Writing The Final Chapter: Rashard Mendenhall Leaves NFL At 26
On March 9, 2014, Arizona Cardinals running back Rashard Mendenhall took the unusual step of retiring from the National Football League at only 26 years old.
Mendenhall was drafted the 23rd pick overall in the 2008 draft and spent the first five years of his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He spent last season with Arizona and was heading into next season facing an uphill battle for the Cardinal’s starting running back job.
Mendenhall said the game had become entertainment
In an article he wrote for Huffington Post, Mendenhall said that he was opting for retirement because he no longer wanted to risk his physical health for something that he considered to be pure entertainment. He said the game had changed since his days playing as a child.
He lamented the fact that cameras follow star players on game day and that star players are worshiped on shows like “Dancing With the Stars.” He even quoted his football coach brother, who said that his young players are more interested in their end zone dance than competing.
Mendenhall also alluded to a struggle with living in the public eye. He wrote that he felt like he was always at work and that he was tired of public perception of him being shaped by people writing online. He felt like his tweets, comments, and statements were scrutinized in a way that was unnecessary and harsh.
Mendenhall has had problems in the past with his comments and public perception. In 2009, he tweeted comments about 9/11 that ignited a storm of backlash. He suggested that the World Trade Center wasn’t brought down by hijacked planes and that Americans shouldn’t celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden. He later apologized, but that incident created friction in his relationship with the Steelers, who released him following the 2012 season.
Health concerns may trigger early retirements
It’s certainly unusual for an NFL player to retire in his prime and forego millions of dollars and years of playing. However, it’s not unheard of. The most famous example is probably Barry Sanders, who was one of the NFL’s elite running backs before retiring in 1998 after only 10 years in the league. Robert Smith was also a Pro Bowl running back who retired in 2000 after only seven years in the league.
The heightened focus on long-term physical health and safety concerns may be influencing many players to consider retirement earlier in their career. New research has found that concussions suffered in the NFL can lead to long-term brain issues, including depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS.
In Mendenhall’s case, it seems that he was concerned about his long-term health and excited about the opportunity to pursue ventures outside football. Anyone who follows him on Twitter knows that his interests are diverse and aren’t necessarily football focused.
It may be difficult to understand how someone could pass up millions of dollars in earnings. However, for some players, long-term health and happiness are more important than fame and fortune.