During my 11 years traveling with the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls representing the Daily Herald newspaper in suburban Chicago, I made national headlines a couple of times.
One of those occasions was when Jordan announced his retirement prior to the start of the 1993-94 season. There are numerous reasons he retired, but he said he was doing it because of the murder of his father James Jordan. Others said he was doing it because of the difficulties surrounding his gambling habits, but he was retiring from the game.
While everyone claimed that it was too early for him to go out, and prayed that he would come back (which he famously did), I took a different tack. I wrote a column celebrating his decision to retire at the top of his game, which so few athletes do. I congratulated him on his decision, and prayed that he would not come back and eventually embarrass himself by playing below the level of play we had grown accustomed to (which he unfortunately did).
I caught a huge amount of flak for writing that column.
I bring this up because when the free agency and trade period opened up for the National Football League the week of March 9, 2015, several NFL players announced their retirements, and most of those were retiring seemingly before they were done from a physical standpoint.
After eight seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, and just weeks after turning 30, talented linebacker Patrick Willis retired. He played in the Pro Bowl seven of his eight seasons. He suffered foot injuries in the 2014 season and played in only six games but he could have gone on, and made more money.
The league is begging for quality backup quarterback play, and teams were talking to veteran Jake Locker, who is only 26 years old and has only been in the league for four seasons. But he announced his retirement, ending his injury plagued career.
Jason Worilds, a linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers, is 27 years old and entering free agency. Instead, he announced his retirement, after a career that included 25 sacks and only one game missed in the last three seasons.
Players retiring in any pro sport before their playing days are over is very uncommon. The fact this is happening with this kind of frequency in the National Football League is a sign that players are financially comfortable and unwilling to give up future health for another payday.
Because of concussions and other bodily harm, NFL players are easy to recognize in their later years. They don’t stand straight, they don’t walk well, and too many of them today don’t track well psychologically. These players each enjoyed lucrative contracts, hopefully did right by themselves in terms of investments and spending, and don’t have to put themselves in harm’s way again.
The concussion issue is such a scary concept. Football players in particular do damage to their brain with almost every hit they take or deliver. The brain is not built to take that kind of punishment, and too many players have had their lives affected by the damage done.
Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who I covered for several years for United Press International while in Chicago, is an extreme case, but also someone who must be noticed for what football did to him mentally. But almost all former pro football players suffer physical damage that affects their lives in later years, and the really big guys almost all walk funny after a short while.
I applaud these players for retiring at a time when they could have gone on. It’s a shame that one of our favorite sports is going through this time of recognition, and it will suffer as a result. Our Saturdays and Sundays may be negatively affected someday.
But football is simply not as important as a functioning brain and fully operational body.