Donna Dannenfelser: What It's Like To Be An NFL Psychotherapist

Donna Dannenfelser Necessary RoughnessDonna Dannenfelser has done a lot of press lately. This Wednesday is the penultimate episode of the season for "Necessary Roughness," the USA Network show based on her time as an NFL therapist. And they've chosen a dramatic culmination for the show's second year: A gay player is going to come out.

It was a strange series of events that turned Dannenfelser into a hero of the gay blogosphere, brought her to Hollywood, and landed her the job as therapist to the New York Jets in the first place. But the one thread that connects all these pieces is a single idea, which struck Dannenfelser as a 28-year-old stay-at-home mother, standing in her bathroom.

"That life shouldn't hurt," she says, "and we can do something about it."

The Cleanest Toilet On Long Island

Dannenfelser was living in Deer Park, Long Island, when a workman came over to change the bathroom tiles. "You have the cleanest toilet I've ever seen," she remembers him saying. Suddenly, all this frustration and anger bubbled up.

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"I was thinking 'Wow, I'm a toilet bowl cleaner,' " she says. "Not that it's bad. Everyone should have a clean toilet bowl. But something he said triggered in me that I had to go and do something else."

Dannenfelser went back to school to get her master's degree, and was soon an accredited hypnotherapist. Sitting in Starbucks one day, she stumbled on a Newsweek article about the New York Jets (this was back in the '90s), and how the team was doing poorly because the players were distracted.

Making Her Pitch

"I bet I could get that team to focus," she thought. "I just had this idea that I could call up the head athletic trainer, and get him to hire me."

And that's what she did. Dannenfelser dialed the head athletic trainer of the New York Jets, and gave him her pitch. She continued to do this every week, explaining her program, and how she could sharpen the mental focus of the footballers through hypnosis and talk therapy.

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Finally, after four months or so, she called him up again, asked when he took his coffee break, and showed up at his office. She got the job.

Most of the time Dannenfelser was meeting with players who didn't want to be there, but had been mandated into counseling after some unfortunate episode or another. Dannenfelser's New York, straight-talking attitude proved perfect for the task, and her client list quickly expanded to professional athletes in other sports.

Are There Gay Players In The NFL?

While Dannenfelser won't say whether any of the Jets players whom she counseled were closeted gay men, other patients certainly were. In fact, she's tickled when asked whether there are any gay players in the NFL.

"Guys, retired athletes from the NFL are coming out," she says, referring to ex-players such as Wade Davis, who came out as gay last year. "If they're gay after they played, they were gay while they played. Pay attention."

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Usually, though, Dannenfelser was helping players struggling with the constant scrutiny, or who had issues controlling the aggression that their jobs required. "On the field is a very testosterone-driven sport. They're hitting each other very hard," she says. "Anyone who's doing that needs to go to a place of anger."

But ultimately, she realized, these 300-pound celebrities had the same problems and fears and wants as anybody else. "They want to be loved and respected for who they are," she says, "not what they do."

Making TV A Reality

Dannenfelser thought this was TV gold: Our modern day gladiators -- emotionally stripped, vulnerable and utterly human -- sitting on the therapist's couch. But as it turns out, pitching TV networks is a little harder than pitching the NFL. It took her seven years to make it happen.

"Donna, everyone in California thinks their life is a great idea for a TV show," her brother, an actor living in Los Angeles, told her when she visited. But finally, Dannenfelser won the right people over (including Liz Kruger, the show's co-creator, and a sibling of Pamela Kruger, the editor of AOL Jobs, as is Mark Kruger, a writer on '"Necessary Roughness.")

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The show has just been greenlighted for a third season, and Dannenfelser is happy that the storyline of the gay player is generating a lot of talk. She hopes that it makes the idea of an openly gay professional footballer less of a "big deal," moving us an inch closer to a world where players don't have to stay closeted. Dannfelser wants to make inspiring television, to be everybody's bathroom tiler, pushing them to realize their potential.

"A pro-social show that can do that to others watching," she says, "and have them be the best they can be -- that would be great."

Callie Thorne

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