Not For Long: Why NFL Players Are Getting Out While They Still Can

Jake Locker, Patrick Willis and Maurice Jones-Drew are all 30 or younger, and they all announced their retirement this week

Tennessee Titans' quarterback Jake Locker retired earlier this week at the age of 26. Credit: Mark Zaleski/AP

I found myself on YouTube the other day, trying to locate a video of a hit Jake Locker took early in his career as a college quarterback at Washington, a blow that I still recall because it lay Locker so flat on the sideline that I honestly wasn't sure if he was ever going to get up. I remember watching that moment, and I remember thinking, "I hope I didn't just watch a football player die."

This week, Locker retired from the National Football League at age 26, after an unremarkable career as a quarterback for the Tennessee Titans. He could have signed on somewhere as a backup, but he chose not to. Locker did not specifically cite his injury history as a reason for his retirement; he mentioned that he no longer had the "burning desire" to play professional football, and that he was going to spend time with his family and remodel his house. But it's hard not to make at least some sort of correlation here, because Locker is a mobile, roaming quarterback who was so susceptible to the kind of brutal hits I saw on that night several years ago.

Of Locker's first 32 potential starts with the Titans, he missed 14. After the 2012 season, he had shoulder surgery; his 2013 season was cut short by a foot injury and his 2014 season ended after he dislocated his left shoulder. But it goes beyond that, because I couldn't find the hit I remembered Locker taking in college, but I did find several others that felt like the same sort of thing: Here's one, after which Locker kept on playing. Here's another, after which Locker kept on playing. And here's mention of another, after which Locker kept on playing.

Maybe it's unfair to speculate whether those specific plays had anything to do with his retirement, but I think it's equally naïve to presume they exist in a vacuum. On the second of those hits documented above, a shot Locker took during the Holiday Bowl, he insisted that he wasn't concussed, that his helmet had fallen down over his eyes, causing him to briefly think he'd gone blind. Locker was mic'd up that day, and the video would seem to confirm this, but it still doesn't answer the question of whether the fact he thought he'd gone blind might have been the sign of a brutal hit on its own.

And yet the larger, more existential question here goes beyond Locker. In the same week he announced his retirement, three other prominent players – 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, a potential Hall of Famer, Raiders running back Maurice Jones-Drew and Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds – who were all 30 or younger and still appeared to have something to give also called it quits. This raised questions, as Grantland's Bill Barnwell wrote, as to whether "players aren't at least thinking about retiring earlier than they have in the past, or that their logic might be shifting from getting as much as possible for as long as possible to getting enough before getting out."

That's the thing: there is no consistent reasoning for retirement among these four players, other than the overarching (and often unspoken) notion that football might eventually destroy their bodies and minds more than it already has. And Worilds, Barnwell notes, had comparatively few injury issues at all at this point. But you see all those former players with CTE on television, or in person, and you can't help but wonder if you might be among them someday, and you can't help but ask yourself whether it's worth the trade-off.

In the end, this is probably a good thing for professional football, at least in the short term. It is a young man's game for a reason, but in the longer term, it does make you wonder if the NFL can ever stem the tide, as the players themselves become increasingly disposable. What happens if the game continues to be more and more compressed by its own violence? What happens when seeming exceptions like Willis and Worilds and Locker become the norm?

"I think he just thought about it a lot and prayed about it a lot and came to the conclusion that there might be other things out there for him," Locker's father Scott told the Seattle Times, "things he can do...to help people and impact some lives.''

This makes perfect sense. There is no reason to play in the NFL if you are not committed to the sacrifices the NFL demands. But at some point, you have to wonder whether the sacrifices might be too much of a burden for anyone to bear.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb