It’s hard not to get caught up in the madness of the dollars, millions of them that will make a pro athlete’s financial dreams come to life. Who can dispute that cornerback Darrelle Revis, lineman Ndamukong Suh, running backs DeMarco Murray and Frank Gore, and tight end Jimmy Graham have ensured they roll into old age with fat bank accounts?
But as NFL free agency bumped college basketball aside this week to grab the public’s attention, the league made news in a more bittersweet sort of way: some of their stars decided to hang up their shoulder pads.
Patrick Willis, Jason Worilds, Jake Locker, Maurice Jones-Drew, all with more left to give the game, walked away before they had to limp away.
“I pay attention to guys when they're finished playing, walking around like they've got no hips and they can't play with their kids,” said Willis, one of the finest linebackers of his era, in a CNN article. “They can barely walk."
"People see that and they feel sorry, but they don't realize it's because he played a few extra years."
He’s right. Football fans have seen too many of their heroes play one down too many and end up broken-down men. They gave more of themselves to the game than the game gave them.
Talk all we want about the money — and each of them left millions on the table with their retirements — but the money can’t bring a broken body back to what it used to be.
That’s the reason I applaud them. That’s the reason I applauded Derrick Rose last month when he told NBA fans, much to the dismay of some self-righteous critics, that he’d prefer good health to risking it over the temporary euphoria of a title and a champion’s ring.
But no one wanted to listen to what Rose had to say. No one wants to listen to what Willis said or what Worilds said or what Locker said. People just wanted each of them to keeping playing the game, to make one more contribution to the team they play for.
None of those people have to wake up in the morning with aches that won’t go away even with painkillers. None of those people have canes to help them limp to the front door to answer the doorbell.
“Nobody wants to be handicapped when they're in their 40s,” retired NFL star Champ Bailey said in a recent USA Today article. “That definitely plays a role. I think the fact that we've seen a lot of older players go through that, it's a little scary now."
We’ve lived vicariously through the exploits of those older players. We’ve rooted for them, reveled in these great moments, so perhaps it isn’t surprising we want those moments of glory to last awhile longer.
We have no right to ask an athlete for more than he’s capable of giving us. What men like Willis, Worilds and Rose owe us is to perform at their best whenever they take the playing field. That’s all we can demand of them; that’s all they can demand of themselves.
When they can’t give us their best, they owe us their retirement. They ought to spare us from seeing them limp into the sunset, trying to squeeze one more paycheck out of their bodies, leaving their fans a memory of failure and not of glory.
We have warm memories of all of these men. No one had to drag them off the field. They left on their own accord, which is what a real hero should do.
They shouldn’t do it for us; they should do it for themselves and for the people whose lives mesh with theirs: their wife, their children, their brothers, their sisters, their mother, their father, their cousins, their friends.
It’s their time to enjoy their lives in private, just as they allowed us to enjoy their lives in public.
“It’s my health first,” Willis said.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photos from left: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez/ File, Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)