Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Leaving, with seemly haste

The feets were failing him now. That was the word out of San Francisco yesterday as Patrick Willis, a seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker, looked at the rest of his life through a blur of tears and announced he could see no football in it.

This happens all the time to old football players, of course. And so it hardly bears mentioning except for one rather hefty detail.

Patrick Willis isn't an old football player.

Neither is Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds, who also announced his retirement yesterday. Ditto Titans quarterback Jake Locker, who decided he'd had enough, too.

None of them is 30 years old yet.

Willis is 29, Worilds 27 and Locker 26. But the game has become so brutal, and has exacted such a toll, that none of them could see a point to continuing with it, no matter how hardwired into their DNA it had been since they were children dreaming their dreams in the backyard.

None of them said as much, of course, but they didn't have to. Willis' ravaged size-13 feet spoke quite eloquently enough for him. Locker's medical history -- 34 missed games in four seasons because of dislocated shoulders and Lisfranc injuries and various sprained joints -- did the same. And merely the fact that Worilds was stepping away at 27 after two seasons in which he'd recorded 15.5 sacks thundered volumes without Worilds having to utter a word.

To wit: This ain't worth it. Not even for the elites.

This wasn't, after all, three bench jockeys walking away. Willis was the 11th pick in the draft in 2007 and only the third player in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first seven seasons. Locker went eighth overall in the 2011 draft. And Worilds was a second-round pick in 2010 who started every game for the Steelers last year and tied for the team lead in sacks with 7.5.

In other words, he was just coming into his prime. And yet he's through with it.

You're always wary of cold-jumping a thing and calling it a trend, but if it is, it's not one the NFL can be very enthused about. Though none of the three players said as much, you have to wonder how much their early leave-taking was an indictment of the NFL's culture of denial that playing the game was essentially a forfeiture of your life, or at least a good chunk of it. No one talked about concussions or CTE, but they didn't have to. The headlines have done enough talking.

You open a newspaper or go on a website and see another story about another former NFL player blowing his brains out in his 50s or, at an even younger age, talk about all the things he can't remember anymore, it adds up. Even if you don't do so consciously, in some recess of your mind the notion takes seed that maybe this game you used to love so much isn't worth the candle anymore.

Sure, Willis blamed his early exit on his feet, not his head. And Locker's exit might have had less to do with his battered body than with a head coach pining for a quarterback with a different skill set.

But players have been marginalized by regime changes before, and they didn't haul off and quit the game. They just forced a trade and went somewhere else.

So you wonder. And while you wonder, you think about an old saying, and how it carries an entirely  unbidden sting these days.

"NFL," the saying goes, doesn't stand for "National Football League." It stands for "Not For Long."

Yeah. No kidding.      

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