USA TODAY Sports Weekly

RE­TIRE­MENT NO LONGER UN­COM­MON

More play­ers choos­ing to end play­ing ca­reer on their own terms

- Dave Bir­kett @dav­e­bir­kett USA TO­DAY Sports

Re­tire­ment in the NFL is of­ten a mis­nomer.

Play­ers don’t typ­i­cally “re­tire” from foot­ball so much as they’re not wanted any­more, not by their team or any of the 31 oth­ers across the league.

But in the past 12 months, more and more of the world’s best ath­letes have cho­sen to leave the sport on their own terms.

Pitts­burgh Steel­ers linebacker Ja­son Wo­rilds walked away from an eight-fig­ure con­tract as a free agent last year for religious rea­sons. A num­ber of San Fran­cisco 49ers — Pa­trick Wil­lis, Chris Bor­land and An­thony Davis, chief among them — quit around the same time be­cause of health con­cerns.

And as the NFL ap­proaches the 50th in­stall­ment of the Su­per Bowl on Sun­day in San Fran­cisco, one of its most iconic play­ers, Detroit Lions wide re­ceiver Calvin John­son, is pon­der­ing leav­ing the game for good.

John­son, who turns 31 in Septem­ber, has not spo­ken pub­licly about his fu­ture since the end of the sea­son and only re­leased a state­ment in Jan­uary ac­knowl­edg­ing that he was weigh­ing his op­tions.

But while the Lions sit and wait for John­son’s de­ci­sion — ESPN re­ported Sun­day that he has told peo­ple he plans to re­tire — some across the league won­der if his po­ten­tial early re­tire­ment is part of a new trend.

“San Fran­cisco, I don’t know how many play­ers they had (re­tire), four, five, six,” for­mer NFL re­ceiver Bert Emanuel said at the Se­nior Bowl last week. “I don’t know what it was, but that is just a freak­ishly high num­ber for guys to get to the point where they can still play at a very high level and say, ‘I’m done.’

“So it makes you think about what’s go­ing on with the game. It makes you con­sider the safety, the health, the long-term aspects, ’cause oth­er­wise, why would guys be will­ing to do that?”

Play­ers make more money now than ever be­fore — John­son has to­taled $106.4 mil­lion in on-field earn­ings in his nine-year ca­reer and stands to make an­other $15.95 mil­lion if he re­turns this fall — but also put their bod­ies through de­struc­tive amounts of pun­ish­ment.

Bor­land left the game over con­cerns about brain in­juries that barely reg­is­tered with play­ers years ago. Wil­lis, who was taken nine picks af­ter John­son in the 2007 draft, re­tired in part be­cause of a nag­ging toe in­jury that cut short his fi­nal sea­son. And John­son has dealt with an­kle, knee and fin­ger in­juries in re­cent years that have di­min­ished his great­ness.

“It just takes a toll on you,” said Emanuel, who played briefly for the Lions in the 2001 sea­son. “It’s a wear and tear of the body and the mind. I think that’s where a lot of fans don’t un­der­stand. To be the best, which I think he’s one of the best, it’s a stress and a strain to play at that level for that long, be­ing the fea­tured guy that ev­ery­body’s go­ing to at­tack. It’s a phys­i­cal toll, and it’s a men­tal toll.”

Rashied Davis, John­son’s team­mate with the Lions in 2011 who re­cently served a coach­ing in­tern­ship with the Ari­zona Car­di­nals, said, “There’s def­i­nitely a pos­si­bil­ity” that early re­tire­ment be­comes more preva­lent as play­ers be­come more aware of the rig­ors of the game.

“He could be re­mem­bered like Barry San­ders, a great player, he just never had a good enough team around him kind-of thing,” Davis said of John­son. “Phe­nom­e­nal per­son. Hope­fully he doesn’t re­tire. I think he still has a lot left in the tank. But it’s a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion he’s got to make right now.”

There’s no way of telling how much the toll of los­ing has con­trib­uted to John­son’s plight, but not ev­ery­one thinks early re­tire­ment in the NFL is on its way to be­com­ing a trend.

Pey­ton Man­ning, who’ll quar­ter­back the Den­ver Bron­cos in the Su­per Bowl, is 39 years old and in his 18th NFL sea­son, and the Carolina Pan­thers’ top three re­ceivers are all 30 or older.

“Ev­ery­body’s unique,” Dal­las Cow­boys of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Scott Line­han said. “Ev­ery­body’s got their own thing, but I don’t think there’s any true trend. There’s still guys in this league play­ing well into their 30s. God will­ing, if you’re able to stay healthy in this league, I think th­ese guys, the com­peti­tors they are, you put money aside and all that stuff, I think they play as long as they pos­si­bly can.”

Lions de­fen­sive tackle Haloti Ngata, who turned 32 on Jan. 21, said play­ers “are more aware now of their body and how (foot­ball is) mak­ing it worse for them when” they get older.

“Guys are get­ting in­juries that you never thought could hap­pen and just fight­ing through it, and it kind of sucks,” Ngata said. “You kind of want to play, but it’s just tough. Com­ing home, your body is just beat up, and your fam­ily watches you, and you can’t carry your own kids some­times, so it makes it tough.”

Ngata said he un­der­stands why John­son is con­sid­er­ing re­tire­ment, though he’s not at that point with his own ca­reer just yet.

For that rea­son, he said he’ll have mixed emo­tions if John­son de­cides to re­tire.

“That would be a happy mo­ment,” Ngata said. “I think I’d be happy for him. He had a great ca­reer, one of the best to ever play re­ceiver. So it’s just, it is what it is. But I’d prob­a­bly be jeal­ous maybe, be­cause he can just be on a boat or some­thing.”

Bir­kett writes for the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TO­DAY NET­WORK.

 ?? RAJ ME­HTA, USA TO­DAY SPORTS ?? Lions wide re­ceiver Calvin John­son has 11,619 ca­reer re­ceiv­ing yards and 83 TDs in nine sea­sons.
RAJ ME­HTA, USA TO­DAY SPORTS Lions wide re­ceiver Calvin John­son has 11,619 ca­reer re­ceiv­ing yards and 83 TDs in nine sea­sons.

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