Among the many uncertainties in an NFL player’s professional life lies one absolute truth: It will end. It will end in celebration of a long and successful career or in bitterness at having the game taken away too soon. It will end in financial security or in need. After years spent participating in collisions, it will end in relatively good health, often with eyes cast warily toward what awaits; or it will end in shambles, with old man’s pain in a young man’s body. It will end noisily (Andrew Luck or Rob Gronkowski) or in obscurity (almost everybody else). It will end with a love of the game intact, or dissolved into ambivalence. It will end in joy or in despair.
But it will end. From the moment a little boy pulls a wobbly helmet over his ears or hangs flags from a belt around his waist, a clock ruthlessly counts him down. Sometimes that clock expires within days, sometimes decades later.
The NFL lists 50 players as having officially retired since the end of the 2018 season, or having been placed on the reserve/retired list, which is fundamentally the same thing. That list includes players like running back Steven Jackson, who rushed for 11,438 yards and 69 touchdowns in a 12-year career, but who last played in a game in 2015. And tight end Zach Miller, who last played in 2017, when he suffered a terrible leg injury in October of that year. It briefly included 40-year-old quarterback Josh McCown, who retired last spring after a 15-year career with seven teams, but then signed with the Eagles in August. So he is no longer on the list. (But he will be back soon).
It does not include players like Aaron Burbridge, a wide receiver from Michigan State drafted by the 49ers in 2016 who played 16 games and caught seven passes in 2016, but missed the next two seasons with injuries and quietly walked away last spring. It does not include Romell Guerrier, an undrafted free agent from Florida Tech who signed with the Broncos for a $3,000 bonus and then moved on after just three days of training camp. It does not include others who were cut from rosters at the end of August and might be finished for good, but either don’t realize it yet or haven’t made their thoughts known.
Here are the stories of five players who retired before the start of the 2019 season: Three who played more than a decade but with divergent views of their experience and their future; one who stepped away suddenly after five years in the league and with offers on the table, sobered by the birth of his and his wife’s first child; and one who played just one season before his body gradually gave out, leaving a dream unfulfilled and his self-worth ruptured. Their average age at retirement was 30 (A year older than Luck and Gronkowski), their relationship with football universally complicated, their degree of withdrawal evolving. Each has a story of his own, each different from the others in ways both large and small.
“I mean, most professional sports aren’t good for anybody’s body, right?”
There was always this disconnect for Unger, between the job of playing professional football, and the spectacle. Not every NFL game is a desperate, full-throated, operatic battle in a packed stadium, contested as if the reputation of the city was at stake, likely to affect the lives of those in attendance (and beyond) for days, weeks, months and years. But Unger, a 6-5, 305-pound center, played his first six years in Seattle and his last four in New Orleans, where those conditions are the norm. This fanaticism was an ongoing adjustment for a man who was committed to never identifying himself as just a football player. “There would be times, on the inside, in the locker room,” says Unger, “where you would be like, ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ ”
Because: “You’re so focused on the task at hand,” he says. “Those 80,000 people don’t matter in that moment.” He understands the harshness of those words and explains. “The games are not enjoyable,” he says. “My whole thing was just don’t get beat. That was the driving factor on Sunday. Don’t get beat, don’t let my quarterback go down. And if the guys to my right and left do the same thing, I think we’re going to win, right? So I can’t say I liked that, but the reality is, that was my motivating factor.”
His wife, Leah, helped him bridge that gap between the work and the show “She talked to me about the fans and the importance of the games,” says Unger. “Why do people care so much about sports? When you’re on a good team and you’re winning games, I think that’s the single most powerful force uniting cities out there. As a player, you impact peoples’ lives. I came to recognize that as a powerful thing, and a cool thing.”
