Rashard Mendenhall wasn't the first NFL player to walk away from the game way earlier than expected, and he certainly won't be the last. Now, though, we're starting to believe his decision to retire at the age of 26 could spur a trend that will increase in frequency and popularity in the years to come.
In a fascinating piece for the Huffington Post, Mendenhall gave several sensible reasons for his decision to leave football behind, but the one that stands out is this:
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.
We're learning more and more about the effects of concussions every year. There's evidence linking football to CTE, and CTE to suicides. There's tangible evidence that football players live shorter lives, and there's anecdotal evidence — which is becoming more pervasive — that they're also living more difficult, painful lives.
Football players are a different breed, but as we gain more knowledge about the long-term repercussions of playing the game, more of them are beginning to realize that, at least in their view, the money isn't worth it, nor are any of the other perks.
That occurred to Mendenhall, which is why he's walking away despite compiling 827 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns in 2013. And don't be surprised when more good players follow that path.
Superstars aren't walking away yet, and maybe they never will. Maybe the game's elite players make too much to walk, a la Barry Sanders. But that could change eventually, too.
And even if it doesn't, if more quality non-stars continue to walk earlier than expected, depth on rosters will take a hit, and the product will inevitably become watered down.
That hasn't happened yet, but when it does, it could be the first sign that the seemingly bulletproof National Football League is in trouble.