Brian Schaefering went to the movies with his wife in early July. They saw Central Intelligence, starring The Rock and Kevin Hart, at their local theater.
Date night for a young couple isn't exactly breaking news, even when that couple has four young children. But the Schaeferings had not gone to the movies together for nine months. In fact, Brian had rarely left the house at all.
Brian Schaefering, 33 years old, an NFL defensive lineman from 2009 through 2012, has significant brain damage. He has post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a host of more mundane football-related injuries and issues that make getting around a challenge. He battles severe depression and, sometimes, suicidal urges. Public places and crowds make him angry, agitated and paranoid. He'd usually be unable to enjoy a simple trip to the multiplex.
But Schaefering and his wife were not alone in the theater for this date night. Their companion was Niklaus, the first-ever service dog trained specifically for a retired NFL player. Niklaus, a two-year-old Dutch Shepherd, can do everything from helping Schaefering keep his balance to ameliorating some of the symptoms of PTSD.
"I was actually able to sit and watch the movie with my wife instead of looking around, moving around in my seat," Schaefering said. "Having him there really helped me, more than I thought it could have. It's been above and beyond what my expectations were."
With Niklaus, Schaefering has some semblance of his former life back.
Now he wants to help other former players—and military veterans, and anyone else who might benefit from a service dog. Schaefering wants to do more than put a leash in their hands. With the help of some current NFL players and a maverick dog trainer turned activist, he hopes to build a network of trainers who can solve the current severe service dog shortage and create a support system for others who suffer in isolation.
The Only Thing That Worked
Early in our interview, I asked Schaefering: "Besides brain damage, what other ailments do you suffer from?" After it left my lips, I realized what a terrible, disturbing question it was.
Schaefering's long, detailed answer was even more terrible and disturbing.
Schaefering's left shoulder needs to be replaced. There are torn ligaments in his right shoulder. He has a bulging disc in his neck and five more in his back. There's a torn labrum in his right hip. He had a bone removed from his left foot, which has not healed properly. His right ankle "just hurts all the time." His knees ache. He sometimes suffers numbness in his arms and knees.
Schaefering walks with a thick brace on his left foot and speaks haltingly, often struggling to find words or remember precise details, like his own age.
Schaefering played in just 40 NFL games in four seasons after a college career that started at University of Illinois and ended (after a medical redshirt took him off the starters' track) at Lindenwood. His NFL career wasn't glorious. It was typical: a few years, a little money, some modest accomplishments and, all too often, a dire price.
The neurological impairments became evident not long after Schaefering's NFL career ended. "I started noticing more headaches a year after I was done," he said. "My wife starting pointing out the fact that I couldn't find my words. I kept saying 'um' and 'uh' and stuttering a little bit more."
Pain and a speech impediment were not the worst parts. "About a year-and-a-half ago I started thinking about death. About suicide. About killing other people, just random people. And sometimes even people that were close to me. I just had thoughts. I had thoughts of killing my family. Not that I wanted to do it. But I couldn't stop the thoughts from coming in."
Schaefering sought neurological testing. Doctors could actually see the depression and anxiety in his brain waves during scans. They prescribed counseling, speech therapy and new medications atop Schaefering's already groaning daily dosage. Schaefering takes painkillers, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, sleep medication, anti-inflammatories—"all kinds of s--t," he concedes.
None of it does him much good. "The painkillers take a little bit of the edge off. But I never really feel good. And none of it works on my headaches. My head hurts every day."
The diagnosis of brain damage just made things worse for Schaefering. Thinking like a football player, he tried to rehab depression like a sprained ankle. "Work your ass off and it goes away," he thought. But the sheer magnitude of his maladies overwhelmed him. "It became too much. I just felt like I didn't have any fight left."
Crowds began to make Schaefering angry and anxious. He could barely leave the house, even for simple errands. He bottomed out soon after the diagnosis. "I tried to commit suicide in January. And I don't even know why. I kept having the thoughts and the feelings every day. I didn't want to kill myself. I just wanted everything to be quiet. "
The NFL, more responsive to brain injuries now than it was in the past, sent Schaefering to a treatment facility in Michigan. There, Schaefering met military veterans and some former football players suffering similar afflictions.
"I found out that military guys and women, we have so much in common. Maybe not in how we got to where we were at, but the things that we go [through] on a day-to-day basis are so closely related. It opened up another support system for me."
Schaefering also met Sage, a service dog for a military veteran in the treatment center. When Schaefering's anxieties became so great during group sessions that he could not even speak, Sage would climb on the couch to comfort him. "She laid there with me for about an hour and just looked at me. It was a look that felt like, 'I understand.' That was the only thing I found at that time that would really start to calm me down."
