The NFL is a star-driven league. Fans gravitate toward recognizable names like Brady, Rodgers and Mahomes. They buy jerseys for guys like Fitzgerald, Hopkins and OBJ. The league is simply built and sustained on star players generating a giant market.
However, the landscape of the NFL game has changed rapidly. Players are more aware of the long-term dangers of playing the most violent sport in the world. Injuries are a part of the game, but they seem to be magnified in the age of social media. And with more knowledge about the damaging effects of concussions, NFL stars are retiring earlier than ever before. Considering the mental and physical tolls they expose themselves to, nobody can blame guys like Rob Gronkowski, Patrick Willis and Calvin Johnson for calling it quits before it’s too late.
Travis Frederick became the latest NFL star to retire before age 30
Travis Frederick became the latest NFL star to retire before the age of 30 on Monday. The standout center for the Dallas Cowboys missed the entire 2018 season after being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. And while he did return to the lineup last season, he acknowledged that his body wasn’t ever the same. His loss leaves behind a massive hole up front, but more importantly, it raises questions about whether NFL players should continue to subject themselves to such a violent, taxing game.
Besides Frederick, the number of in-their-prime players retiring early is certainly eye-opening. Andrew Luck abruptly ended his NFL career before the 2019 season even began. The former No. 1 overall pick and face of the Indianapolis Colts once looked like the next Peyton Manning. Yet, after enduring a long list of injuries, he walked away from the game.
When Patrick Willis shocked the NFL world with his retirement announcement on March 10, 2015, nobody quite knew how to take it. It turns out the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker was simply the first bonafide star to retire at an age where he still conceivably had plenty in the tank. As it turns out, NFL players and their bodies are much more damaged than we may think.
Luke Kuechly retirement brings up NFL concussion discussion
In January, another star linebacker made a shocking retirement announcement: Luke Kuechly. Considered to be the best at his position, the tackling machine earned five first-team All-Pro honors in just eight years in the NFL. Despite his prodigious statistics and importance to the Carolina Panthers, he made the tough decision to walk away.
Of course, concussions played a major factor in Kuechly’s decision to retire. The 28-year-old played with a reckless abandon and frenetic speed unmatched by his peers. At the same time, that fierce playing style resulted in two documented concussions, including a scary one in which he was seen visibly crying on the field.
With players bigger, faster and stronger than ever before, the collisions that take place on a football field are akin to small car accidents. Former San Fransisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired after just one NFL season specifically because of his long-term concerns about concussions. And despite many rule changes, there were actually more documented concussions in 2019 than the year prior.
Rob Gronkowski and Calvin Johnson were physical freaks who broke down
Concussions certainly rank among the most hotly debated topics when it comes to NFL injuries. But for other players, the very nature of being a physical freak can often lead to a painful ending. In the case of Rob Gronkowski, the 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end exposed himself to huge blows throughout his Patriots career. While he dominated his opponents when he was on the field, he endured so many injuries that prevented him from ever stepping on it.
In Gronkowski’s nine-year career, he played just 100 regular-season games. He also missed the Patriots’ 2016 Super Bowl run and dragged himself through the 2018 title run before retiring last offseason. From multiple forearm surgeries to an ACL reconstruction to a handful of back surgeries, Gronk’s body went through absolute carnage in his football career.
Calvin Johnson also played through painful injuries in his brief but dominant NFL career. Blessed with uncanny speed for a man of his size, the 6-foot-5, 237-pound receiver racked up 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns in just nine seasons. Yet, after recording his seventh 1,000-yard campaign, he retired from the NFL with his own list of injuries and health concerns.
NFL players are retiring before it’s too late. It doesn’t matter what position they played, or even how long they lasted in the league. Stars are starting to become more self-aware, and this new generation of athletes cares about tomorrow just as much as today. And in the case of stars like Kuechly, Gronkowski and Frederick, football is part of the past, not the future.