COLUMN BY ADAM ROGAN
Several young stars of the NFL called it quits in the early days of the 2016 offseason: Jared Allen (33), Calvin Johnson (30), Heath Miller (33), Jerod Mayo (30), Marshawn Lynch (29), to name a few.
As the potential damage of injuries becomes clearer (concussions in particular), it appears that more athletes are taking their future health into their own hands.
It’s not particularly uncommon for athletes to retire in their early 30s. The average NFL career is less than four years. Three players who would’ve been rookies in 2015 officially retired before the season could even begin, citing fear of life-threatening injuries. But for big names who still seem to have successful seasons ahead, it’s unusual to see their careers ending so soon.
Lynch, the Seattle Seahawks’ now-former running back, ran for more than 1,000 yards each year from 2011 to 2014. But his streak was ended by leg and abdominal injuries throughout the 2015 season. Rather than trying to power through the pain, something he’s become known for around the league – becoming known as ‘Beast Mode’ – Lynch made the (probably wise) decision to hang up his well-traveled cleats and enter a new stage of life, sans football.
For me, it’s an admirable and wise decision, knowing that there are probably a few multi-million dollar contracts still available to the all-pro. He’s passing up greater monetary wealth and a longer moment in the limelight for the sake of his health, something most other people would be hard pressed to pass up.
Adam Vinatieri is the oldest NFL player at 43, and quarterbacks Matt Hasselbeck (40) and Peyton Manning (39) aren’t far behind as they continue to stretch out the glory days.
Hasselbeck hasn’t played a full season since 2011 and Manning just finished what was probably his worst season since 1998 (again, a result of nagging injuries), even if he managed to win his second Super Bowl thanks to a stellar Denver Broncos defense and the Carolina Panthers choking in the big game.
Manning could’ve retired two years ago before one of his neck surgeries, or before the 2011 season that he didn’t even play in, again because of a neck surgery. But no, he decided to keep going. And his chances of suiting up again for the 2016-17 season are probably about 50/50.
At surface-level, it totally makes sense why he, and others, would keep playing well past their prime. It’s money, fame, the opportunity to be looked up to by millions nationwide as you light up TV screens every Sunday.
It’s all you’ve ever wanted since Pop Warner on Saturday afternoons, playing Madden on your buddy’s PlayStation and years spent in practice honing your skills to get a scholarship to college where you might earn a spot at the Combine before the anxiety of the Draft, then hopefully you’ll survive training camp and maybe (just maybe) get your own spot in the locker room of an NFL franchise and get to run out onto the field under the lights of a dome or into the snow on the Frozen Tundra or onto the turf of a newly constructed stadium in Las Vegas or Las Angeles or London or wherever.
And I can’t blame you for that, for wanting that, because pretty much every friend I had when I was 10 wanted those exact same things. Because, even if it’s just society’s teachings and norms that tell us this, it’s still super cool to be that physically astounding and have millions of people admire you for that
Albeit, you might just be entertainment, but it’s still America’s game. And it’s your game. As EA Sports always said, you are now actually in the game.
But at the same time, when I was 10, I never considered what damage smashing my helmet into the head of my opponent day after day could do to my still developing brain.
I never thought about how much it must suck to need to take a pile of pills every morning to make my knees not give out from pain.
There’s never been a temptation to take performance enhancing drugs that, although they may make me stronger, will screw up other parts of my body, making life even more of a struggle in addition to my 20-plus other ill-advised prescriptions.
Barry Sanders is oftentimes held as one of the greatest running backs of all-time and had a 10-year, hall of fame career with the Detroit Lions that ended in 1998. He was less than 2,000 yards away from setting the NFL record for most career rushing yards — a record set by Walter Payton — that Sanders most certainly would’ve broken in the next year or two. Sanders also hadn’t missed a game over the last five years when he suddenly retired.
Sanders was never arrogant, known for almost nonexistent celebrations after touchdowns and big plays, and he wasn’t going to pretend to still be happy playing the game he was famous for if he wasn’t. He knew it was time. He didn’t give a reason why he retired in 1998 and the answers he’s been pressed to give later on have been vague at best. He was just done.
That’s something that’s been emulated by Allen, Lynch and Johnson this offseason. Lynch announced his retirement via Twitter. Allen made a short video saying goodbye before he literally rode off into a cloudy sunset. And Johnson simply told the Lions organization his plans and let them release the news to the public. Again, Johnson and Allen have both been struggling with injuries as well.
They don’t want to end up with nasty injuries like Joe Theisman’s famed leg snap (if you don’t know what that is, I would suggest not Googling it), or worse.
Still, some — like Manning — decided to ‘tough it out’ and go for ‘just one more year,’ even if it may not necessarily be in their best interests.
But who am I to talk? I’m the one that’s never played the game after age 10. NFL athletes’ biceps may dwarf my untoned arms, but I’ve also never been concussed. My brain is still intact, and it seems like dumb luck if there’s is going to last after a few taking blind side hits from 240-pound linebackers.
No wonder Cam Newton didn’t want to dive on his fumble inthe Super Bowl.
I sure wouldn’t.