Counselors suggested that Schaefering get a service dog for both his anxiety and mobility issues. The trouble was finding one. He was told that the waiting list for any service dog would be about five years. One that could help a man his size with mobility issues might take 10 years to find and train. Acquiring a puppy from a breeder and then finding a trainer was a crapshoot. It would take over a year to train, cost as much as $25,000, and the pup might not even grow up to be suitable to the task.
A 10-year wait was too much to bear, so Schaefering and his wife sought out some bull mastiff pups from a promising litter, then started a GoFundMe page to raise the money. It was a long shot.
A former teammate noticed the page.
That teammate mentioned it to Eugene Monroe, then a Ravens lineman.
Monroe knew a guy who could help.
Here's Something Productive
Richard Starks was hanging out in a bar in the wee hours of a Friday morning in May when Eugene Monroe texted him. "Here's something productive," he wrote, with a link to Schaefering's GoFundMe page.
Starks was in a dark place. His girlfriend and business partner died in a car accident in January. He had been having suicidal thoughts. Monroe let Starks stay in his basement during a particularly rough stretch. Now, the NFL player and emerging activist was trying to connect two people in need.
"Brian wanted a service dog," Monroe said. "But he wasn't able to get one in any effective time or at any price point that made sense for him. ... I thought it would be perfect to connect him with someone I know, someone I trust, someone who has a track record of success."
Starks' initial, bleary 3:58 a.m. response? "I thought, 'Man, quit f--king with me,'" he said.
Starks had not always been the charitable type. He dropped out of school at age 15 to become a dog trainer. He learned the craft at the Tom Rose School in St. Louis. By his early 20s, Starks had trained dogs for the French Foreign Legion and the South Korean ROK Marines. He had trained dogs in French Ring sport, a competitive police/guard dog competition.
When he returned to the states, he got into training "service dogs" for celebrity athletes because that's where the "real money" was. Baseball and football players wanted to travel with their pets. New laws in the 1990s made service dogs welcome in all hotels and restaurants, and there was little regulation of the service dog industry.
So Starks would teach an athlete's pet some basics for $5,000 and declare it a service dog.
"We would literally just whip something up in Microsoft Paint and laminate it," he said. "That would be the 'service dog ID.'"
The business paid well and left Starks with an impressive client Rolodex. But then Starks began to see the light. "I guess I became more ethical," he joked.
Starks' celebrity clients began getting him involved in their charities, training dogs for wheelchair-bound children and for seizure alert. "The response that I got from the people that we were helping was different than what I got from any other dog that I had trained in my life," he said.
Starks upped his game. He got involved with K9s for Warriors, a Florida-based organization that trains dogs for military veterans.
Monroe, then playing for the Jaguars, also got involved with K9s for Warriors after seeing how service dogs helped autistic children through their daily lives. "I had pets all my life. But that was the first time I saw the value of a service dog," Monroe said.
Monroe and Starks became friends. Starks trained a pair of pets for Monroe. Both became more aware that others besides veterans could benefit from well-trained service dogs. "What about first responders? Cops, EMS, firefighters: No one was helping them," Starks thought.
No one was helping former football players with severe disabilities, either. "A lot of players experience PTSD after their careers are over," Monroe said. "There are also physical ailments from injuries they sustained during their careers. These dogs are capable of providing assistance with those as well."
Starks expanded his Outlier K9 business to provide dogs to a wider range of needy clients. For big dogs suitable for helping big clients, Starks and Monroe enlisted NFL defender Arthur Jones, whose Jones Bros Kennels (run by Arthur with help from his siblings, Cardinals defender Chandler and MMA star Jon) breeds 130- to 150-pound Presa Canarios, a type of Spanish mastiff.
"I knew he was getting ready to start some kind of foundation," said Jones, who donated several puppies for Starks to train. "I knew he was a solid guy and a guy who wants to help out."
But then Starks lost his life partner and was in danger of losing his way. That's when Monroe learned about Schaefering and texted Starks at the bar.
A former NFL player desperately needed a service dog. Fast.
Starks knew where he could find the dog.
Trained to Misbehave
Niklaus could have been a great athlete. He just didn't want it badly enough.
The Dutch Shepherd began his training in "protection sport" at four months old. Protection sport dogs are like NFL strong safeties. They are trained to read situations, identify "assailants" in heavy pads and attack, defend or stand down on command. By the time he was two years old, Niklaus was good but not great at it.
"He's a goofy dog," trainer Tressie Bumpus said. Goofiness and protection sport don't mix. Niklaus preferred romping in the yard and fetching to lunging and striking a potential attacker.
