The career of a professional football player is unlike most careers human beings pursue. The average length of service in the NFL is just over three years according to the NFLPA – a whole career come and gone before most players turn 27 years old. For the elite, it can last much longer. Brett Favre was drafted in 1991, when George H.W. Bush held office, and right before Crystal Pepsi was a thing. Three different presidents over five terms later, and one lurid seduction scandal later, he retired comfortably in Wranglers in 2010.
The 2014 season is still young, but controversy surrounding some marquee players has gripped the football-watching public and ostensibly overshadowed the games since the beginning of calendar year. There are always off-field issues every year and in every sport. But this feels different. We’ve had the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal and subsequent suspension/outrage/banishment, Adrian Peterson’s child abuse charges, Greg Hardy’s assault and domestic abuse case, Wes Welker’s drug suspension, Josh Gordon’s downward spiral during the offseason, and there are a handful of other players whose careers have been jeopardized by violent off-field crimes both alleged and proven, or drug abuse, or both. These are the marquee names. Heroes whose names appear on jerseys worn to work or to school by those who support their teams, and often define their own identity by their fandom. It adds to that person’s identity. The athletes are beloved and respected and cheered every game and every season. Until they’re not.
It’s easy to wonder whether we’ve seen the last of Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson on the football field. Both are waging battles against public perception in the face of heinous crimes, as well as legal proceedings in courts of law. They are also waging the eternal battle with time, as it marches on relentlessly and without care. The life they’ve known is in its’ twilight. If that’s all she wrote for both men, it is quite the ignominious end to two rather celebrated careers. With both players quickly approaching 28 (Rice) and 30 (Peterson) – that “100 pitches” line of demarcation that determines one’s usefulness for a running back – it’s likely that the only chance they have at a return, after being exonerated and/or reinstated by the NFL, of course, would be as a part of a platoon.
The backdrop of Derek Jeter’s season-long retirement celebration filled with pomp and circumstance and wacky token gifts from each opponent, puts the life and career of a football player into some perspective. Yes, Jeter was a cornerstone player who generated historic numbers for his career, and he has multiple World Series rings to his name. A word that comes to mind when thinking of Jeter is loyalty. He was loyal to the Yankees, and the Yankees were loyal to him. It makes for an interesting goodbye when a whole generation of Yankees fans (and even baseball fans worldwide) grew older with Jeets as the face of the Yankees, and even of baseball. Jeter struggled over the last couple of years trying to play through pain, battling offensive slumps, and generally trying to overcome a diminishment of physical skill that limited his range in the field, arm strength, and mobility. He wasn’t the 24-year-old champion anymore. He wasn’t even the 35-year old champion. Maybe it was the fact that he had, like all baseball players, a guaranteed contract. Maybe the Yankees’ perceived loyalty to Jeter, an asset providing diminishing returns, became more about PR than production toward the end. But you can’t trade The Captain. And you can’t cut him, lest you want a full-scale revolt in The Bronx. That sort of acceptance of everything, despite what the sabermetricians say, doesn’t exist in the NFL and teams are sure to let every player know it.
Tom Brady has looked awful this season, and his stats back that up. He is on pace towards the worst year of his career with a 59 percent completion rate, and a projected 16 TDs to 12 INTs. At 37 years old, one has to wonder if he’s thrown in the towel because he’s rich, he’s won championships and broken records, and he has a very fulfilling home life by all accounts. Maybe we’ll see the Jimmy Garoppolo era starting sooner rather than later in Foxboro (Relax. I don’t mean Week 5, 6, or even 16. It’s Brady’s team through the year). But Brady is an exception to the rule because, like Jeter, he is one of the faces on the NFL’s Mt. Rushmore of exemplary players and superstars; a crossover guy that’s as much Hollywood as he is gridiron. Based on his decline in production, it’s safe to assume that the front office at Gillette Stadium has already started thinking of a contingency plan, and also imagining life after Brady. He’s one of the lucky few – the 0.01 percent who will likely leave on his own terms, receiving garlands of fresh flowers and moving tributes from the adoring fans, teammates, and executives who have watched this man for years. Brady will surely get the “Jeter Treatment” when it’s his time to go..
And for the other 1,700-odd players in the league each year, they won’t be so lucky. To have given all you have physically to this entertainment company that is the NFL and the sport of football, and then be forgotten almost entirely – that must be tough. I think of celebrated stars like Clinton Portis, Priest Holmes, Brian Westbrook, “Fast” Willie Parker, Michael Turner, and former All-Pro and NFC Offensive Player of the Year Shaun Alexander, whom almost no one will remember signing with the Redskins in 2008. All of these men were once vital players for their franchises and were largely maligned for a lack of production before they were forgotten, that is, until nostalgia creeps back in and fans remember them fondly for all they gave. It’s a vicious game filled with disposable parts. For every superstar, there are a hundred others whose bodies are broken in order to feed the machine, and generate eye-popping profits for a league continually pushing for more games, more revenue, and less help for their workforce. Put another way, the NFL might be the business model of choice for people like the Koch brothers: very little guaranteed money for the workers, inadequate lifetime healthcare benefits, and some pretty solid attempts to disparage those workers who ask for raises based on performance.
Steve Smith Sr., the 35-year-old wide receiver and known malcontent, was unceremoniously dumped by the only franchise he played for last March. He ended up signing with the Baltimore Ravens, and figured to be a wide receiver on the way out, fighting for a spot in camp. He was an afterthought to Fantasy Football players, and even real life fans. Smith took to the airwaves this week to roast Panthers GM Dave Gettleman. “He doesn’t even have the cojones to tell us to our face [about being released],” Smith said. “We have to hear it from someone else. Then he calls and says it wasn’t personal. If the first thing that comes out is ‘Well, it wasn’t personal,’ then guess what? It was personal.”
Last Sunday, the Ravens welcomed their opponent Carolina Panthers into M&T Bank Stadium, and of all the Ravens, Steve Smith was the least hospitable. Chip firmly on shoulder, he proceeded to torch his former team for 139 yards and two scores in a one-sided 38-10 victory. It was surely an emotional moment for the fiery veteran to come out and play that well in any game, let alone against his former team; the team that cut him loose because he was deemed too expensive for what he would produce. Football players don’t typically get to say goodbye on their own terms. They’re shown the door, and that’s that. But at least on this day, Smith got to say goodbye to his old team, its players, and all of the fans on his terms. He’ll be remembered for his big games, his heart, and the passion he brought to the field every time he suited up. He’ll be remembered for what he did for his first team in the thirteen years of service there, including one Super Bowl appearance, but also for what he showed them he could still do, even when they didn’t want him. For him, it was personal. He won’t have the chance for the Jeter treatment; a season-long victory lap for the team he came up with. But he won’t soon be forgotten. For that reason, he’s one of the lucky ones.