I’ve been reading a lot of banter–and a lot of nastiness–about NFL running back Rashard Mendenhall who, at the age of 26, surprised just about anyone who gives a damn about football by announcing his retirement rather than seek a new free agent contract. I don’t get it. The hate, I mean.
I respect the guy for opting out rather than signing another contract and half-assing it until he got cut, a strategy he could have used to reel in another substantial signing bonus–he certainly wouldn’t be the first NFL player to cash in and clock out, nor would he be the last. It’s not easy to walk away from a million dollars, and he would have got more. It’s more difficult still to cut the cord on the ego-boosting that comes along with being a famous athlete, but if what he writes in his impressive explanatory letter in the Huffington Post is true, that was never a big deal for Mendenhall.
This scenario reminds reminds me of another former Steeler: Barry Foster, a hard-hitting pro-bowl quality running back who quit at the pinnacle of his carreer to go bass fishing when he realized he just didn’t feel it anymore. In a game of inches, where the difference between the great and the mediocre is a razor-thin line made mostly of confidence and commitment, if the will isn’t there, the player is going to fail, hurt his team and probably hurt himself physically in the process.
I think of it this way–at 47, if I was offered a choice between the fame and glory of an NFL career, with all the attendant risks and responsibilities, or $10 million in the bank and a lifetime to do what I want, go where I want, and be myself away from the glare of the media spotlight, I’d take the later. At 26, I don’t think I’d have made the same choice–Mendenhall made a mature choice–he owes nothing to anyone. He played out his last contract; the slate is clear. If I’m him, I’m already gone–a babe on my arm on a slow boat to Bora Bora.