So Bumpus retired him. "He's had the easy life for the past six months with me. He hasn't had to do anything except lie on the couch and hang around with 'Mom.'"
Niklaus may have been "goofy" by protection dog standards, but by the standards of the typical house pet, the 100-pound, well-bred animal was brilliant and exceptionally trained. He had the ideal personality for a service dog. "He really wants to please his one person," Bumpus said.
Bumpus, who works with Starks at Outlier K9 in addition to running her own training school, was that one person for all of Niklaus' adult life. But when Starks began describing Schaefering's specific needs, Bumpus realized that Niklaus was the perfect dog: huge, eager to please and already highly trained.
"I love him to death," Bumpus said of Niklaus. "But I would rather see him go to a home that would get better use out of him. I can have many house dogs."
Starks and Monroe contacted Schaefering about Niklaus. Schaefering initially thought he was being pranked: After months of searching and hearing about 10-year waits, two guys he didn't know were offering him a dog in a matter of weeks. But Monroe's assurances convinced Schaefering that the deal was legit.
Soon, Schaefering was on a flight from St. Louis to Orlando to meet Niklaus.
For an individual with severe mobility and anxiety issues, airports are incredibly challenging. "I was talking to Richard and my therapist on the phone the whole time until the plane took off," Schaefering said. "I had to talk to them through the airport after I landed.
"But I knew that if I could get through that part, I would get the chance to meet my new service dog. It gave me the motivation to go through with it."
Schaefering finally arrived at Starks' Florida kennel and met Niklaus.
It was not love at first sight. Goofy Niklaus picked the worst possible moment to turn into a tough guy.
"When I got down there, he was barking and growling at me in the kennel," Schaefering said.
It was typical dog behavior. "When there's a barrier in front of them, and with 20-30 other dogs around, they're going to be a little tougher, a little badder," Bumpus explained.
Starks brought Niklaus into his living room and fetched the dog's favorite ball. After a few minutes, Schaefering was tossing the ball to Niklaus, and the dog was obeying his soon-to-be new owner's basic commands.
Schaefering slept on Starks' couch for a few nights while Starks and Bumpus completed Niklaus' training and taught Schaefering some dog-handling basics. Niklaus' new skills included Block, which places him in front of Schaefering, creating a barrier so crowds don't get too close; Cover, a kind of back-to-back formation that lets Schaefering know if someone is approaching from behind; Middle, a defensive posture between Schaefering's legs; and a variety of mobility-assist skills. If Schaefering loses his balance, Niklaus leans in for support instead of trying to escape getting fallen on.
Some of the more innovative training is counterintuitive. Niklaus is trained to misbehave when Schaefering is in a tense situation, drawing his master's attention away from the source of stress before a problem escalates. Essentially, Niklaus received obedience training to become disobedient in certain situations. It sounds like the perfect job for a goofy dog, but it's a hard skill for some trainers to embrace. "It's against everything they've ever done," Starks explained.
But the "trained to misbehave" trick works. Soldiers and football players are conditioned not to back away from a conflict. PTSD and other disorders can cause them to get stuck in a loop that could easily end in violence. "It becomes about holding on to that fragment of the person that you used to be, that you now lost," Starks said.
Schaefering relied on Niklaus' distraction tactics when he visited University of Illinois for a reunion in early July, just before date-night at the movies. "He would lean into me when he could feel me getting upset. It took my focus off of that and onto him."
Niklaus also used Block to act as a barrier when well-wishers crowded Schaefering at the reunion. And when the anxieties of being in public became too great, Niklaus was there.
"There were times when I had to walk away, when I had to distance myself from everybody," Schaefering said. "When I'm feeling that way, he'll come up and almost sit on my lap. He'll put his head on my shoulder to comfort me and help me calm down."
Schaefering attempted suicide in January, the same month when Starks lost his business and life partner. Monroe texted Starks about Schaefering on May 20. Niklaus went home with Schaefering in late June. By July, Schaefering and his family had a small shred of their lives back. It was a fresh start for everyone: Schaefering, Starks, even the protection sport washout, Niklaus.
No one wanted the story to end with one football player, one trainer and one dog.
Training the Trainers
No one who needs a service dog should have to wait five to 10 years for one: not a war veteran, a wheelchair-bound child, a former NFL player or anyone else.
The problem is a severe service dog shortage, which is caused by three interlocking issues:
The first is that there's a shortage of good dogs. "You can't just pick up your pet Sparky and make him a service dog," Bumpus joked. Service dogs must be of a certain size, temperament and intelligence, and must begin their training young.
