A warm Floridian breeze makes its way amongst the festivities of Sun Life Stadium, gently maneuvering amongst the players and coaches as they nonchalantly discuss the game plan of the impending Pro Bowl.
There is an infectious laughter breaking out amid the route running and scheme planning; a far cry from the stern atmosphere that rules most NFL practice fields. Pads lay ignored on the sidelines—there will be no contact today.
Bruised and exhausted, the players are taking this opportunity to rest their weary bodies, all the while enjoying the perks that come with being selected as one of the league’s premier players.
There is no yelling, no commotion, no intensity. The scene is tranquil and serene, not one you’d expect amidst some of the world’s most ferocious and intimidating athletes. All is right with the world.
And then, it happens.
The doors leading from the field to the locker room swing open, unleashing a storm of buzz and excitement throughout the euphoric setting. All eyes become fixated upon the three bodies that emerge from the darkness, some being rubbed and squinted out of disbelief.
Whispers turn into shouts, and both players and the media clamor for a closer look.
All activities come to an abrupt halt, and the crowd encloses around the three men. The sideline becomes a makeshift media room, soon emblazoned with microphones and cameras. Every pupil gazes upon the visitors, every ear perked to catch something, anything, that might be said.
The first man, a grizzled, grey-haired veteran, who is sporting his trademark five o’clock shadow, limps gingerly to the head of the trio. He walks with a noticeable limp, his face still bruised, and his arm hanging almost lifelessly at his side—all effects from the hellacious beating he took just a few days earlier.
The second man, a spike-haired gentleman with a strong jaw and enviable good looks, follows closely. His limp isn’t as noticeable, his body not as hunched—he’s had more time to heal his wounds. He walks with a bit more confidence, a small smile fixed upon his face. His shoulders do not bear the same weight as the first man’s.
The third fellow is dark, handsome, and much younger than the first two. Sporting a thick goatee, he stands out amongst the three. His appearance is perhaps the most shocking, as many were left wondering when he hadn’t shown up for practice earlier in the day.
His feet seem to drag, weighed down by some invisible force. Reluctant, he joins the others in the heart of the mayhem.
They wait. The fuss continues until a hush is ordered over the crowd by some of the players who have joined the mass. As the silence comes, the first man looks out onto the sea of faces, his own still slightly swollen.
His eyes appear to be red and wet, the result of a private conversation amongst the three visitors. He clears his throat and, choosing his words wisely, begins to speak in his southern drawl.
The scene strikes many as déjà vu. The man speaks slowly, softly, trying to fight back both the tears and the breaks in his voice. He speaks of his time as a player, his accomplishments, his dreams fulfilled.
He can no longer stand the sensation, succumbing to the tears. They flow freely now as he speaks of the fans, his fans, that have supported him along the way. The same fans who have become weary of this scene, regarding the emotions as “crocodile tears” and rolling their eyes to signify how they have become numb to the broken record.
But there is change in his voice this time, a feeling of finality that ripples throughout the stadium, piercing each and every person that clings to his every word. He speaks of his desire to play, the exuberance he feels upon waking on game days, but how his body, now in its fourth decade, can no longer sustain the beatings.
He couldn’t move on Monday, he says, and he describes how his entire body ached even as he spent the day in bed. You can see the longing in his eyes, his yearning for another shot at the Super Bowl. He was so close—so close—but his body deprives him of it.
It is time to go, he admits, hoping, longing for somebody to tell him otherwise. Nobody does. He speaks of his abilities, ones that have rewritten countless records, and how he regrets that many will remember him for only his final play. How wrong he is.
Despite the outcry, despite the stern façade many former fans wear, there is no denying his legacy. He shouldered an entire team, an entire fanbase, an entire city, for nearly two decades.
The hostility will be short term, as fans and colleagues recall his career nostalgically, and realize just how vital he was to the game. For now though, he must endure the remarks and cynicism mixed with the well-wishes and gratitude. It’s to be expected.
The man tips his battered, worn out cap, a perfect parallel of the being it sits upon, and thanks everybody for all of the wonderful memories, not realizing it is them who should be thanking him.
The second man emerges, clasping the first on the shoulder and embracing him in a hug, his sentiment evidently genuine. The crowd longs to do the same, but they resist.
