Understanding why NFL players are retiring so early

Patrick Willis retires after eight seasons in the NFL.

I remember when Barry Sanders retired from the NFL. He had been in the league since 1989 and 10 years later, was still a very effective running back. I was selfish when he announced it because he was so close to becoming the all-time leading rusher. But instead, he walked away because he just didn’t have the same passion anymore. I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted him to play longer. I wanted him to have the record. I hated that he left the game like that.

It took me a long while until I started covering the 49ers as a beat writer in 2009 did I started to understand these kinds of decisions fully.

Every day, I saw what these players go through with their bodies. I see the strain it took on some of them and their families. I saw the difficulties they had to maintain as a famous person. Even though the money was great, the stress and the burdens continued to rise daily. There’s the glory of being a famous NFL player, but there is a lot of other baggage that comes along with.

Sometimes players work so hard to get to the NFL just so they have a means to support their family. Once they’ve made it and started raking in big money contracts, they believe they have achieved their goal. The glory, the winning, the awards seem to be secondary to supporting family.

Other times, the passion is gone and the right thing to do is to step away. There is no worse feeling than going to a job you are not excited about. I remember when Glen Coffee announced his retirement. I was shocked and confused when it happened but when he explained that he just didn’t have the passion anymore, it became clear to me and I didn’t hold any resentment.

Sometimes players retire only to get the itching to come back because they don’t know what to do with their post-football life. We saw Brett Favre bounce around. We saw Reggie White play that one year in Carolina. James Harrison is on that road too. Retirement is a tricky situation and it should be viewed as such.

So with the recent announcements of retirement from players, I am starting to see how players are understanding what they are giving up but possibly what they are gaining out of it.

Patrick Willis, 30, retires knowing that he is looking towards his long-term health. This seems to be the most common trend these days and it is a respectable decision. The game is not bigger than his health. And as much as it would have been great for him to stick around and help the 49ers try to win a Super Bowl, Willis saw the big picture. This probably as the same feeling for Jason Worilds, 27, and his decision. He looked at his future in the NFL and then a look at what he has accomplished. He didn’t need to stick around anymore.

Jake Locker, 26, said he’s been hurt for so long and no longer has the desire to play. That’s another common reason. If you’re not in it, then it’s time to walk away. He still could have had a decent career latching on to another team. But once again, football isn’t the primary in his life and he can look forward to something different.

Cortland Finnegan, 31, is retiring with a reason most of us expect from our athletes: age and effectiveness. His retirement doesn’t come as a shock but it still is tough to see a player retire in his early 30s. Sometimes, the body says no more.

As these reasons for retirement start to become more frequent these days, especially seeing those in the past few years, I think it’s good for us fans to realize that these athletes are people too. We don’t own them and their decisions can’t always satisfy our desires. They have to look out for their own well-being and many times, that means leaving the game early. For us, we sometimes put the NFL at the highest regard and we demand so much from the players. But the players, they don’t see the NFL that way. Their life, their future, their health are all bigger. And that’s where the crossroads of retirement comes in.

Remember, the game of football takes a lot out of every athlete. Sometimes, the best move for the athlete is for them to get out before the game becomes bigger than life and consumes them.

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