The best service dog candidates also happen to be the most in-demand (and expensive) dog breeds. Labradoodles, for example, are huge, strong, bright, non-aggressive and dedicated to their masters. "They make phenomenal service dogs," Starks said. "The problem is that they also make phenomenal pets, so people are willing to pay $3,500 for them, so no one wants to give them away as service dogs."
Second, there's also a shortage of good trainers. The folks at the local strip-mall pet center who taught Elmo to sit (eventually) probably aren't capable of training a service dog.
"The really, really good trainers—the ones that are best at capturing behaviors and creating precision obedience—are out doing sport work or police work," Starks said. "There's very few of them in the service dog industry."
And third, there's a shortage of coordination and communication. Kennels, breeders and trainers operate on shoestring budgets. There is little time or money available to build a snazzy social-media presence or hire communication coordinators.
A kennel owner in California may really want to connect someone who needs a service dog to a breeder in Indianapolis and a trainer in Florida, but that owner may not know the others exist and is too busy caring for dogs to seek them out. Everyone is too busy feeding dogs and cleaning kennels to network and pool resources.
Schaefering, Starks and others are working on a simple solution to this complex problem: train service dog recipients to become service dog trainers.
When needy individuals come to Starks for a service dog, he not only trains the dog but conducts classes for the recipients. Each recipient trains his or her own dog—and also trains an additional dog or two each, both to learn the craft and provide dogs to those too infirm to be part of the program. The recipients also learn the logistics of working with kennels and shelters to find appropriate dogs.
Part of the initial supply of dogs will come from Jones Bros Kennels. Arthur Jones has pledged one or two massive, well-pedigreed Presa Canario mastiffs from each litter to the cause. "It's a token of my appreciation, something I can do," Jones said. "I wish I could do even more."
Graduates of the program get not only a service dog, but the certification to start their own training programs. "Our vision is to have trainers in every city," Starks said. Once there's a steady flow of dogs and trainers, wait times for service dogs could be cut down from years to weeks, while Starks anticipates that prices could drop from $35,000 per dog to about $1,500.
With some NFL star power providing funding, attention and locker-room networking for the program, those in need of a service dog won't face the confusion Schaefering dealt with as he started his search.
"If I had someone like me, it would have made the process a whole lot easier," he joked.
"I don't think football players really know or understand the whole service dog thing," he added. "Because I know I didn't. Until I went to Michigan, I thought it was just a veteran's thing."
"The challenge lies in awareness," Monroe said. "A lot of people don't know how beneficial these dogs can be for them."
The program will also act as an outreach network, with the training classes becoming a much-needed support group, a chance for football players, veterans and others to bond over their dogs instead of suffering alone. "It gives them a grass-roots counseling program," Starks said.
The program can even create jobs. "We're not just giving them a service dog," Schaefering said. "We're giving them a means of making a living, giving something that's worthwhile. A lot of veterans come home and can't find work. We can give them opportunity to start their own business."
"They got to save somebody again," Starks added. "They got to be purposeful. All of these feelings offset the negative ones that they were having for years."
The program is still in its infancy—remember that Schaefering, Starks and Monroe first got together in the wee hours of the morning on May 20—but it's happening. "We're not very far off," Schaefering said.
"It's one thing to have a service dog," he added. "It's another thing to train people to train service dogs. You can reach so many more people and train so many more dogs."
The Gift of Hope
Niklaus has not solved all of Schaefering's problems. There is still constant pain, neurological impairment, as many bad days as good days. "To this day, even with everything that I'm trying to do, I still regret waking up every day," he said. "I still don't feel like I have fight left in me."
The support from Schaefering's wife and children pull him through. But Niklaus has become a valuable companion and home health aide.
"He's helping me to be more of the person I used to be," Schaefering said. "I'm doing more laughing and joking with my kids, where I really didn't before. I had to force myself to."
The outreach and planning to provide service dogs to others has also helped. Schaefering wants NFL players in need to know that help is out there. "I'm hoping to be the face, to get out there and tell people my story," he said. "I want to explain how this has helped me."
Some famous names are helping spread the word. "I think it's cool that Brian himself wants to create a foundation that will assist former players and anyone else in need in finding a service dog," Monroe said. "More people need to be aware of services like Richard's."
Schaefering and Starks have applied for NFL accreditation and grant money in the past few weeks. A St. Louis homeless veterans facility has agreed to serve as a "finishing school" for animals about to be placed. Even Niklaus has done his part to increase the service dog population: He sired a litter of puppies late in the summer.
It's an ambitious plan to provide much more than just a dog to individuals of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds who need help.
"It's about giving them hope," Starks said. "It's about reminding them that they can have good days."
"If I can help people going through my situations," Schaefering said. "If I can help anybody avoid going through some of this stuff, then I feel like I have some success again."
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeTanier.