The A.J. Tarpley Effect

After explaining his rationale for retiring at 23, the ex-Bills linebacker discusses his final play, head trauma and players walking away. Plus reader mailbag questions on Will Smith’s death, Von Miller and more
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Chances are you hadn’t heard of A.J. Tarpley until the middle of last week, when the second-year Bills linebacker announced his retirement at 23. Maybe you still haven’t. But if you like this game, you should read what this Stanford kid wrote for The MMQBon Tuesday. It’s educational, touching, and full of the love of—and fear for—football from a player who devoted his life to making the NFL, and then made the agonizing choice to quit out of concern for his long-term health.

I was so impressed with the piece that I phoned Tarpley late Tuesday afternoon to ask him about it. What was the most interesting part of the piece was this: Whereas a Ben Roethlisberger can pull himself out of a game because he thinks he may have suffered a concussion (which happened last year in a Steelers game), an A.J. Tarpley can pull himself out a game too—but he knows, as an undrafted free agent and end-of-the-roster player, he has zero security, so he’d exit the lineup at his own peril.

• WHY I WALKED AWAY FROM FOOTBALL AT 23: Bills LB A.J. Tarpley explains decision to retire, coming to terms with his concussion history

Tarpley writes about staying in a game last season against Jacksonville for four plays despite having suffered a concussion, his vision narrowed by the head trauma. But Tarpley was determined to stay in the game. “I managed to find my correct alignment through the horse blinders, and I just played on instinct,” Tarpley wrote. “I told myself to hit whatever comes my way and don’t stop moving my feet.”

This is why it’s so important that players begin to understand they’ve got to report concussions on the field—and why I applaud what Tarpley did last week. What’s a play—what’s a season—when you know there’s a great unknown out there, and the unknown can result in diminished brain function later in life.

For now, Tarpley said he’s trying to figure out what to do with his life. He majored in Science, Technology and Society—“I studied the changes that come about in society due to technology,” he said—at Stanford, and he said he’s had some experience in investment banking. Maybe he’ll want to do that, or be a sales rep, or maybe get into coaching. It’s too soon.

“Football brought out an arrogance in me,” he said, “and whatever my next career will be, I’ll take the same attitude into it.”

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Tarpley played 86 snaps in his rookie season. He started the last two games of the season for Buffalo, including Week 17 against the Jets, when New York was battling for a wild-card spot. He played mostly base defense in the game, but was inserted on the last series of the game on a couple of passing downs—including the decisive play in the game.

I remember this game, with the Jets having a prayer in the final minute of the game, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick needing a long drive to win. And Fitzpatrick threw errantly for Eric Decker on the Jets’ final play, with Tarpley ranging deep into coverage with the fleet Decker to pick off the ball and end the game.

What I thought that day, after hearing A.J. Tarpley was the man to end the Jets’ season, was, “Who?” And the next time I heard his name was last week, with the retirement announcement.

“Players in the past had more of a warrior’s mentality—play till you can’t play anymore. Now I think guys will be smarter.”

I wondered how Tarpley felt now, knowing the last play of his NFL career was—at least for the Jets—such a momentous one.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘consolation,’” he said, “but it will be a little consolation to me, a play I’ll remember forever, and it being so important, and knocking the Jets out of the playoffs. We knew they needed to score, and they needed to pass. It was the last minute of the game. One of my biggest skills was pass coverage. On the play, we ran cover 3. I was one of the droppers inside. They were in desperation mode to get the ball downfield. I used my knowledge of that. They were in a three-by-one formation. Usually, in my position on this play, you’d drop in hook-curls 10 or 12 yards downfield. But I knew they needed more yards than that, so I lengthened my drop. I don’t think Fitz thought I would be that deep. He threw it. It happened so fast.

“Afterward, I just felt, ‘Well, I got some momentum going into next year. I got some good tape.’ It was a joyous moment, a joyous play.”

He wasn’t thinking of the end yet. Last year, in the spring, when 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired because of his health, Tarpley recalled his reaction as “almost indifference. At the time, I definitely didn’t think I would retire because of health concerns. I respected whatever he wanted to do, but never thought that was me.”

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Nor does Tarpley think he’ll start a trend, or continue what may be the beginning of a trend. “I think you’ll see more guys walk away on their own terms,” he said. “Players in the past had more of a warrior’s mentality—play till you can’t play anymore. Now I think guys will be smarter.”

The good thing for Tarpley is he doesn’t feel defined by football. His parents in Indiana never stressed football over school, and they were driving forces in him going to Stanford, where Tarpley thinks he’s been well positioned for life after football. He never envisioned that starting at 23, but now it will. So be it.

“To be honest,” Tarpley said, “I’m excited about what’s next. When you make a decision to quit your career that you work years for, you can’t focus on what could have been. Guys walk away from prestigious jobs to achieve success all the time. I’ll find my way.”

Read his column, and you’ll see there’s little doubt of that.