Unger never lived for football. He never envisioned a 10-year NFL career, never envisioned making All-Pro (he did 2012), starting two Super Bowls and winning one. He certainly never envisioned earning $45.5 million playing the game (all salary figures in this story are from overthecap.com). He played football on the big island of Hawaii because he was a large boy and because his father had played. He got a scholarship to Oregon, which surprised him, and then was drafted in the second round by the Seahawks, which also surprised him. Then he found himself on a treadmill. “You get drafted, and as a rookie, you’re just scared of screwing up,” he says. “You grind away and then you get another contract and you’re like, ‘Oh crap, I can’t let all these people down who are paying me all this money.’ Then there’s more scrutiny and before you know it, you’re 32 years ago and retired.”
At the end of last season, Unger was told that arthritis pain in his right hip could be alleviated with surgery to resurface the joint. He sensed immediately that he wasn’t up to rehabbing after his fourth major surgery.
Now he’s gone, living back in Hawaii with his wife and their two daughters, aged four and two. He misses what you would expect him to miss: “I miss the locker room, I miss the guys, I miss the equipment staff. And it sucks that those relationships are going to fade away.” Other things he will miss much less. “Training camp meetings until 10 at night, then up lifting at six in the morning. The day to day operation of playing offensive line in the NFL… we do the craziest shit in the world. It’s difficult. I don’t miss that.”
Unger played 130 games in the middle of the offensive line, in the one position where a man puts his head lower than everyone else’s in preparation for every snap. Some studies suggest that it is not necessarily show-stopping, knockout head shots that lead to CTE, but rather the accumulation of sub-concussive blows. “One study says it’s the repeated taps against your head that does it,” says Unger. “That is literally offensive line play, right? I mean, if you’re doing it properly, you’re making contact with your head on every running play. I’m not saying this equals that, but it’s tough to consider. Most professional sports aren’t good for anybody’s body, right?” He pauses.
“But here’s a certain level of acceptance when you sign the contract.”
“If you don’t have a foundation of who you are, outside of that sport, you’re going to be shit outta luck. And that’s what happened to me…”
In the afternoon and early evening of Monday, Aug. 19, Malcolm Mitchell, a month past his 27th birthday, posted two short films to his Instagram account: Money_Mitch26. The first was just over seven minutes long, the second just under seven minutes. They were titled Treasure Box, Part One and Part Two and in a mesmerizing style that was part poetry, part music and part confessional, they told the story of a young man’s love for football (a love that remains intact) and that same young man’s pain – and grief – at having lost the most defining element of his life, and his sense of helplessness in its absence. Treasure Box is 14 minutes of football in America: The joy, the passion, the hurt. Most of all, the steep investment that football demands, with no promise of return.
As a framing device in the film, Mitchell is interviewed by his mother, Pratina Woods, who raised Malcolm and his older brother, Marquise, as a single mother in Valdosta, Georgia. Against a grainy backdrop captured by a Super 8 camcorder that Mitchell chose, in order to evoke a sense of faded, youthful memories, Woods asks:
“Malcolm, football is over. How does that make you feel?”
Mitchell answers, slowly, deliberately: “I feel enraged…. Useless…Scared. You know? I have no memories of myself without football.”
Three days after Treasure Box dropped, I talked to Mitchell by phone. He had planned to silently let his film convey his message, but agreed to talk to me, as a favor to his friend, and mine, longtime University of Georgia sports information director Claude Felton. When we connected, I told Mitchell his film was terrific, heartbreaking art, and it is. I asked him how he was feeling, physically, something I often ask ex- (and current) athletes, as an awkward courtesy. Small talk. “Once you have surgeries, you can’t go back,” says Mitchell. “It’s not like you’re born again.” Mitchell doesn’t do small talk. Not now, anyway.
The football story: Mitchell was born in Largo, Florida and began playing football at age 10, following his big brother, with whom he shared a bedroom and bunk beds. When Malcolm was in sixth grade, the family moved to Valdosta, a place where football is every bit as culturally significant as anywhere in Florida. Malcolm dove in. “I grew up in an impoverished community, a lot of childhood traumas,’’ he says. “I didn’t have a father. Certain things took place. But football was a free space to roam without any stress. It was like religion to me. You could be going through a family member dying, you could have not eaten the night before. You could go through any type of shit, to be honest, but once you hit the field it all goes away.”
