Dorsey Levens found a new passion after his football career was over, and he’s using it to tell a story that needs to be told.
Dorsey Levens was in the 1998 Pro Bowl. He was the starting running back on the Super Bowl XXXI–winning Packers. He was on the cover on the Madden 2000 video game. He’s in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
Now, though, he’s Dorsey the actor. He’s been in We Are Marshall and made some other TV and film appearances, but has recently shifted his focus to theater.
He plays the main character in Stripped, a soon-to-be-released play that he also produced. The play looks at the life of Levens’ character, a retired football player, and two other players—one at the end of his career, one in his prime—outside of football. Levens says it’ll give us all a look into the stuff we never see. It’ll humanize the players.
So many former NFL players struggle with post-playing life, and that’s become tragically public in recent months. Stripped promises an honest and creative take on a dark issue that’s never been given enough light. It debuts on July 27.
I caught up with the tailback-turned-thespian to talk about acting, the private side of NFL players, head injuries, and the struggles of life after football.
Have you always wanted to get into production and acting?
It is something I’ve always been interested in. An opportunity came about at a stage play at my church and I got involved as an actor. The play went really well and there was a chance to take the play off our church’s site and to just a regular venue so I took the bull by the horns and learned the process as I went along. Actually, I’m still learning. And the rest is history. It was a great opportunity and I took advantage of it.
What’s your previous acting experience?
I’ve been in a couple movies, We Are Marshall and Three Can Play That Game. I’ve been on Arliss, the old show on HBO. I’ve taken acting classes for probably over 10 years now. I do have a history.
Stripped is about the life of a former football player. I play the role of Jaden Dorsey. This guy, really, is just losing everything, starting with his mind. He’s definitely losing his mind. He’s losing all of his money. His relationship is in shambles. It’s really just an inside look at what people speculate about—life as a professional athlete. I’m giving people an inside look at what really goes on. Everything in this play is based on true stories. Everything. Nothing’s made up, so it’s really just a genuinely true inside look at the life of football players.
There are four athletes in this play—former NFL guys Ryan Stewart, Karon Reilly, and Harvey Armstrong. So I think that way we bring the real side of it in. Like I said, all of this is based on true stories. In the play, three of us are married and the older guy, Harvey Armstong, he’s our agent. We go through the story and tell you what it’s really like. We deal with groupies, the alcohol, infidelity—the life of a pro football player.
Three players—one retired, one about to retire—34—and a young guy who’s 25. “He’s the guy you read about and see on TV. All the money, all the women. He’s gonna have some issues and gonna get in trouble.”
What made you want to tell these stories?
You hear about it all about the time, but—from a former athlete’s perspective—we never hear the whole story. Even when I’m retired, I hear stories. I remember the stories I heard when I played ball and the way they were reported in the media—when I had the inside scoop. Ninety-nine percent of the time they have about 90 percent of the story. They never get the whole story. They never get the inside scoop. So, this is my invitation to invite you on the inside. To give you a brief glimpse of what’s going on.
Do you think NFL players struggle with life after and outside of football?
Yes, yes they do. There’s definitely a transition—and I can speak from experience—from the time you retire to how you figure out what you’re gonna do next. There’s definitely a transition period. A lot of guys struggle with it, and I struggled with it because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought when I retired I was just gonna relax, take a few years off, and not do anything. And after about two months I was bored out of my mind.
With that being said, there are some guys that take more time figuring out what they want to do, and some guys never figure it out. If you’re married while you’re in the NFL, the divorce rate is over 80 percent. The bankruptcy rate after five years is over 80 percent. Obviously, more than three-quarters of the guys that retire from the league are dealing with these issues.
There is a transition. Some guys come out OK, some don’t. And there’s everything in between, which is what we’re trying to cover in this production.
Do you think the league can do more to help players adjust to life after football?
Well, actually, our play does deal with that. I say that because I try not to give the play away. My character, he acts kind of weird. He has moments where he’s just not himself. You find out, at the end of the play, it’s because he’s suffering from the onset of early Alzheimer’s. That’s a hot topic right now. Dave Duerson from the Chicago Bears committed suicide less than a month ago. There’s been a ton of guys who’ve committed suicide. Not a ton, but more than enough to set of an alarm, so with that being said, we are touching on that. There is something that needs to be done down the line.
One of the things in the collective bargaining agreement that the player’s association is fighting for right now is lifetime health benefits for NFL players. You hear the stories about the old players who don’t have any money, who don’t have any health care, and they’re a mess. They can’t walk. They can’t function daily. Part of the biggest problem is that once these guys are retired—and the guys who played back then didn’t make near as much money as the guys who are playing now—with all the injuries, all the hits, hip replacements, knee replacements, all the surgeries that you may need, and when your body deteriorated even more, guys can’t afford it. That’s why you see guys on TV who are just a mess. So, I’m trying to bring light to that as well. There is a need for everybody who’s played this game.
