The Cost of an NFL Career: Former Players Discuss the Early Retirement Trend

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistMarch 24, 2015

USA Today

There are not many footprints on the path Chris Borland has chosen to walk. His approach to the NFL, and life after it, represents a way of thinking that is very different from the thinking of most of his football forefathers. 

Fifty years ago, or even 10 years ago, promising players considered the NFL a destination—not a rest stop on life's highway. They did all they could to extend their shelf life. They didn't consider shortening it, as Borland has, retiring after a standout rookie season with the 49ers.

But as time—and eras—have passed, so too have perspectives on the role football should play in a player's life.

Dave Robinson will be driving in his Akron, Ohio, neighborhood, just a few miles from home, and suddenly it's like he's in a fog. He isn't sure where he is. He needs to find a familiar major thoroughfare to get his bearings.

He'll be in the midst of conversation and lose his train of thought. He apologizes, explains he gets forgetful and asks what he was talking about.

"I have some short-term and long-term memory issues," he said. "Nothing major. I talked with the doctor about it. He told me it's either the beginning of dementia or the beginning of senility."

The 73-year-old former Packers and Redskins linebacker has seen former teammates begin a rapid mental decline at about the age of 75, and he is concerned over his future and what could happen to his cognitive abilities. But not fearful.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

"If it happens, it happens," he said. "I'm prepared. I've talked to my son [Dave] about it. I told him what to do: 'If you have to put me away, you have my permission. At the time, I won't know the difference anyway. Just make sure you check the place out before you put me in, and make sure there are some nice looking old ladies in there.' "

Considering Robinson played in 155 games over 12 seasons, he knows it could be worse. Then again, he said he has seen friends who never played a down and have more severe memory problems than his. So he's not blaming football.

Robinson estimates he had no more than five head-to-head collisions in his NFL career, and no more than 10 if his college and high school days are included. He believes he avoided a lot of head trauma because he knew how to hit and tackle, and he thinks a lot of current players would be safer if they hit and tackled the way he did.

In the late 1950s, Robinson learned to hit from George Masters, the head coach at Moorestown High School in Moorestown, New Jersey, and he kept hitting that way through his entire Hall of Fame career. The fundamentals: act as if the top of your helmet has a big imaginary X on it, and never use that X to make contact; never drop your head when you hit; tackle the ball and hit at the waist.

"I'm not a big fan of the Heads Up program the way they have it," he said. "They want your head on the shoulder of the guy. That's way too close to his helmet. There is too small a margin of error there. I'm old school."

So old school is Robinson that he couldn't imagine doing what Borland did.

"If he wasn't happy in the game of football, he did the right thing," Robinson said. "I respect his decision. I wouldn't have made it, but then again I played in a whole different era. I told Vince [Lombardi] one time in negotiations, 'I love you and the Packers and this game so much, I'll play 14 games for nothing. But you have to pay me to practice.' I wasn't kidding. I loved the game that much. We weren't worried about the injury prospects. But we didn't have the knowledge they have now."

Besides, Robinson said, he couldn't have quit after his rookie season if he wanted to. His salary was $15,000 in 1963, his first year. In the offseasons, Robinson went to work as an engineer for Campbell Soup in Camden, New Jersey.

Uncredited/Associated Press

"From my era to his era, the picture has changed in that way," Robinson said. "Maybe he felt the money he got his rookie year was enough to last the rest of his life, or at least to set him up to start a new career making less money."

Robinson still golfs a little, but he can't swing the sticks like he used to. And walking is laborious. He recently was fitted for a knee brace, and he sometimes uses a cane. Once he loses 30 pounds, he will have a knee replacement. He figures he is due, given that he has been without cartilage in the knee since it was operated on a half-century ago.

He has other aches and pains. He still feels pain from when he tore his Achilles in 1970. He has arthritis wherever he had a bone break, which is in 15 places—mostly in his hands. His shoulder doesn't work very well, and he can't throw a football more than about 25 yards.

"But how many times do I have to throw a football?" he said. "I wouldn't change a thing."

If not for football, Doug Plank wouldn't have titanium joints in both shoulders and one knee. He wouldn't have been operated on 10 times, including once to repair his nasal passages after his nose had been crushed. He wouldn't have spinal stenosis.

If not for football, Plank would not be who he is. The 62-year-old former Bears safety is convinced football gave him the attitude that allowed him to believe he could succeed when others said he would fail. His parents didn't have enough money to send him to college, but he went to Ohio State on a football scholarship. Football opened doors for him to become an owner of 13 Burger King franchises, and a successful businessman in other ventures. Football led him to jobs in coaching and broadcasting. The game gave him his identity.

"I can't believe it, but every week I still get 10-20 items to sign," Plank said. "Guys write letters to me saying, 'I watched you play, I always wanted to wear No. 46.' They touch my heart. You don't realize how much influence you have on someone's life."