Finally, the first man takes a step back, allowing his friend to come into focus. His eyes are misty, but his bright smile draws the attention away from them. He looks around, soaking in all of the friendly faces he’s encountered over his tenure in the league. His smile grows as he comes upon a tall, dreadlocked onlooker.
This man has been his partner for the past two seasons, and their tandem has become one of envy, but their friendship dwarfs it in comparison.
He begins to speak, not knowing exactly what the wants to say, but knowing that the message will come. He recalls his miraculous story, one told and retold countless times throughout the country, about his humble beginnings and his unbelievable transition from a nobody grocery bagger to a league MVP and Super Bowl champion.
Divine intervention, he calls it. Who’s to argue? This man believes that a higher power has been at work all along, devoting his life to what he believes to be his true calling. That calling has changed, he says, and he truly believes it.
He speaks of how he was waiting for a sign to know that it was time for this decision, something to reinforce what he knew all along in his gut. Nobody has to think twice—they all know what’s coming next. The brutal hit that nearly knocked him out of his final game; that was his sign. It was divine intervention, yet again.
No matter, he’s accomplished more than he could have possibly dreamt of. He recollects on his career, his journey that helped him salvage two struggling, hungry franchises. His mark has been left, his imprint cemented. There is nothing left for him here, although they all know he’s still capable of accomplishing great things in the league.
He’s choosing to go out on His terms, not anyone else’s. He does not cry, he does not break down. Instead, he smiles. He smiles bigger and brighter than anyone on the field. The sun hits his face, and he is at peace.
The third man hesitates. He has listened to the first two, retaining all that they had to say, and envisioning all he wanted to convey. But the message doesn’t come. It’s too soon, he thinks. The first two men are nearly a decade his elder. He doesn’t belong here—not yet.
There’s so much more he wants to accomplish, so much more he wants to achieve. But the pain, it strikes him suddenly. He reaches for his neck, instinctively. It’s been like this for years, only now it is beginning to affect his everyday life. It hasn’t stopped him before, he thinks, so why should it now?
But then he remembers. The doctors have told him what could happen, the repercussions his actions could bring. Not me, he was convinced, it won’t be me. But it has been him, and it’s only getting worse. He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and begins to speak.
The words come much easier than he ever could have imagined, but so do the tears. He can’t remember the last time he cried, but it only seems natural. He speaks of his time on the field, the relationships he’s formed, the bonds he has. He speaks of his dominance.
He isn’t cocky, nor arrogant, but instead admitting. He confesses to what we all believed, but he would never say—that he was one of the best. He’s sorry, he says, that his time is so short. He’s sorry he wasn’t able to attain a championship, something he wanted more than anything in the world, the one thing that could make him endanger his health.
It’s for the best, he tells the crowd, trying more to convince himself than anyone else. His eyes stay diverted from the rest, trying to maintain his composure. He is failing, which is something he isn’t used to.
His words become slurred, unintelligible. He no longer knows what he is saying. The second man embraces him, attempting to absorb his pain and his grief, absolving him of all his guilt. The first man joins in, as do the rest of the players who have watched so stoically.
The media members fall back, acknowledging the magnitude of the situation, allowing the brotherhood to embrace and comfort their own. Only they can know the weight of these decisions, the anguish and torment that will undoubtedly shadow these men come the following autumn. But there is no doubt that they meant every word they said.
The sun begins to set as dusk encompasses the field. There has been no whistles, no action, since the three men spoke. Instead, they have fielded question, both from the media and their fellow players.
But the informal session has seen the likes of grown men sprawled out on the grass like children, listening to the three men tell tales so enthralling...the likes of which Paul Bunyan wouldn’t believe.
But they are all true, all stories these men have lived, all experiences they have shared with a captivated audience on a national stage. From humble beginnings to legendary careers, these men have all experienced an unfathomable amount of fame and good fortune, and we are all the better for it.
But the time has come for them to go, as a train whistles softly out in the distance signaling the end of their remarkable journey. They stand, acknowledging each other and grasping for those few final moments that remain for them before they must go their separate ways, agreeing to meet once more someday down the road in Canton.