NFL

A Heart Problem Forced Nick Fairley to Retire After He Signed a $30 Million Contract

Everything was going Nick Fairley’s way after the 2016 season ended.

A former star at Auburn and the defensive yin to Cam Newton’s yang, Fairley signed an extension with the New Orleans Saints. Fairley was in the prime of his career and bright days were ahead for him and the Saints.

Then, just months after he signed the new contract, Fairley learned he would never play in the NFL again. This is his story.

Nick Fairley was a standout defender at Auburn

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A 6-foot-4, 308-pound defensive lineman from Mobile, Ala., Nick Fairley originally committed to Auburn in high school. Academic issues, though, forced him to the junior college ranks for two seasons.

Fairley got his chance at Auburn in 2009. He had 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in 13 games, two of which were starts. Fairley joined the starting lineup in 2010 and took full advantage of the increased playing time.

The imposing defensive tackle totaled 24 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and an interception as Auburn won the BCS National Championship Game.

Fairley won the Lombardi Award, which is usually given to the best defensive player in college football.

The Detroit Lions used the 13th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft on Fairley. The duo of Fairley and Ndamukong Suh, the team’s first-round pick in 2010, looked to usher in a new era for the Lions.

Fairley had a breakout season in 2016

Nick Fairley had to retire from a heart problem right after he signed a $30 million contract with the New Orleans Saints.
Nick Fairley had to retire from a heart problem right after he signed a $30 million contract with the New Orleans Saints. | Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

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When Nick Fairley was healthy, he was an extremely productive defensive lineman for the Lions.

He racked up 13.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and 25 tackles for loss in four seasons. Fairley totaled 11.5 of those sacks between the 2012 and 2013 seasons alongside Suh.

Fairley played in only 46 of a possible 64 games, though, and the Lions let him walk after the 2014 season.

Although Fairley had 29 tackles in 15 games for the Rams in 2015, he only had half a sack and one tackle for loss. The New Orleans Saints signed Fairley to a one-year deal in 2016 and suddenly, everything came together for the veteran defensive tackle.

Fairley registered a career-high 6.5 sacks and 22 quarterback hits. He added nine tackles for loss in 16 starts for Sean Payton’s Saints, who missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

Nick Fairley’s career ended months after he signed a new contract

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When Nick Fairley attended the 2011 NFL combine, doctors diagnosed him with an enlarged heart.

Fairley always passed his physicals, though, and even signed a four-year contract worth between $28 million and $30 million (including an $8 million signing bonus) with the Saints in March 2017.

Then came 2017, when Fairley consulted with multiple doctors about his heart. The Saints placed him on the reserve/non-football injury list that June and released him after the 2017 season ended.

The Saints later received a $3 million cap credit, according to the Associated Press.

Nick Fairley hasn’t played since 2016. He turned 32 on January 23 and his career may be over.