It’s a violent sport, and there are a lot of issues when you leave this game. I just gave you a couple with the divorce rate and the bankruptcy rate. But then there’s depression, and there’s health care issues. There are a bunch of things I’m trying to bring to light in this production.
You’re also working a documentary, Bell Rung, about concussions in football, right?
Yes. I talk to a couple of doctors. Dr. David Satcher at the Morehouse School of Medicine, he has a program called the NFL Community Huddle. They’re “taking a goaline stand for your mind and body.” He deals with the same issues. I don’t know if you know who Ted Johnson is, he played for the Patriots. Ted was supposed to be in the documentary but he’s not doing very well. He’s a guy we wanted to talk to but we couldn’t because—I don’t want to go into detail—he’s just not doing very well right now.
Basically we’re talking to younger guys, talking to younger high school coaches, Little League coaches, asking, “If you knew what you know now about concussions and brain-related injuries, would you still play the game?”
From my research right now, guys who are doing well are like, “Of course! I’d trade it for anything in the world.” But if you asked Ted Johnson, Dave Duerson, or Shane Dronett, I think their answers would be a little different. We’re trying to figure out what we can do—whether it is different helmets that are better suited to contact. I guess they’re not as bulky or not as sexy, so guys don’t want to wear them. I know Aaron Rodgers, he had a concussion late this season, he had to wear the helmet, and guys made fun of him. It is what it is, but the safety of the game is what I’m trying to bring attention to. I’m trying to bring light to the fact that there are continuous ramifications if you hurt your head. If it’s a bum knee or hip, you can replace it. Once your brain goes, it’s a wrap.
Would you have thought differently about playing if you knew what you know now about head injuries?
Well, like I said, I’m OK, so no. If I couldn’t remember my name, or if I couldn’t remember who my daughter was, my answer is going to be completely different. I’m OK, so I’d do it again. If I knew I was going to have early onset of dementia at 38—absolutely not.
What do you think can be done to protect against head injuries?
The NFL is definitely moving in the right direction. Back when I played, there was no concussion testing. Like Mike Ditka said, when he was speaking about Dave Duerson, back in the day, if you got your bell wrung and someone held up three fingers and you say “two,” you’re OK to go back in the game. That’s just the way it was. Now, once you’re out, you’re out. You have to pass a test to come back in the game, so I think that’s a step in the right direction.
Roger Goodell fining guys for helmet-to-helmet hits is a step in the right direction. I know this won’t sit well with current NFL players, because they think you’re taking away from the toughness of the game, and that’s true . If you can’t lead with your helmet, it’s not as violent. But there are other ways to tackle people so guys don’t get hurt.
The bottom line is we’re tough guys because we play the game of football. Bottom line. Not many people can do what NFL players do, but a line needs to be drawn that says “this is fun, exciting, good football” and “this is dangerous, life-threatening football.” There has to be a line drawn, so you can decipher between the two. And although guys don’t like it, I think it’s headed in the right direction. I think it’s the right move.
Who taught you about manhood?
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made? What did you learn from it?
I’ve made so many mistakes. I can’t just pinpoint one. There’s just been so many that you have to do over and over again before you learn from them. I can’t pinpoint one particular one.
Have you been more successful in your public or private life? Why?
I’ve been more successful in my private life, because there aren’t any restrictions, so to speak. In my private life I can be me. I think in my public life, in the media, being yourself sets off some red flags. That’s why you hear guys, when they’re doing interviews, and the answers are very generic, very blah. It’s because you don’t want to give up your endorsement deals. You can’t speak freely. Some guys do, but very few do.
In the locker room, on the field, on the practice field, the conversations that we have there could never be played on TV. Ever. Ever. Because then you realize we’re just regular guys who just happen to be really good at football. There’s an aspect that everybody loses sight of. At the end of the day, we’re all just human beings, but when you’re good at a sport, people put you on a pedestal.
The perception is that you’re perfect, because you play football well. It’s ridiculous. That’s the furthest thing from the truth. And then people get bent out of shape when guys get in trouble. Well, people get in trouble all the time. I got a traffic ticket last week. There were 12 people in there with DUIs. I didn’t see one camera, one reporter, nothing. Let that be an athlete, and you wouldn’t be able to move in the courtroom or outside of the courtroom.
Long story short, I’ve definitely been more successful in my private life than my public life. I’m more at home in my own skin in my private life.
When was the last time you cried?
I cried last week.
A scene in my play. I was rehearsing—and I got there. I was like “Wow. I did it.” I cried on command. I was feeling myself, to say the least.