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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Why Football Players are Walking Away

When I first heard the news that Rashard Mendenhall was retiring, I was pretty excited. As an Arizona Cardinals fan, I was quite frustrated by head coach Bruce Arians and his decision to give the starting running back position to the veteran Mendenhall. The team possessed an electrifying rookie in Andre Ellington, and it seemed downright criminal that he had to split his carries with a seemingly over-the-hill starter. My first reaction to the news was one of selfish joy; at long last, Ellington’s explosive playmaking ability would come to the forefront.

But then I realized I had completely overlooked how young Mendenhall is as he retires. 26? He still had three or four years to make money, win a Super Bowl, etc. The question media outlets like ESPN are asking is why, and Mendenhall was kind enough to write a farewell address for the Huffington Post that explained his reasoning.

Every star athlete’s career progresses the same way: they break onto the scene, find success on the field and place themselves in a position to achieve both individual and team awards. But players age and there is an awkward moment when the player who takes the field in his mid-thirties is not the same player in his or her prime, only he or she does not realize it (or refuses to do so). This trend persists because so many athletes find validation in excelling in their respective sport.

Michael Jordan was the best basketball player ever. He retired, and then made an ill-fated comeback with the Washington Wizards three years later. Why? Michael was beloved by fans across the country. I am yet to meet a person who hates Space Jam. On the court he was Superman, able to achieve things mere mortals like you and I could not. But once he retired, that all went away. Sure, people still talked about him, but now it was to compare new stars like Lebron to the MJ of old. 50 years old and recently married, Jordan golfs and smokes cigars a former star who has seen himself extinguished in the public eye.

It’s the uncomfortable truth that athletes never want to face. They have spent their entire lives working to reach the professional level. The exaltation of adoring fans in their success brings validation. They are no longer just Derek Jeter, but Derek Jeter, star shortstop for the most prestigious franchise in baseball. And that all goes away when they retire. Athletics is a cruel profession. It’s a career that offers a chance at no more than 20 years of service. It’s unsettling for an athlete to have to figure out what to do when his or her main vocation ends at the age of 32. It’s why so many stars hang on until the bitter end before they retire. It’s why average baseball players like Brad Penny sign minor league deal after minor league deal, hoping to stick somewhere. For many players, the adoration and validation that comes from professional success is the most important thing in their life.

This all makes Mendenhall’s situation more interesting. Here is an athlete who has admitted that defining himself as a football player isn’t what he wants. He is a man who feels like he has “done it all. I’ve been to two Super Bowls; made a bunch of money; had a lot of success.” Regarding why he has decided to retire, Mendenhall writes, “Football was pretty cool, but I don’t want to play anymore. I want to travel the world and write!” The former running back decided that there are things outside of football that interest him. He is content to give up his stardom to pursue other interests, deciding that this new life is worth more than the singular identity as a professional football player. Mendenhall is a man who can imagine a life outside of football, a rarity for people in his profession.
Mendenhall’s retirement is not an isolated case; former Broncos guard John Moffitt retired in the middle of the season at the age of 27, deciding to spend time with his family while he still had his health. And as health issues in the NFL come to the forefront of the public consciousness, I’m sure more players will choose to retire at earlier stages of their careers.

But there is more to these early retirements than self-preservation. Athletes like Mendenhall and Moffitt simply decided that there are more important things in life than a successful career in athletics. They no longer felt the need to define themselves solely as pro-athletes. As more players retire early to preserve their health, it is important to realize that some of these men and women retired simply because they no longer find the thrill and glory of competition the best way to define their own identity.

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