USA TODAY Sports Weekly
RETIREMENT NO LONGER UNCOMMON
More players choosing to end playing career on their own terms
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.