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Chris Borland has retired from the NFL. (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)

Behind the bench: Hanging ’em up

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There is a saying that athletes die twice. Once in retirement and the other time just as we all do. Patrick Willis rejected that idea when he announced his retirement from football at the relatively young age of 30.

“Retired doesn’t mean you’re dying, it means you’re putting something to rest and going on to do other things,” Willis told reporters in his goodbye press conference.

Chris Borland of the San Francisco 49ers and Jason Worilds of the Pittsburgh Steelers recently retired at the ages of 24 and 27, respectively. Borland stopped playing after one season because he felt that his love of football was not worth the risk of potential head injuries. Worilds left because he felt a religious call to do so. Willis felt his injured feet would not allow him to play to the high standard he demanded of himself.

These players have three things in common: They were all linebackers, all excelled, and all loved their roles. Borland was outstanding, recording 107 tackles in only 14 games as a rookie, Willis is on his way to the Hall of Fame, and Worilds was sought after by many teams in the off-season, but they all left the game to pursue other interests. The final point is the most telling.

“I knew there would be a day I’d leave, and I always told myself that I wanted it to be on my terms,” Willis announced when he called it quits.  

All three players left football with no regrets because they played hard on the field and had interests that could sustain them off the field. They felt they were equipped to deal with the uncertainty of changing their career path at such young ages. There is an echo of this in Derrick Rose’s comments in 2014 that his playing decisions were predicated on his long-term goals. 

“I’m thinking about after I’m done with basketball,” Rose told ESPN. “Having graduations to go to, having meetings to go to, I don’t want to be […] sore just because of something I did in the past. [I’m] just learning and being smart.” 

Retirement is a personal choice and, in many circumstances, a gut-wrenching one. It seemed like Michael Jordan and Brett Favre retired every other year, and it’s something all athletes must go through. After Chris Borland announced his retirement, Ravens’ linebacker John Urschel wrote in the Players Tribune that while he understood the long-term health risks, not playing football has never been an option for him because he loves it so much. He knows that he will eventually reach an age where he can no longer physically play the sport, and is fortunate to have a passion for mathematics that can occupy him after his NFL career.

Athletes need to be prepared for retirement while studying in college and high school. They need to learn how to cultivate off-field interests and support networks. Borland was always prepared to transition into a post-NFL career with a history degree and a good relationship with supportive parents. He also reached out to ex-NFL player Dave Muggysey when he felt concerns about his health. Having that network helped Borland make an informed decision on his career and leave without any misgivings.

The real question is whether the majority of athletes are prepared to handle real life. At the moment, the answer is “no.” 78 per cent of NFL players, and 60 per cent of NBA players go bankrupt within five years of leaving the league. Playing professional sports for a living is one of the best gigs on earth, and the thought process behind accepting the risk associated is understandable. All athletes must retire eventually, and planning for life after sports is crucial to their happiness. The fate of the players mentioned here seems clear, as all seem able to deal with the ambiguity of the future gracefully. Hopefully someday, that can be said for the majority of athletes.

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