Mitchell was a major recruit who chose Georgia over Alabama and Florida, a holy trinity of suitors in that religion he describes. He caught 85 passes in his first two seasons at Georgia, but then injuries hit. He underwent meniscus surgery on his right knee in the spring of his sophomore year and then tore his ACL in the season opener of his junior year, a serious injury sustained while celebrating his friend Todd Gurley’s touchdown against Clemson. He missed the rest of that season and played only eight games and caught 31 balls as a junior, but a career-best 58 as a senior. He says the last time he was 100 percent as an athlete was in his sophomore year at Georgia. “After that, I was still able to be effective,” he says. “But my longevity started to take a hit.”
The Patriots drafted him in the fourth round. He caught 32 passes and scored four touchdowns as a rookie and topped that off with six catches for 70 yards in the Patriots’ historic comeback Super Bowl win over the Falcons. It would never get better than that. On the morning of his second-season opener, he awakened with his right knee locked. Panicked, he called teammate Matthew Slater, who helped him get to the training staff. A piece of cartilage was lodged in the joint; surgery was required to clean it out. He tried to come back at the end of the season, but took a head shot in a practice drill and suffered a concussion.
In that offseason, Mitchell says he spent $50,000 of his own money on nontraditional treatments. “Stem cell, platelet-rich plasma, regenokine, all that shit,” says Mitchell. “Just trying to get back.” But during OTAs in 2018, he got his left leg tangled up with a teammate on a non-contact pass route and suffered nerve damage in the joint. “At that point,’’ says Mitchell. “I was fucked.” Mitchell says Bill Belichick offered the choice of retiring or getting cut, and Mitchell said: Cut me. The Patriots did not attach an injury designation, meaning Mitchell was not paid and did not count in any against the Pats’ salary cap numbers. He filed a grievance with the NFLPA seeking payment of his 2018 salary of $620,000. That grievance was settled in October of 2018, terms not disclosed. Mitchell has also filed a workers compensation claim in connection with his injury and dismissal; that claim has not been resolved. Mitchell earned $1,390,992 in his career, good money but not a lifetime’s money. “I have to live with these injuries forever,” Mitchell said. “So trying to take care of things financially is of extreme importance.”
More definitively, his identity was gone. “I guess I knew I would have this breakup with football, someday,” says Mitchell. “I just didn’t know how bad it would be on my mental health. It’s like I’ve been reincarnated, as somebody else. And I don’t want to be anybody else.” He is a clearly talented and generous man. Treasure Box is an arresting film with a strong, singular voice. And after his one Super Bowl, Malcolm launched Read With Malcolm, a literacy initiative focused on children in communities like the one he was raised in. He wrote a children’s book called “The Magician’s Hat,” and is working on a second book. It is unclear if these talents can fill the hole that football’s absence created.
“I have to move on,” says Mitchell. “I know that. I have to come out of this grieving phase, and I’m working on that. I can’t stay here, because if I do, I’m as good as dead.”
One other thing: I asked Mitchell if he hates football. “Oh no, I still love it,” he says. “I have a girlfriend and we still play catch out in the front yard. I love the game. I really love it.”
“I checked off all the boxes. No second thoughts whatsoever.”
Here then, is the other side of Malcolm Mitchell’s coin. Jordy Nelson, football player, was always the role and never the human. The human was – and is, more than ever — a husband and father, a farmer, a Kansan. The role was to run fast and catch passes. Nelson remains astounded that he did this for 11 years in the NFL (“Eleven years longer than I expected,” he says), that he won a Super Bowl with the Packers and caught a touchdown pass in that game (on a pre-snap check from Aaron Rodgers), that he earned more than $56 million. All of this started at Riley County High School in northeast Kansas, where Nelson was a 6-foot-1 quarterback steamrolling tiny defenders, continued at Kansas State, where Nelson was a walk-on miscast as a defensive back — “I prefer to run from contact, not create it,” – Nelson told me in 2014 – before blowing up as a fast, physical wideout in his last two years.
