Rashard Mendenhall Early Retirement Is a Smart Plan for Current, Future Players

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterMarch 10, 2014

USA Today

I suddenly wish I was Rashard Mendenhall. I bet I’m not the only one.

I sometimes find myself sitting around when I should be working, dreaming about what life would be like if I was able to make tens of millions of dollars in a ridiculously short amount of time.

Mendenhall, now a former NFL running back after announcing in a Huffington Post article that he is retiring from football, has decided to give up his career to live that dream. My dream. Well, presumably his dream too.

I honestly find it hard to understand how multimillionaires and billionaires find the motivation to go to work every day when there is very little incentive other than adding a few more bitcoins to their Scrooge McDuck-sized vaults. 

It’s not that I don’t love what I do for a living—I get to make jokes about bitcoins and ‘80s cartoons before I even get to my first real point—but if I made around $15 million over six years and saw a future of incredibly difficult work and an extraordinarily high probability of physical injury, I’d start daydreaming again and never, ever stop.

Of course, the issue for the NFL is not worrying about sports writers daydreaming they are recently retired running backs. It’s about current running backs—as well as quarterbacks, linebackers and every player on the field—daydreaming about being recently retired as well. From 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.

Will this be the new trend in the NFL? Mendenhall touched on his injury issues a few times in his article, but it wasn’t as much of the focus as I expected it to be. Had he decided to walk away from the game because of all the dangers of head injuries or because he wasn’t sure he would be able to walk again if his knee gave out one more time, nobody in their right mind would question his decision.

Mendenhall didn’t quit because of that, really. He quit because other things are more important to him. Moreover, he didn’t want to be famous anymore. He just wants to be left alone.

"I've always been a professional," he wrote. "But I am not an entertainer. I never have been. Playing that role was never easy for me."

This is fascinating. Most professional athletes have been conditioned from a very young age to care about little other than becoming the absolute best at their craft. There’s a hunger—a drive—in most professional athletes that compels them to keep going as long as they are physically able to perform. Players constantly hang on too long, some for a fleeting chance at a storybook ending, some because they need the money and some because, frankly, they don’t know what else to do with their lives.

Mendenhall seems to have that last part figured out, and he has earned more money in his short career than most of us will see in several lifetimes. He’s no longer driven to prove he’s the best, if he ever was. Football was a job, a means to an insanely lucrative end. It’s just the end came sooner than most of us expected.

This is understandably hard for some people to see. We are lifetime supporters of our teams. Many of us would give anything for one chance at a career in professional sports. Someone is willing to give all that up? Voluntarily?

If there is money to be earned, why would someone not do everything they can to earn it? Who gives up that much money when he still has years left on his body?

Barry Sanders, for one. We thought Sanders quit the game too early when he suddenly retired at age 30 after playing 10 years for the Detroit Lions.

Sanders rushed for more than 2,000 yards in 1997, the same year he inked a record-setting NFL contract that made him the highest paid player in the league. He reportedly signed a five-year deal in the summer before his penultimate season worth more than $34.5 million, including an $11 million signing bonus.

DUANE BURLESON/Associated Press

After the next season, Sanders was gone. He left tens of millions of dollars on the table. He just disappeared.

Players have retired earlier than expected since Sanders left the NFL, but no one nearly as high profile as him. Last October, Ray Lewis publicly suggested that Adrian Peterson might (read: should) think about pulling a Sanders and getting out while he can still walk.

Peterson thinks he can break Emmitt Smith’s all-time rushing record. But after seven seasons and an incredible 10,115 yards on the ground, Peterson is still more than 8,000 yards away from the record.

"For who? For what?"

Sorry, that line came from another NFC East running back. It was from Ricky Watters, who famously said that quote after alligator arming a ball across the middle in his first game with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1995.

Back then, fans all over Philly pilloried (read: booed) Watters for his lack of heart. Today, he might be lauded for his honesty and self-awareness.

I mean seriously, for who is it worth it to take a physical beating game after game and year after year to the point where you can’t even walk when you retire?

For what is it worth risking serious injury to your brain that could cause irreparable damage?

It used to be that players would do whatever they could to stay in professional sports as long as possible. Jim Brown left the NFL after nine seasons and there was a general sense of surprise, not that he would depart after nearly a decade, but that he chose to leave when he was still at the top of his game.

That just doesn’t happen in sports. It didn’t happen back then and it really doesn’t happen now, even at a time—unlike when Brown was playing—where players don’t need to keep playing to earn a decent living.

This is probably going to change. Mendenhall may be on the front end of a trend.

Associated Press

Brown walked away from $60,000 per year at the end of his career, which in 1966 would be the equivalent of around $484,000 today. The current NFL league minimum for a player with one year of service is $450,000.

A player with seven to nine years of service is guaranteed at least $810,000 per season. (The salary cap for 2014, by the way, will be $133 million per team.)

By the time an incoming player gets to his second contract, he will be set for life. Riley Cooper, who, seven months ago, was scared he could be out of a job, caught 47 passes this season and inked a five-year deal worth $25 million.

Granted, NFL contracts are not guaranteed, so the likelihood of Cooper seeing all that money is slim, but even a quarter of that contract would be enough to live a very comfortable life.

Mendenhall realized that. Others probably will too.

This isn’t necessarily an attempt to suggest Mendenhall’s announcement is going to open the floodgates for current NFL players to follow his lead, but it may give young players in college and high school a slightly different perspective on what may be an incredibly lucrative career path.

Work hard to make the NFL. If you are lucky enough to get drafted, bust your hump for three seasons to get a second contract. Play two or three years of that second contract, collect millions upon millions of dollars and retire before you are 30 years old to have an amazing life.

It’s a sensible plan—at least as sensible as signing up for all the pain and bodily harm an NFL player puts himself through—and it could be something future players look toward as a viable career path.

How much money do you really need that it’s worth playing 10 years in the NFL anymore? For who? For what?

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 22:  Running back Rashard Mendenhall #28 of the Arizona Cardinals rushes against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on December 22, 2013 in Seattle, Washington. The Cardinals defeated the Seahawks 17-10.  (Photo by Otto Greul
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Sure, there will always be players wired like Peyton Manning or Peterson who have dedicated their entire existence to being the best. For some, there is nothing else but football, and being the best of all time is more important than other things in life.

That’s a noble choice too. It really is. If a player signs up to play in the NFL with the intention of being the best to ever play, that’s amazing. But if a player signs up to cash in, make a name for himself and get out before he loses the ability to walk or talk, who are we to judge?

Really, any reasonable person among us would do that. If you have a hobby, like to travel, enjoy dance and art and literature like Mendenhall enjoys, why kill yourself—literally speaking—when you can make enough money in three or four years to be happy for the rest of your life?

So yes, today, I wish I was like Mendenhall. For now, I’ll go back to daydreaming. I was just imagining what life might be like if I could convince an NFL running back to let me borrow his ATM card.


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