On Life, Football and Second Chances
How Karl Pansler turned a personal tragedy into a mission to keep young lives on track
Published in 2022 Florida Super Lawyers magazine on June 24, 2022
I have always loved the game of football. The saying “football is life” has been true for me. Sometimes, in life as in football, we just need a second chance. I was given that second chance and, as a result, have been able to help hundreds of young people in my community.
In middle school, I came to the attention of a coach at the high school I would attend. I guess he never checked my grades because, honestly, I was not much of a student. Who would need an education once the NFL discovered my talent?
When my younger sister Karoline was diagnosed with terminal leukemia, my family was fragmented and I was thrown off my trajectory. My parents were in Gainesville at Shands Cancer Hospital much of the time, and my older siblings were to watch over me and my younger sisters—there were eight siblings—but, respectfully, they could barely keep track of themselves. I started hanging out with the wrong crowd and, before long, my football career became a thing of the past.
After my sister passed away at age 12 and my family eventually moved on somewhat, I pulled things together and went to Southeastern University, which had no football team. I then attended law school and soon, instead of winning games, was winning cases and helping people through tough times.
Then one of my sons, Chase—who now practices law with me—told me at age 7 he wanted to play Pop Warner football. I became a football coach and, for the next 10 years or so, had my two sons, Chase and Charlie, playing football just like I did back in the day. I matriculated with them up to their high school team, and I knew all those boys coming up. I’d coached just about every one of those kids. The high school coaches let me come down on the sidelines and coach during the games. I wasn’t part of the official coaching, but they’d let me come out, and I’d run some drills with them during practice.
I would coach boys not only on the skills they would need on the field but also teach them about life, because after all … football is life. I talked about what it took to make a winner. I taught in no uncertain terms that the essential fundamentals to succeed were discipline, practice and focus.
Many times I could spot a young man who was going through a traumatic event at home. I suppose my experience with my sister’s death made me more sensitive to spotting boys who were getting lost in the mix of life. But on Saturdays, we teed it up and forgot about everything else so we could win together—and boy, did we win!
During my time as a youth football coach, I began to advocate for a football team at my alma mater. For years, I discussed the good that football could do in the lives of young men. I knew it because I’d lived it. Football is not just a game; it gave these boys hope for a better life. But the college president at the time, who was a good friend of mine, told me it was not going to happen on his watch. But time moves on and so did that president.
I was asked to sit on the presidential search committee and, in my interviews, I would inquire of the candidate’s interest in football. I met one who was a true fan and also the best qualified for the job. He was hired, and in a short time we started putting together a plan for football. Most of our players, like me, had been headed for success on the field, but a bump in the road threw them off their trajectory and they needed a second chance.
It was not easy building a football program from scratch, but in its third season of playing, my SEU Fire football team played in its first NAIA playoff game. A lot of our boys could have been Division I football players, but somewhere along the line, they made a bad decision or they got involved with the wrong people. We can give them a second chance, and we do. And a lot of them make a lot of it.
Football is indeed life. And sometimes we all just need a second chance.