The Packers took him in the second round (36th overall) of the 2008 draft. He played nine seasons in Green Bay and ranks third in franchise history in career receptions, fifth in yardage and second (behind Don Hutson, great company) in touchdowns. He was at first the burner who could blow the top of coverages for Rodgers and developed into a smart, reliable target anywhere on the field. Through all of this, in every offseason, he went home to rural Kansas, and helped his family farm and connect with roots far from the NFL. “I had other things outside football,” says Nelson. “My life didn’t go as football went. A loss on Sunday didn’t ruin my week. And I knew whenever I was done, I would come home and help my brother [Mike] farm.”
That day approached with urgency when Nelson tore his ACL on a non-contact injury in the 2015 preseason and missed the entire year. He returned to catch 97 balls for 1,257 yards in 2016, but dropped off to 53 catches for 482 yards in ’17. His speed was diminished, and with it much of his impact. The Packers released him, a stinging dose of NFL business reality that cut deeply. He signed with Raiders, caught 63 passes for 739 yards on a lousy team…and then was released again, at age 33 (he is 34 now). Seattle offered Nelson another contract, but his passion had ebbed and that’s a perilous mindset.
“You can’t play the game at this level with one foot in, and one foot out,’’ says Nelson. “You need to be all in. I couldn’t honestly say I was going to be all in, and that was our answer.” One more thing: After his Seattle physical, the doctor told Nelson, with no small degree of surprise, that his body was actually in fairly good shape after 11 years of contact (or running away from contact, as it turns out). “That was a trigger, right there,’’ says Nelson. “I was like, all right, that confirms it. I’m walking out healthy. I’m not waiting until some doctor tells me, ‘Man you look like you’re 60 years old, you need two knee replacements, hip surgery.’ I’d rather go out a year too early than a year too late.” (Of note: In addition to his ACL reconstruction, Nelson also had major surgery on his left hip and multiple arthroscopic procedures on both elbows and both hips. Nobody gets out unscathed. He remembers only one concussion and says of his brain’s future, “I’m not worried about that whatsoever.”)
Now he’s back on the farm in Riley County. His three children, ages nine, four and two, will attend the same elementary school that he and his wife, Emily, attended. The family will attend Kansas State home games from a suite Nelson bought. He will go to Kansas City in October to watch the Packers play the Chiefs and to Dallas at least once to watch his buddy Randall Cobb play for the Cowboys. Those are easy trips. He has no plans to go back to Green Bay this year, after visiting in the summer. He has a soul full of great memories, of Sunday battles and “inside jokes in the locker room.”
But at the same time: “I don’t hardly think about it.”
“You’ve got to rip that Band-aid off someday….”
When the summer heat fell upon Northwest Arkansas, Swanson felt a familiar pull toward routines embedded across two decades of summer football practices. He felt like he should be sitting in front of a locker somewhere, securing his knee braces; or lying on a training table getting other parts his body taped, and then going outside and sweating in the bludgeoning humidity with his teammates. “It’s like after all these years, my body knows,” says Swanson. “And now it’s something I’m not doing. And I miss it. I miss the practices, I miss the games, I miss the O-Line meeting room. I miss it every single day I wake up.”