Plank is known as one of the most ferocious hitters in NFL history. He said he was taught to use his helmet as a weapon, and he did that convincingly.

"I treated football like it was demolition derby," he said.

He frustrated coaches by ignoring interception opportunities to go for the kill shot. Former quarterback Danny White told Plank he thinks about him every night when he rolls over and feels a pain in his ribs that Plank is responsible for.

Of course, Plank paid a price too. He estimates he sustained about three concussions per year, starting as a freshman in college and going through eight seasons in the NFL and one in the USFL. So, something like 39 concussions. Plank carried smelling salts in his waistband in case he needed reviving between plays. He didn't always remember how he got to the huddle, the sideline or even the locker room. But he still can remember the headaches and the flashes of color.

So Plank understands Borland's decision.

JOHN BAZEMORE/Associated Press

"It caught my attention over the last few days that players now are thinking that they like football, but there are other things they want to do with their lives," Plank said. "If they play 12 years, there are going to be injuries that come back later to remind you of what you did."

Back in the 1970s, Plank and fellow Bears safety Gary Fencik used to talk about how the smart thing to do would be to play three or four years and then get out before incurring extensive physical damage. That way they wouldn't be starting a new career in their mid-30s, with hardly any translatable skills. They thought a player who lasted a couple of years could have enjoyed the fruits of being a former player the same as a player who lasted a dozen.

But Plank and Fencik couldn't free themselves from football's grasp. They each played until they no longer could.

"We all reach a point in our careers when we say 'No mas,' like Roberto Duran," Plank said. "Sometimes it's later. Now we've got players not wanting to do something over and over again in a damaging way."

Plank exercises his brain by reading, doing crossword puzzles and playing memory games on his phone. And so far, only his joints have betrayed him. He said he has no cognitive issues.

He says that for him, squeezing every last drop out of the game was the right thing. "Football has been such a complement to my life," he said. "I'm there to support it 100 percent and promote it as the great game that it is."

But he also accepts why Borland might not be.

Warren Moon was sacked 458 times in his NFL career. That's seventh most in league history. If you include estimates from his CFL career, he was sacked 671 times—far more than any professional football player ever.

He once was sacked a dozen times in a single game, tying an NFL record. For five seasons, he played in the run-and-shoot offense, in which he took an inordinate amount of punishment from blitzing defensive backs who had free runs at him because there were no tight ends on the field to slow them down.

The Hall of Famer survived 23 professional seasons, playing until he was 44 years old. And he never thought about quitting until he became bored with offseason training.

You might suspect that Moon, at 58, is now paying the price for football glory. But you would suspect wrong.

When he spoke to Bleacher Report recently, he was fresh off a three-mile run. It is part of his normal workout regime, which also includes yoga and weight training. He plays quarterback in celebrity beach games and whizzes the football past defenders and into the hands of grinning wide receivers. He has coached Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger and hung in there with the youngsters in throwing drills.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 02:  NFL Hall of Famer Warren Moon attends DIRECTV'S Seventh Annual Celebrity Beach Bowl at DTV SuperFan Stadium at Mardi Gras World on February 2, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images For Di
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Moon has not had a single post-football surgery. His last medical procedure was 28 years ago, when the reparation of a dislocated right thumb forced him to miss a playoff game.

"I don't have any physical ailments," said Moon, who does radio and TV work in Seattle and also runs Sports 1 Marketing. "I'm so fortunate. It amazes me. It amazes me that I played as long as I did. There are certain guys in certain sports that seem to be able to do that, like Nolan Ryan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I just happen to be one of those guys."

Moon attributes some of his good health to taking care of himself when he was playing. He said he regularly went for chiropractic treatment, acupuncture and massage. He ate right and abstained from alcohol.

None of that could prevent six concussions, though. Moon never concerned himself too much with brain trauma, in part because he didn't know much about it. Really, no one did back then.

"I've found out more in the last 10 years about concussions than I did the whole time I was playing football," Moon said. "I never related it to having any long-term effect. Maybe if I had known it back then, it would have changed my course of action as far as how long I played."

Today's athletes have so much more to think about.

"For any player now, there is a lot more research out there about head injuries," Moon said. "I respect Borland's decision. Football is a game where you can't have any type of hesitation as far as how you feel about it. You have to be all in. You have to be passionate. You have to love it. And you have to be willing to take the risk. If you're not, you probably shouldn't be playing.

"I don't think anybody can criticize him for what he's doing. I just hope one day he doesn't second-guess himself and say, 'I wish I hadn't done that.' "

If every former player were like Moon, Borland probably wouldn't have walked away. Moon said he has no memory problems, other than occasionally forgetting a name.

Susan Ragan/Associated Press

"I know there are a lot of guys out there suffering and struggling," Moon said. "I saw guys like John Mackey suffer from dementia before he died. I know it still could hit me later on in life. But I thank the Lord every day, and I wonder, 'Why me?' "

That a good young player would walk away from the NFL does not shock Michael Dean Perry.

