Early NFL retirements raise questions

Feature photo courtesy of Jeffrey Beall.

The NFL won’t admit it, but it has to be worried.

Within the past three months, five NFL players age 30 or younger have hung up their cleats.

It’s the offseason, and plenty of players not willing to succumb to another grueling year of hits and tackles retire between March and June.

But this year, there’s been a different vibe to the departures, centered on a desire for a healthy life after their playing days were over – something a continued NFL career couldn’t promise.

Within a span of 24 hours in early March, three players age 30 or under – quarterback Jake Locker, 26, and linebackers Patrick Willis, 30, and Jason Worilds, 27 – all walked away from the game.

Locker, a former No. 8 overall pick of the Tennessee Titans, dealt with injuries throughout his four-year stint, but he was one of the top signal callers in the position’s depleted free-agent market when he called it quits March 10.

In a statement, he cited the desire to spend more time with his family and pursue other interests because he, “no longer [had] the burning desire necessary to play the game for a living.”

Willis’ retirement was a bit less of a surprise, as he dealt with a toe injury throughout the 2014 season. Still, the eight-year veteran headed the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive unit as one of the best at his position.

“For me, there’s more to my life than football,” Willis said in the wake of his decision. “It has provided an amazing platform for me to build on, but it’s my health first and everything else just kind of makes sense around it.”

To cap off that span, there was Worilds, entering free agency with the opportunity to cash in on a flashy contract in the prime of his career, before he decided to reportedly become more involved in his Jehovah’s Witness religion. He had accumulated 15.5 sacks in the past two seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The NFL seemed like it could handle that spurt. Those players’ reasoning centered on personal decisions and general health. Plus, they had put in at least four seasons in the league, a feat outlasting the league’s 3.3-year average career length, according to the NFL Player’s Association.

Chris Borland’s decision to stop playing, however, shook most people associated with the game.

The 24-year-old announced his decision to retire from his career as an NFL player about a week after the initial early departures began.

As a rookie third-round pick with the 49ers in 2014, Borland started eight contests and amassed 107 tackles, one sack and two interceptions over 14 games. He was pegged as Willis’ replacement.

He cited to ESPN’s Outside the Lines a fear of concussion repercussions after suffering one in last year’s training camp, yet playing through it so as not to affect his chances of making the roster. His extensive research and investigation into the effects and consequences of head trauma led him to retire after one season, despite the bright outlook on his football career.

Fervent debate over the future of the game ensued. The league can’t prosper if there’s no one to play the games. But the talk died down as the league’s calendar turned from free agency to the draft to offseason workouts.

Now is the time to sound the alarms, though. Eight months after 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis suffered his first concussion, the 25-year-old starter left the game on June 5. At least temporarily.

Davis announced his choice to step away from football for a year or two to allow his body and his brain “a chance to heal.”

Since being drafted by the 49ers as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2010 draft, Davis played in all 16 games in his first four seasons with the team before missing eight with his injuries this past year. Now, he’s on an apparent sabbatical from the game, and his timetable for a return is unknown.

Cue the panic in New York.

The first three announcements coming in such a short span generated the buzz and discussion around early retirement this offseason. The defections of Borland and Davis signaled a sustained pattern of injury, specifically concussion, concerns across the league.

A culture shift has taken root in the NFL. Players are taught to plan for a future life after their playing days are over. That future doesn’t matter, though, if their brains are injured.

The NFL has reason to be worried. If more players catch wind of the trend and start doing their own research on head trauma, they’ll find a storied history and legal saga regarding concussions between the league and former players.

Maybe the movement has already started. Third-year 49ers safety Eric Reid reportedly admitted he’s weighed the costs of playing with the option of retirement.

Yet maybe this is just an anomaly of an offseason, where the players concerned about their health are weeded out, and the rest of the league continues on per usual, raking in money and catering around-the-calendar coverage to its widespread, ardent fanbase.

But there’s a distinct aura surrounding these withdrawals. The players are young, in the primes of their careers. And they were brought into the NFL amid a swirling debate about head injuries.

They’re the ones that paid attention to those headlines. Now the NFL has to deal with new ones.

Callie Caplan
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Callie Caplan

Senior Staff Writer at The Left Bench
Callie is a journalism major at the University of Maryland in the Class of 2017. She's a sports beat writer at The Diamondback for the Terps gymnastics and women's lacrosse teams and a former ESPN 980 Radio intern. She loves Baltimore sports, the NFL, Maryland and rainbow goldfish - in that order.
Callie Caplan
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About Callie Caplan 62 Articles
Callie is a journalism major at the University of Maryland in the Class of 2017. She's a sports beat writer at The Diamondback for the Terps gymnastics and women's lacrosse teams and a former ESPN 980 Radio intern. She loves Baltimore sports, the NFL, Maryland and rainbow goldfish - in that order.