."
Jackson said his feeling of hopelessness reached the point where he "felt comfortable choosing to not live. Choosing to escape all the pressure, all the thoughts, the anxiety and leave everything behind and justifying it like, 'I've lived my life, I've lived my dream. I've seen things already at this age that some people might not ever see in their life. So if I'm hurting this bad, I've seen enough where I can go.'
"That's not a good place to be at," he continued. "It's very, very dark, very quiet and very lonely. You shut everybody out. It was at that point where I realized I had let myself go too far."
Jackson's recovery was spurred by love for others. He said he couldn't leave his family with the aftermath of his death, especially a 2-year-old nephew who adored him.
"I have a friend whose father passed away when he was young. His little brother never knew his uncle like that," Jackson said. "I never wanted that for my nephew. I wouldn't want him to grow up and see a picture of his deceased uncle on the wall and think, 'How could this person who seemingly had everything make such a decision?'
"It really woke me up to the reality of who I would be impacting, the depth of that impact. It led me to do the necessary work so I could move into a better space."
Jackson said that although he didn't respond well to meetings with a mental-health counselor -- "It felt to me like I was letting all my emotions pile up during the week and for one hour I was going in to talk to this person for whom I was just one of many clients," he said. "It really didn't solve anything." -- the sessions did lead to his recovery.
"The only advice that was beneficial was getting me started," Jackson said. "If you want to write, write. If you want to make ice cream, make ice cream."
That's exactly what Jackson began doing by focusing on what he says are the three things that interested him most -- "cooking, education and wellness." He started an ice cream company called MilknCookies. He began working with a group called Literacy through Poetry targeting at-risk youths in Southern California. And he plans to put those two passions together in April by launching Frozen Vibes, which will offer free MilknCookies samples during poetry outreach events. Jackson is providing updates on these projects through his Twitter and his Instagram accounts.
To better his chances for success, Jackson took advantage of a program (the NFL Business Academy) offered to current and former players by recently attending classes and seminars at the University of Michigan.
"It was very beneficial for me because I could hear some of the thought leaders on different subjects that are pertinent to the different businesses I'm going to start and the things I have going," Jackson said. "It was easier for me to streamline the information to exactly what I needed at this point in my life."
A life that Jackson is happy didn't end at his own hands.