Now for your email:

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How would you compare and rate Myles Jack versus Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, the two linebackers that starred at UCLA with or before Jack? It seems both Barr and Kendricks had better stats in college, yet Jack seems to be rated much higher as a draft prospect even with the knee injury. What makes him so much more attractive and do you think he'll have a better pro career?

—Jin Lee, Seoul, Korea

What makes him more attractive, I think, is that teams in the NFL project him to be a better sideline-to-sideline playmaker. I believe that is how Jacksonville (at No. 5 in the first round) sees him. This is why it’s so important for Jack to show well at the combine injury recheck this week. If his knee passes muster, he should be a top-10 pick.

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I suggest you really slow down on this Will Smith story. You did not do Drew Brees any favors allowing him to jump to the road rage conclusion. You are reading too much into shot in the back before more analysis is given. I am sorry Will Smith was killed and his wife shot. But sometimes the rush to get a story onto the internet should take a back seat to awaiting more facts.

—Lawrence B., Westford, Mass.

Fair enough. But whatever the circumstances, unless Will Smith had his hands around the shooter’s neck, or was pointing a gun at him—and neither of those things happened, from the initial police reports—we have a murder that took a father of three at 34. Smith, reports now say, had a loaded gun in his car, and one witness claims to have heard Smith tell Cardell Hayes, the accused killer, that he had a gun. I agree the story is different than it first appeared. But shooting a man four times with the story we know now? I still think it’s absurd. Regarding your other point: I simply allowed Brees to speak his mind.

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I think Brees’ comment about how the Will Smith shooter may have thought twice had he known he was shooting a Saint was sad. It implies, perhaps unintentionally, that a football player has higher value as a human being than other human beings. No one should get shot as a result of a car accident regardless of their profession, profile, gender, age, religion or color. I’m a huge Brees fan, but disappointed by the comment. The U.S. has a gun culture, and, for better or worse, it leads to a way-too-high death-by-gun reality.


I see your point. But I think you’re over-thinking this. I’m sure you know what the situation was in New Orleans a decade ago, when Sean Payton and Drew Brees were new in town. The place was desolate. Then the Saints caught fire. The governor, the mayor, the local citizenry all credited the boost given by the Saints to the recovery of the area. All Brees was saying was he wondered if the accused shooter, a New Orleans resident, would have responded the same way had he known he was about to murder one of the people who helped the city recover, and a person doing the kind of work to help the city continue to recover today.


Same question asked to both players immediately after a disappointing defeat: “How do you feel?” One player (Cam) walked away in disgust while the other stayed (Jordan) and handled every question thrown to him. You would think the younger player would have been the one walking away but Jordan is four years younger than Newton!

—Saul G.

Spieth is mature beyond his years, but you’re right: Newton should have handled better the post-game interview on Super Bowl Sunday.


Have you ever considered doing a story covering gun ownership by NFL players? Does celebrity status change their perception regarding carrying a gun for their own protection? Also, how do NFL teams handle guns at their facilities and training camps. I do not own guns nor do I plan too but I wonder if celebrity status changes one’s perception in regards to their personal and family’s safety.

—Andy L., Sherburne, New York

Good idea. I’ll think about it and discuss with my staff. Guns are not permitted at NFL stadiums, or in NFL locker rooms or training facilities. 

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Being a Denver Bronco fan since the days of Charley Johnson and Otis Armstrong, I am reading as much as I can about the negotiations for Von Miller and I am starting to feel he won’t be playing for the Broncos much longer. Elway seems to put a value on a player and $19 million is the limit. The Von Miller team wants $22-25 million. When does it become too much money? Can you put a competitive team on the field when one player gets such a large sum of money? Does winning matter to an NFL player who makes millions a year?

—Mike H., West Jordan, Utah

Of course it does. But players know they have short shelf lives, and a player like Miller surely knows this could be his last NFL contract—either because of performance or because he may choose to end it (as many players are doing now) before his time is up, for health reasons. I don’t think he’s being particularly unreasonable, and John Elway has proven in his five years running the team that he can hold the line pretty well. I wouldn’t worry about Miller’s future with the Broncos if I were you.


I’m no Sam Hinkie apologist, but understand his audience in that letter was the Sixers’ 12 limited partners, almost all of whom are high finance guys who know all about Charlie Munger et al. Plus, the Sixers future is not different from your Devils: And they’ve got extra draft picks in June, which is how that franchise has to compete. Hinkie has set up the Sixers with the most high draft picks in league history. Not a slam-dunk formula, but he executed a plan his ownership signed off on for three years before they caved under the pressure from outsiders.  


A 7,000-word resignation letter, with a slew of reasons (excuses?) why after picking in the top three two years in a row the Sixers are still by far the worst team in the league? Careful with the comparisons to the Devils, who picked sixth and 30th in the last two NHL drafts, and who won more than they lost this season with a pretty mediocre cast of talent. As far as caving in from pressure from the outside, I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do know if I had Hinkie’s track record, I wouldn’t be writing a term paper defending what a great job I’d done.

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