"If Chris Borland feels he wants the quality of life, he has to look at his own situation," said Perry, a former Pro Bowl defensive tackle mostly for the Browns. "It's an individual decision on what he wants from life. You have some people who can't retire because of finances. Others just love the game and won't stop. And then you have people who look at the totality of what may happen later in life."

Perry was one of those people, but he endured a decade of NFL pounding before deciding he had enough.

In 1997, Perry was waived by the Broncos and claimed by the Chiefs. He had a painful turf toe that had limited him since the previous season, and his knee was a problem too. It was not a very good year. Still, when Perry found himself a free agent the following March, the Giants called. The Saints, too.

But at 32, Perry was thinking about the rest of his life.

"It went back to the age-old question: Would I rather have health or wealth?" he said. "I could have a little of both, without putting my body through a traumatic experience, so that's what I elected to do. When my body started to break down, I said I don't want to be a cripple. I knew the aging process would be accelerated from playing up to that point. I just wanted to preserve as much of my body as I possibly could. So I retired a little early."

The 17 subsequent years have provided arguments that he could have retired even earlier. He had his left hip replaced in 2012, and it may just be a matter of time before he goes in for the right one. He also has problems with his knees, ankles, back, shoulders, neck and fingers. The days are long gone when Perry could demonstrate on-field techniques to young players. Shooting hoops is just a memory.

24 Sep 1995:  Defensive lineman Michael Dean Perry of the Denver Broncos looks on during a game against the San Diego Chargers at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, California.  The Chargers won the game, 17-6. Mandatory Credit: Jed Jacobsohn  /Allsport
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

He can walk, use an elliptical trainer and ride an exercise bike, and he does so to keep his weight in check. The 49-year-old, who lives in North Carolina and owns a company that provides transportation for the physically challenged, said he weighs 280 now, down 10 to 20 pounds from his playing weight.

He knows too well about the dangers of obesity from observing his big brother, former Bear and Eagle William "The Refrigerator" Perry. The elder Perry battled weight problems most of his life and remains well overweight. The Fridge also has Type 2 diabetes and Guillain-Barre syndrome, which affects the peripheral nervous system. At one point, the disease forced him to be hospitalized for five months and confined him to a wheelchair. Michael Dean said a lack of physical activity has prevented his older brother from controlling his Guillain-Barre.

"Seeing my brother with his weight situation, I learned and took it to heart," Michael Dean said. "I didn't want to go down the same road, so I made a conscious decision to keep myself in half-decent shape."

Perry has no regrets about his football career. He considers himself fortunate to have played defensive line, as opposed to linebacker like Borland. Linebackers, wide receivers and defensive backs, he believes, take a lot more impactful blows to the head.

Still, Perry suspects he might have the onset of some cognitive issue. But he has not consulted a neurologist and has no plans to do so.

"Until I start seeing more evidence of it, I'll just live life accordingly," he said. "I don't know if I'm ready to know right now. Part of me wants to know. Part of me doesn't."

Decalon Brooks has never sustained a concussion, but he understands the dangers. He knows what the symptoms are, and he knows what he should do if he experiences them.

In that regard, he is more like Borland than like his father, Derrick Brooks. The difference between the new generation and the old is awareness.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

"He is a more educated player than what I was," the elder Brooks said. "I'm a more educated parent than what my parents were. When it comes to concussions, we recognize them and treat them, and we understand the risk. It isn't like it used to be."

Decalon is a sophomore who plays outside linebacker and running back at Gaither High School in Tampa. Derrick, who played outside linebacker as well as anyone during his time with the Bucs, is an ambassador of the game. He is president of the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League, and he works for the NFL as an appeals officer.

Derrick supports his son's decision to play football, and he supports Borland's decision not to. The way he sees it, what was right for him, what is right for his son and what is right for Borland can be three different things.

During Derrick's playing career, he was in the dark about where football could be leading him. He was more literally in the dark many times after a violent collision left him seeing nothing but black. Brooks isn't sure how many concussions he's had, but there were many. None of them kept him off the field for long. He played in 224 straight games over 14 years in a Hall of Fame career, never missing a game and rarely missing a snap.

At 41, his mind is sharp, but his back, shoulders, wrist and ankles get cranky. The other day, he woke up and his little toe hurt so much he couldn't walk for three hours. And he can't remember ever injuring it.

None of it is anything he can't handle, though.

"This game is bigger than the physical ailments," Brooks said. "It has greater value in terms of how it shapes you as a person. You learn so much. Dependability, accountability, respect, working as a team, character. I was blessed to play football. I've learned so much being a part of this game. My son is starting to learn some of these things, too."

Brooks doesn't worry about Decalon getting injured playing football any more than he worries about him getting in a car wreck or getting hurt playing basketball. He has enough faith in the evolving game of football to entrust it with his eldest son.

Times have changed, as the stories of Brooks and Borland remind us in very different ways.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.