For more than 20 years, T.J. Duckett risked his well-being to make it as a professional football player. There was no alternative plan in mind; his one avenue was clear, and for seven productive seasons, it worked out extremely well. But the music eventually stops for everyone, and when Duckett walked away from the game, when he left his one true passion behind, he lost his way and his sense of purpose.
Broken, lost, dejected, he chose put his life on the line again -- this time to forge a new, meaningful path for himself.
In doing so, Duckett's physical appearance transformed so much that people in his community stopped recognizing him. Those who had previously been eager to say hello passed by without a word. No longer could he get into an event simply by walking up to the door and shaking a few hands. In many cases, he'd have to speak so others, the same folks who once cheered him on, could connect the dots.
Suddenly, the first round pick, the pride of Loy Norrix High, the hero of the 2001 upset over University of Michigan felt like a stranger, an Average Joe.
And it was exactly what he needed to find peace.
Nearly three decades ago in Kalamazoo, Mich., an eight-year-old Duckett put on pads and a helmet and decided exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. He fantasized about it while playing video games; he pretended to be stars such as Walter Payton and Jerome Bettis during neighborhood pickup.
Most importantly, Duckett put in the work. Lots of work. How else could someone bench press more than 500 pounds and run a 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds?
Indeed, football was his life.
"It truly was everything," he said. "Everything."
Duckett played several positions growing up and became an All-American during his senior year of high school. He went on to accept a scholarship at Michigan State and thrived in East Lansing.
Then, his dream became a reality.
Picked 18th overall in the 2002 NFL Draft by the Falcons, Duckett established himself at the pro level as a forceful north/south running back. He scored lots of touchdowns. He was reliable. Durable. Surprisingly elusive. Always the guy you wanted out there in goal line situations.
As many older Falcons fans will remember, he helped lead Atlanta to a playoff berth as a rookie and again in 2004. Along with Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn, Duckett formed part of the DVD backfield that took the league by storm.
His time in Atlanta ended earlier than most expected, however, as he was dealt to Washington in 2006 in a three-team trade. Duckett spent a year in D.C. and played two more -- one in Detroit, another in Seattle -- before calling it quits.
In the end, he authored an impressive career: 44 TDs, 2,814 rushing yards.
Yes, Duckett had a lot to be proud of, yet those accomplishments offered little solace when he hung up the cleats.
Plenty of ex-athletes struggle in retirement, and Duckett, who wasn't sure what he wanted to do beyond football, endured his fair share of adversity. No longer able to channel his energy on the gridiron, he spent more than two years stuck under a fog of depression.
"The hardest part of my adjustment was trying to find a new identity," said Duckett, who now goes by Todd. "I had to think about how to spend my hours, my workouts, what to do to get excited."
To heal himself, Duckett turned to prayer. He thought about the enormous sacrifices made by spiritual leaders who not only sought to improve themselves, but their cultures, as well.
Inspired by biblical and modern figures alike, he decided to fast for 40 straight days.
"Nothing but water," Duckett said. "I was willing to go all out for a game, but was I willing to do it for a fast, possibly die, possibly [get ill] for myself and for the lives of those I care about? Yes, I was. That's how I can justify it.
"My whole world changed. I wasn't able to live off my ego anymore. When you have that ego, you walk into a place and people know who you are. They treat you a certain way. Then I lost all that weight, and nobody knew who I was."
Duckett dropped more than 60 pounds in less than a month and a half, which brought about an interesting development: No longer resembling his old self, he stopped receiving the celebrity treatment.
"I thought, 'So this is how people get treated?'" he said. "My whole life, I've been able to get into certain situations because of who I am. But to see this now, I thought, 'Do my friends see me this way? Do they like me because of who I am or because of what I did?' A lot of that went into question."
This is when Duckett started going by Todd, further separating himself from the football player. New circumstances. A new perspective.
And, in the end, a new direction.
After the fast, which ended on an Easter morning when he ate raw vegetables, Duckett realized what he needed to do to overcome depression: Give back. That's when New World Flood, his nonprofit organization, materialized.
New World Flood doesn't focus on a specific area of need; rather, its mission is to inspire others to embrace volunteerism and self responsibility. Together, they clean up fields. They raise money for kids battling cancer. Last Thanksgiving, they delivered more than 1,000 dinners, many of which were handed out at Parkwood-Upjohn Elementary School, where Duckett attended.
"One person, one raindrop, that's what moves people," Duckett said. "Having a passion and a cause, and just going about it. One person often inspires two people, then they inspire three or four, and now you have a flood of people that are coming to help, that are coming to serve."
Duckett's enthusiasm about New World Flood is palpable. He calls himself "The Rainmaker", and the moniker fits if you buy into the organization's message.
Depression tends to rob people of their intensity, their vigor, and those who suffer from the illness need to fight wholeheartedly to save themselves. They need to push through the limits they once thought existed. They need kick their demons in the teeth every morning to get out of bed and again at night to get some sleep.
Duckett fought. He pushed, he kicked. And he came out the other side with a powerful sense of ambition -- just as he did as a child, when he decided he'd one day follow in Payton and Bettis' footsteps.
Only now, he's not driven by personal success. He's driven by what he considers a far more important calling.
For more information about Duckett's nonprofit, visit NewWorldFlood.org.