There was a time when long NFL careers mattered; when sticking around as long as it took to win multiple rings -- and make as much money as possible -- was the goal. That time's not completely over, but clearly more players are catching onto the idea that the money isn't everything.
Yesterday alone, three NFL players aged 30 and under -- former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis (30), former Titans QB Jake Locker (26) and former Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds (27) retired.
What's it mean? Armed with more information about the lasting physical effects of an NFL career, younger players may care more about their long-term well-being than ever. Concussions and other chronic injuries have them thinking they'll take their millions and walk away able-bodied and with their brains still intact rather than staying in the game as long as possible. What used to look like long bread from football is looking more and more like short money. Guys are essentially telling NFL owners, "#EffYoCheck."
Worilds was polite on Twitter, but the message was there:
I appreciate all of the interest from the organizations that have reached out to us the past few days.— Jason Worilds (@WorildsGreatest) March 11, 2015
With that being said, after much thought & consideration I have chosen to step away from football as I have opted to pursue other interests.— Jason Worilds (@WorildsGreatest) March 11, 2015
Whatever his other interests are, they were more attractive than the estimated $15 million guaranteed that Worilds stood to make by signing a contract in free agency. Not hard to believe that having a healthy brain at 40 is at the top of that list. Hear that, NFL owners? #EffYoCheck.
Locker was the eighth overall pick four years ago but has been hurt his whole career. Rather than risk more injuries trying to keep from being viewed as a bust, he took the money and walked away, while he could still walk. #EffYoCheck.
Willis, the anchor of the 49er defense, made it plain:
"If I don't have what I know I need to give my teammates best chance to win then I can't sit on the sideline collecting paycheck," he said in a press conference. Translation: my body is over this. #EffYoCheck.
#EffYoCheck isn't yet a full fledged movement but it is the kind of slow trickle that given the right cracks, becomes a full-fledged leak. Two years ago, former Bronco John Moffit walked away from a $1 million check, because: why not?
Former Steelers' and Cardinals' tailback Rashard Mendenhall quit the game last year, at age 26, in the prime of a pretty impressive career. He explained his decision on The Huffington Post:
So when they ask me why I want to leave the NFL at the age of 26, I tell them that I've greatly enjoyed my time, but I no longer wish to put my body at risk for the sake of entertainment. I think about the rest of my life and I want to live it with much quality. And physically, I am grateful that I can walk away feeling as good as I did when I stepped into it.
These guys are the beginning. The real problem comes when younger guys, those yet to even reach prep school, start sideeyeing football as a viable way to make a fortune with their bodies. Remember: boxing's heavyweight champ was once the most celebrated athlete in the country. Then guys started understanding that punch-drunkenness was more than a thing.
NFL owners probably ain't trippin' over guys walking away from million-dollar paydays. Not yet. For now, everyone who retires is easily replaced. But If they're smart, they should be at least a little worried about the money won't be able to give away in the future.