In October, when the National Football League had its epidemic of helmet hits, I went to see a neurologist in Bedford, Mass., Dr. Ann McKee, who showed me slides of cross-sections of deceased NFL players' brains. She showed me how the toxic protein tau in many cases strangled healthy brain cells in the brains, leading -- in these cases -- to long-term brain damage such as dementia. It was an afternoon of great education for me. I left with little doubt that men who subjected themselves to repeated brain trauma, as so many football players have done over the years, were far more likely to suffer memory loss and other brain-trauma maladies like ALS and dementia than the general populations.
Driving home, the person I thought of first was Kurt Warner. Almost a year earlier, Warner suffered a concussion in a game against St. Louis and had to then figure out if (he was mostly asymptomatic by the following weekend) whether he should sit or play an important game at Tennessee. Should he be honest and tell his doctor he was still sensitive to light with a bad neck ache? Or should he suck it up, as so many players do every week, and play for the very big money he was earning?
"I thought about it,'' he told me that week. "And I had to say to myself, 'What are you doing! What are you thinking!' First, it's not my character to lie. But it's also in this case just not the right thing to do. I have seven kids, a wife. A life. I want to win as much as anyone. But at the end of the day, you have to be able to take a step back and realize what you're talking about. It's a football game, versus the rest of your life. You wonder if your teammates are thinking, 'Yeah, he wimped out on us. Yeah, he wasn't tough enough. Yeah, he wouldn't come to battle with us.' But I had to do what was right for me.''
Warner missed the Tennessee game. Arizona lost. He played the next week, and the rest of the season. But his mind was made up by then. It took him about 10 minutes to decide that he'd retire after one of the most interesting sports careers we've ever seen: from Arena Football to getting cut by the Packers to bagging groceries in Iowa to the bench of the Rams to the miracle quarterback job of the Greatest Show on Turf Rams teams to the bench of the Giants and the Cardinals, and then, finally, to leading Arizona to the Super Bowl and then to the 2009 season, and his final two games in 2010. His playoff win over the Packers was one of the great playoff games ever by a quarterback -- 29 of 33 passing (an amazing 88-percent accuracy rate), for 379 yards, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. That preceded a battering by the Saints in his final NFL game.
"I don't think about one more game defining me,'' he said. "I'm thinking about the 50 years with my family after this part of my life.''
That's the first reason why I'm choosing Warner as my Sportsman of the Year. He knew when to fold 'em, when so many athletes want one more bow, or one more million. Here's the second: He gets what football life is, and what real life is, too. Retiring was not a drawn-out process to him. He left the field willingly, and didn't look back this year. He became a carpooler, a public speaker, a sports broadcaster, a Tweeter (Warner leads retired players in Tweets per day, I'm sure), the best Slumber Party Dad in the Valley of the Sun, a perfect-attender at every school and sports activity of his kids ... and a dancer. (I don't watch "Dancing With the Stars.'' No interest. But I must be alone. It's a big show, and Warner made it, and he must have been pretty good, because he lasted for a few weeks on it.)
It was an interesting personal choice. Warner is a devout Christian and he had to dance very closely with his very attractive partner. Anna Trebunskaya. And he had to do it recently on the 13th anniversary of the wedding of Warner and wife Brenda. He told me he did it for the challenge of it, and to show a Christian man can dance close with a woman who is not his wife and still be a faithful husband.
I wondered about his wife's reaction to the show, and to the endless hours of dancing with a beautiful woman with Brenda a few hundred miles away. And this is why I so appreciate Warner. It's the honesty.
Here's what most public figures would say to that question: "Oh, Brenda is totally supportive. She understands it's a once-in-a-lifetime deal, and she loves the fact I'm getting to show a different side of my life.''
Here's what Warner said: "She has her moments. I totally understand. It's tough on us. When it's your 13th anniversary, and you've got to dance 'the dance of love' with your partner, Brenda said, 'Do you find it ironic that you're dancing the dance of love on our 13th anniversary?' ''
Kurt Warner went out a playoff king and transitioned to the real world easily and frankly and ... well, the best thing about it all? He wasn't disappointing. In any way.