has decided to take his talents in other directions. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Running back Rashard Mendenhall was the Pittsburgh Steelers' first-round pick in 2008 out of Illinois. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in his second and third seasons (a career-high 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010, the last season in which the Steelers made the Super Bowl), but suffered a torn ACL at the end of the 2011 season and never seemed to fully recover. He played in just six games for the Steelers in 2012, starting four, and rushing for only 182 yards on 51 carries. Signed by the Arizona Cardinals before the 2013 season at the urging of new head coach and former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Mendenhall wasn't able to live up to Arians' lofty expectations.
“As a running back he’s the total package,” Arians said last March. “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.”
But Mendenhall struggled with several nagging injuries and finished the 2013 campaign with 687 yards and eight touchdowns on 217 carries in 15 starts. While those aren't horrible numbers, they're hardly what was expected of a franchise back. After the 2013 campaign, Mendenhall made some noises to the effect that he might be ready to hang it up at age 26, and in a recent blog entry for the Huffington Post, Mendenhall confirmed that he was indeed retiring from the NFL.
"I decided not to hold a press conference because I didn't want to have to say things that were cliché," he wrote on Sunday. "I've done enough of that since I've been playing football. I actually didn't really plan on saying anything about my retirement at all. I just kind of wanted to disappear. The fact that I was done playing would've been clear once some time had passed, and I hadn't signed back with the Cardinals or any other team. Maybe people would've thought I couldn't get another job. Either way, I was okay with the idea of fading to black, and my legacy becoming 'What ever happened to that dude Rashard Mendenhall? He was pretty good for a few years, then he just vanished.' "
Mendenhall also wrote that the reaction to his retirement was one of shock -- many of the people around him couldn't understand why he was walking away from a game he might still be able to play. He tried to explain why in a bigger picture you don't often see from young athletes ready for new phases in their lives.
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! I'm thankful that I can walk away at this time and smile over my six years in the NFL, and 17 total seasons of football -- dating back to when I started pee-wee ball at Niles West in 1997, when I was 10. These experiences are all a part of me, and will remain in my heart no matter what I do, or where I go.
[...] 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'. There is a bold coarseness you receive from non-supporters that seems to only exist on the Internet. However, even if you try to avoid these things completely -- because I've tried -- somehow they still reach you. If not first-hand, then through friends and loved ones who take to heart all that they read and hear. I'm not a terribly sensitive person, so this stuff never really bothered me. That was until I realized that it actually had an impact my career. Over my career, I would learn that everything people say behind these computer and smartphones actually shape the perception of you -- the brand, the athlete and the person. Go figure!
This was perhaps best personified by the caustic opinion, put forth by an anonymous writer on Rotoworld.com, that Mendenhall "will attempt a 'comeback' once his money begins to run out."
At least at this point, Mendenhall certainly doesn't sound like a guy waiting around for a bigger payday.
Over my career, because of my interests in dance, art and literature, my very calm demeanor, and my apparent lack of interest in sporting events on my Twitter page, people in the sporting world have sometimes questioned whether or not I love the game of football. I do. I always have. I am an athlete and a competitor. The only people who question that are the people who do not see how hard I work and how diligently I prepare to be great -- week after week, season after season. I take those things very seriously. I've always been a professional. But I am not an entertainer. I never have been. Playing that role was never easy for me. The box deemed for professional athletes is a very small box. My wings spread a lot further than the acceptable athletic stereotypes and conformity was never a strong point of mine. My focus has always been on becoming a better me, not a second-rate somebody else. Sometimes I would suffer because of it, but every time I learned a lesson from it. And I'll carry those lessons with me for the rest of my life.
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.
It's a difficult balance for a lot of athletes to find -- where does the player stop and the person begin? I've known former Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos guard John Moffitt since he came into the league in 2011, and he still seems bemused by the fact that so many are confused by his choice to walk away from football at age 27. Moffitt was never going to be a Hall of Famer, but he had a shot with each of the two teams that played in the Super Bowl, and he could have been a bit player on that stage, Instead, as he told the New York Times, Moffitt wanted to leave and find himself.
“I’m the one being called crazy, but I think everyone else is crazy,” Moffitt said last November. “It’s disturbing that people are questioning my sanity for giving up the money. What does that say about our world?”
Moffitt told me last week at a Seattle screening for the Sean Pamphilon film, "The United States of Football" that he remains amazed at the reaction to his decision.
As for Mendenhall, he's got plans for the next stage of his life.
As for the question of what will I do now, with an entire life in front of me? I say to that, I will LIVE! I plan to live in a way that I never have before, and that is freely, able to fully be me, without the expectation of representing any league, club, shield or city. I do have a plan going forward, but I will admit that I do not know how things will totally shape out. That is the beauty of it! I look forward to chasing my desires and passions without restriction, and to sharing them with anyone who wants to come along with me! And I'll start with writing!
Football is a glamorous and beautiful sport, but it's also a sport of extreme conformity, and it's not surprising that some players can't take that particular pull over the one that marks their love of the game.