Football formed Swanson. Two decades ago, growing up in Kingwood, a Houston suburb, he was tall and awkward. “I had spatial awareness issues with other kids,’’ he says. “I was always right on top of them. I didn’t understand, oh, I’m bigger and taller. There was just this disconnect.” His parents saw an advertisement in a local newspaper for a youth football league and enrolled Travis. It was the first moment in a perfect marriage. Swanson became a star lineman on a weak 5A program at Kingwood, but he also grew to 6-3 and 270 pounds, big enough as an offensive lineman to get generic letters from college programs. He went to a recruiting camp and got offers from Arkansas and Baylor, and chose Arkansas. He wasn’t exceptionally strong, but he was tough and relentless and a voracious learner; he started 50 consecutive games under three head coaches and was good enough to get taken by the Lions in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Swanson played four years with the Lions and one with the Dolphins and started 53 of 65 games as a center. He was an unspectacular grinder, and never banked a massive contract, earning just north of $5 million, which is not walk-away money. Nevertheless, on May 19, in a 249-word Instagram post, he did walk away. His announcement focused on the birth of his daughter, Kendyl, his and his wife Emily’s first child. “When my daughter Kendyl was born and I first saw her, my heart expanded and completely changed my priorities,” Swanson wrote. And he thanked football for all that it had given him: “It is extraordinary that this game has the power to take a kid from Kingwood, Texas to places all over the globe.”
But there was more. Four seasons of major college and five seasons of NFL football had taken a toll on Swanson’s body. Like Jordy Nelson, he made the decision to get out too early, rather than too late. (Although much earlier than. Nelson, and with far less money).
“I had a knee surgery in college,” says Swanson. “I had two shoulder surgeries in the NFL. Constant ligament tears, bone spurs, dislocations. And concussions. Stuff, literally every year. My joints hurt, every day. Offensive line play, man. It’s about exertion of power and which man can withstand it. Those guys who play 10 years, 15 years on the O-Line, man, they’re really, really good. It’s tough to go from Sunday to Sunday to get your body ready. Even more tough to go from Sunday to Thursday.”
Still, Swanson says he had free agent offers on the table last winter and he was ready to play another year. The birth of his daughter pushed him the other way. “One more year, is usually one year too many,’’ he says. He took head blows and understands what that can mean. “The whole head trauma, CTE thing,’’ he says. “I think you’d to be naïve to think there’s not something here. I do think we need a lot more research to understand all the factors.”
For instance: “The helmets that are coming out nowadays are phenomenal compared to even what they were five, ten years ago,” says Swanson. (This was also apparent in the A.B. helmet saga). “Now, is this going to eliminate all head trauma problems? No, nothing is ever going to eliminate all those problems. But when you pair the research and development of equipment, with research into how the actual blows affect players, I think all that will shed more light on the situation.”
Swanson and his wife opened a branch of a company called Alpha-Lit, which rents illuminated letters for weddings, parties and other functions, which make for sharp backdrops in social media posts. He plans to get into commercial real estate. He won’t stand around. His NFL money, he says, “Was a huge head start.” Even as he misses the game, even as he thinks of former teammates still playing, even after leaving money on the table, he is at peace. “We’re going to look back five years, 10 years from now,” Swanson says, “and thank ourselves that we made this decision.”
“This is what I tell people: Football is a great sport. But it takes sacrifice. There’s nothing fun about an NFL practice. Nothing at all.”
The decision came for Orakpo, and his wife, Bitura, last summer, just before Brian left Texas for training camp. He was 32 years old, and about to start his 10th season (six with the Redskins, four with the Titans); their family had grown to include three children. Ten years had long been the number in the back of his head – a good, round number at which to go back home for good. He had been football royalty at every step: A Texas high school star, an All-America at the University of Texas, the 13th player selected in the 2009 NFL draft (by the Redskins), four Pro Bowls. But he also missed most of one season (2012) and half of another (2014) because of pectoral muscle tears that required surgery, and while his knees were intact, there was a creeping sense that he was testing the odds. “Pass the torch,” Orakpo says. “Move on. Too many guys roll the dice for one more contract.”
He didn’t watch a minute of preseason football or connect with the game on any form of media. With one exception: “A.B. and the helmet thing. You couldn’t get away from that news.”
Orakpo is an evolved modern retiree in one regard: Business. He and former Titans’ (and Texas) teammate Michael Griffin own a Gigi’s Cupcakes franchise in Bee Cave, Texas, northwest of Austin. Orakpo and his younger brother, Michael, started an app called Athlete Connect that seeks to help prospective professional athletes find personal trainers in their geographic area. Orakpo also says he is soon planning to launch a third business with some other NFL retirees. He is making aggressive use of the more than $60 million he earned in his career.
