Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
Last week, nearly two decades after his death, straight-talking Giants front-office boss George Young finally got elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It seemed only fitting for a guy who took the long view on everything.
Back when most teams asked potential draft picks just a handful of questions, Giants prospects were handed a survey requiring 380 multiple-choice answers.
“We don’t like to draft a guy who’s too smart,” Young explained, “because he could do something else with his life besides play this silly game.”
Over the last 10 months, a trio of under-30 NFL stars proved Young right. They decided the game that made them rich and famous was also too violent and started looking for “something else.” Whether that’s coincidence or the start of a worrisome trend remains to be seen.
The most recent player to announce his retirement was former Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, 28, and still one of the best in the game. He joined former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who was booed briefly, and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who’s taken up Sudoku and fasting, by heading to the sideline during what looked like their athletic primes.
All three, though, were dealing with nagging injuries and chronic pain and facing more of the same if they endured a lengthy rehab. None mentioned concussions specifically, but science has shown brain damage to be as nearly likely an occupational hazard of playing in the NFL as a busted-up knee or shoulder. Though their reasons for leaving differed, they all decided to exit gracefully while that was still an option, prioritizing long-term health over current earning power. Besides — did I mention? — they banked enough paychecks to be set for life.
“I still want to play,” Kuechly said in his video announcement, “but I don’t think it’s the right decision.”
He’s right. Life in the NFL is short enough as it is: The average age is 26, the average career lasts three seasons.
But stars like Kuechly, Luck and Gronk, by definition, need a longer shelf life. They don’t emerge out of whole cloth. They need time and teaching to develop, then dominate, and by the end — smarter but busted-up — just to hang onto their jobs. Replacing the guys who make the game go, let alone their supporting cast of thousands, was never easy. And the math looks more challenging by the day.
Leery parents and sky-high insurance costs have already put a crimp in the youth football pipeline. The number of kids playing at the high school level— even in traditional “feeder” states like Texas and Ohio — dropped more than 10 percent in the last decade.
Five years ago, the retirement of perennial All-Pro 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis just past his 30th birthday registered as a mild shock. Within days, 24-year-old rookie Chris Borland, who took over for an injured Willis and won both rookie- and defensive-player-of the-week awards during that stint, announced his even more surprising retirement.
An ankle injury forced Borland out of the lineup in December of the previous season. But what really worried him were the lingering effects of a concussion he suffered in training camp and largely ignored in a bid to make the team as a third-round pick.
“I just thought to myself, ‘What am I doing?’” Borland said. “’Is this how I’m going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I’ve learned and knew about the dangers?’”
With that frank admission, Borland forfeited about $463,000, or 75 percent, of the signing bonus from his four-year rookie deal. In one sense, though Borland got off easy. The following season, when Lions wide receiver Calvin “Megatron” Johnson made retirement a 30th birthday present to himself, he was forced to repay $1 million of his signing bonus.
Pro football will always be a young man’s game. Scan the rosters of the Super Bowl contenders and draw a line through players age 30 and over and each loses only a handful of players (kickers don’t count).
On the 49ers side, they would include All-Pro defensive back Richard Sherman, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tackle Joe Staley, 35, the only player on the active roster left from San Francisco’s salad days nearly a decade ago.
The Chiefs would be hit a little harder: Patrick Mahomes’ backups are Matt Moore, 35, and Chad Henne, 34; All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce is 30, running back LaSean McCoy is 31 and defensive end Terrell Suggs is a grizzled 37.
Not long ago, a reporter mentioned Willis’ retirement to Fred Warner, a rising star in the 49ers linebacking corps after just two seasons, how he saw his own career playing out. Wisely, Warner didn't go there.
"I think when you're young, you think you're going to play forever, right? That's the dream — to play in the NFL, and you think you're going to play 20 years,” Warner said. “But when you're in it, you know, it's a violent game at the end of the day, and so you take a lot of — your body takes a lot of toll on it. …
“I don't try and think too far ahead,” he said finally, “because your career could be over in a matter of seconds. I just take it one day at a time."