‘He’s helping me to be more of the person I used to be’
Brian Schaefering played just 40 NFL games as a defensive lineman for the Browns, Jets, and Cowboys from 2009 to 2012, but the effects of a life in football have been a nightmare. At just 33, he needs his left shoulder replaced, has torn ligaments in his other shoulder, a bulging disk in his neck and five in his back, a torn labrum in his right hip, and persistent pain in his ankles and knees. He battles severe depression, anxiety, and last January attempted suicide. For nine months, Schaefering was unable to leave the house until a new teammate came into his life, a service dog named Niklaus.
After hearing about Schaefering’s neurological impairments, the NFL sent him to a treatment facility in Michigan where he met military vets and found a new support system for his mental and physical struggles. At the facility, counselors suggested that Schaefering get a service dog to assist with his mobility and anxiety issues. But Schaefering’s size and physical ailments meant that finding and training the right dog could take up to ten years and cost $25,000. Once Schaefering thought all hope was lost, a former teammate put him in touch with Richard Starks a dog trainer who had worked with the French Foreign Legion and the South Korean ROK Marines.
Starks got to work and located a Dutch Shepherd named Niklaus who was exceptionally trained and has the perfect temperament to be a service dog. Starks taught Niklaus new skills including how to block and cover Schaefering if crowds get too close and a variety of mobility-assist skills. Niklaus also provides emotional support for Schaefering’s anxiety and depression. “There were times when I had to walk away, when I had to distance myself from everybody,” Schaefering told Bleacher Report. “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.”
Although Schaefering still wakes up in constant pain and constantly battles his neurological impairments, Niklaus has made drastic improvements to his quality of life. “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.” Schaefering’s experience with Niklaus led him to create an outreach program that connects people, including former NFL players, with service dogs. “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.”