His relationship with the game that made him wealthy, however, is slightly less evolved, as befits an athlete who was so passionate that he would never take more than two consecutive days off from training, even when on vacation. Rules changes pertaining to hits against quarterbacks frustrated Orakpo in the latter part of his career (as they have many NFL defenders). “It’s not about safety anymore,’’ says Orakpo. “It’s about giving quarterbacks their own set of rules. If you’re playing my position, and you’re down in the trenches, and then you can’t even blow air on a quarterback. That waters down the brand of the NFL. Rushing the passer isn’t really a part of the game anymore.”
Yet: The old version of the NFL, which was still very much alive when Orakpo came into the league in 2009, was decidedly more violent. And he knows that’s not great. I asked Orakpo if, in addition to his pec tears, he had suffered any concussions. His answer: “To my knowledge, not too many. I came into the league before head trauma was as serious an issue as it is in this era. On file, I don’t think I had any, but definitely a lot of head rings.” Orakpo invoked the name of his former Redskins’ teammate, London Fletcher, who played 16 years in the NFL, including seven alongside Orakpo. I profiled Fletcher for Sports Illustrated 2013. On the topic of concussions:
Question: “How many concussions have you had? Single digits?”
Fletcher: (Laughing). “Probably not. I’ve been playing a long time.”
Orakpo says, “London played in an even rougher time than I did. You get your head rung and you keep playing. And that’s probably what I’ve done. If I felt like if I could go, there was no way I was coming out of the game.”
Orakpo pauses to explain where this fits into some broader life theme. “I gave all my energy and passion to the game. Sacrifice. It’s something I will probably never get anywhere else in my life. But I’m glad I had it.”
That is it, truly. He is retired. They are all retired. They gave and they took. They miss it or they do not miss it. They fear the years ahead, or they do not. But they all know this: They’re on the outside now, and they won’t taste anything like football again.
As an epilogue to this story, I checked in with all five players on the Monday morning after the first weekend of the season.
Brian Orakpo went to the Texas-LSU game on Saturday night, but didn’t watch any NFL action on Sunday. Instead he went to his nine-year-old son’s AAU basketball tournament. “I enjoyed that,” Orakpo said. “Finally.” He didn’t see his most recent NFL team play, but he heard about it. “My boys from the Titans let me know they took care of the Browns, which I knew they would, so that was a bonus as well.”
Jordy Nelson watched from his couch as the Packers beat the Bears last Thursday night and as the Chiefs won on Sunday. True to form, he said, “I enjoyed watching as a fan”.
Max Unger spent his last full vacation day visiting family in central Oregon watching NFL games. “Very casually,” Unger said. “I enjoyed it. It was just really weird not playing or preparing for a game on Sunday in September. The first time in 10 years. I probably brought it up to my wife eight or nine times throughout the day, how weird it was.” Unger and his family flew back to their permanent home on the Big Island. Thus, he missed the Saints’ season opener on Monday night.
Unsurprisingly, Travis Swanson felt warring emotions as he watched NFL games at home. “I was curious as to how I would react being out of it,” he said. “It was bittersweet to say the least. I will always miss football and it will be tough to watch games for a long time and I accept that. Any time I got down, I would just look at my daughter rolling around on the ground and know that we made the right decision.” One more thing: “It was nice to wake up on a Monday morning in September,” said Swanson, “and not feeling like I’ve gotten hit by train.”
Malcolm Mitchell went to New York City for Fashion Week, with his girlfriend, Jasmine Erves. They watched the Rams in the afternoon and the Patriots at night, at the London Hotel. Mitchell said he’ll watch those teams, and those teams only, all year, because of his lasting affection for the Patriots (grievances aside) and his friendship with Gurley.
I sent him a text: “That was cool? Or fun?”
Mitchell responded: “N/A”
For clarification, I asked: “So neither? It was what it was.”
He hit my text back with a like.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.