As a culture writ-large, Americans are obsessed with sports, with the NFL being perhaps the most obsessed sport of all. Our fixation on football, and especially the athletes which play the game, has increased so much over the years that we have developed 24/7 media outlets to cover not only the games themselves, but also potential Fantasy Football lineups and also the stars’ personal lives. All of this intense coverage can become overwhelming and all-consuming. And if you’re Rashard Mendenhall, the entertainment aspect of the game has simply become too overbearing to handle.
That is why the former Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals running back is calling it quits after 6 years in the NFL.
Mendenhall was the 23rd overall pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008. Coming out of the University of Illinois following his junior year, NFL executives were high on the big, powerful running back: “As a running back he’s the total package. He’s a big, strong, every-down back with speed who can pass block and also catch the ball. I’ve said before: he’s a big man with little-people feet, meaning he can run like he’s 180 [pounds] but also pound the ball like he’s 230,” stated current Arizona Cardinals head coach and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
If Mendenhall was the total package as a running back, then why did he decide to retire? The answer is two-fold.
First and foremost, Mendenhall found himself on the outside looking in on the elite running backs in the league following an ACL injury in 2011. Last year, Mendenhall’s numbers were somewhat paltry – 687 yards and 8 touchdowns, with an average of 3.2 yards per carry. Arizona’s other running back, Andre Ellington, nearly doubled Mendenhall’s output, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Going into the 2014, all signs pointed to the fact that Mendenhall would be riding the pine hard for most of the season.
I haven't said it until now, but the rumors are true. In my own words "Why I Retired At 26" http://t.co/2mGc1X0As2
— Rashard Mendenhall (@R_Mendenhall) March 9, 2014
While that fact alone would have discouraged many players, Mendenhall’s decision to retire hinges upon ideas much bigger than the scope of football itself:
“I feel like I’ve done it all. I’ve been to two Super Bowls; made a bunch of money; had a lot of success; traveled all over the country and overseas; met some really cool people; made lasting relationships; had the opportunity to give back to causes close to my heart; and have been able to share my experiences and wisdom with friends, family and people all over the world. Not to mention all the fun I had goofing around at work day after day with my teammates… Along with the joyful experiences I had, came many trials… Imagine having a job where you’re always on duty, and can never fully relax or you just may drown. Having to fight through waves and currents of praise and criticism, but mostly hate. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been called a ‘dumb nigger’.
Today, game-day cameras follow the most popular players on teams; guys who dance after touchdowns are extolled on Dancing With the Starters; games are analyzed and brought to fans without any use of coaches tape; practice non-participants are reported throughout the week for predicted fantasy value; and success and failure for skill players is measured solely in stats and fantasy points. This is a very different model of football than the one I grew up with.
So when they ask me why I want to leave the NFL at the age of 26, I tell them that I’ve greatly enjoyed my time, but I no longer wish to put my body at risk for the sake of entertainment. I think about the rest of my life and I want to live it with much quality. And physically, I am grateful that I can walk away feeling as good as I did when I stepped into it.”
Of course, Mendenhall’s decision has been met with its own fair bit of criticism. However, that criticism will now no longer be of any concern to Mendenhall. Instead of spending his days worrying about having to constantly perform 24/7 for not only his team but also fans and critics, Mendenhall will now be able to pursue his more introverted dreams of writing and travelling – dreams worthwhile for any 26-year-old multimillionaire retiree from the NFL.
Image via Arizona Cardinals | Twitter