This article appears in the April 23 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe here.
It takes a year of unanswered pitches, a half-dozen unreturned text messages, a voice mail and two calls, but eventually Jake Locker sends some GPS coordinates. To a Chipotle. Near the Canadian border. Inside a food court. Locker, 29, walked away from the NFL three years ago, issuing a statement that he lacked a “burning desire” to play, then vanishing from public view. Now he wants to meet at a restaurant where nobody stays longer than 20 minutes and he’s still not sure if he wants to tell his story, to reveal how he went from first-round draft pick in 2011 to retiree in four seasons. But he’ll hear me out.
So on a Monday three months after our first correspondence, Locker strides into the Bellis Fair Mall in Bellingham, Wash., and extends a meaty right hand. He introduces himself, insists on paying for lunch, gets really excited about Chipotle’s new topping (“I love queso!” he all but yells) and settles at a table outside, maneuvering a large umbrella for shade.
Locker agreed to meet, but not exactly to a formal interview. He remains wary of how a story about him might be framed; he worries that his words could be twisted to suggest that he retired because he hated football or that he was worried about his health or that he’d had an epiphany watching Concussion. But questions about his exit persist for one simple reason: In this century, no other healthy and reasonably effective NFL quarterback has chosen to step away as quickly as Locker.
Around us, mothers push children in strollers, and two men in Seahawks jerseys scarf burritos. None of them notice Locker, who’s digging into a chicken-and-rice bowl lathered in his favorite sauce. No one cares as he starts by saying that he never felt compelled to explain his choice in detail. “I didn’t need to,” he says, “ ’cause it was my decision, my life. That was good enough for me.”
He pauses. “What do you want to know?”
I want to know: 1) why he retired, 2) what he’s doing now and 3) whether he ever loved football.
He talks for most of the next two hours, answering every question. And yet when he departs that afternoon with a bro hug, he says he’s still not sure he wants to fully cooperate. I worry that he might have just bared his soul to an audience of one. If he’s to participate in any story, he says, he wants Jesus to be the main character. And if I want to spend an afternoon at his house during the football season, he would love it if I brought my wife, Lisa, and our newborn son, Blake.
The Bishops drove to see the Lockers one Sunday last fall, a straight shot 98 miles north from the Seattle suburbs to Ferndale, an enclave of 13,000 in the northwest corner of the state. Locker grew up here, became a star here and returned here when he retired from the NFL in March 2015, at 26. While all six of the other quarterbacks taken in the first four rounds of the 2011 draft prepared for the ’15 season, Locker remodeled his grandmother’s home, then moved in. And so off to grandmother’s house we go.
The Lockers live a bit north of Ferndale, up where tractors are as prevalent as cars. The gate to their property is open, leading to the house, with its wooden beams and rustic charm, a swing set, outdoor fireplace and a pasture stocked with chickens and cows. The front porch is framed by two flags: the Stars and Stripes and a much smaller purple homage to Locker’s alma mater, Washington. The flapping W marks the only visible suggestion across these 25 acres—no signed helmets, no framed jerseys—that the owner once played football for a living.
This slice of Pacific-Northwest Americana is the setting for Locker’s third act. (Act I: Become a millionaire athlete, fulfill childhood dream. Act II: Leave that fame and fortune behind, be widely questioned for it.) Just yesterday he took his three children—daughter Colbie, 5, and sons Cooper, 3, and Colt, 2—into the woods behind the house, where they stomped in creek beds until they were covered in mud. Two nights earlier Locker won a football game, albeit as the quarterbacks coach at Ferndale High, where he has volunteered the past three seasons. The Golden Eagles, he says excitedly, had five turnovers in the first half and still led by eight points with 48 seconds remaining, only to blow that lead, score in overtime, yield a matching TD and then stop a two-point conversion. That victory reminded him of how he’d come to love the game, before the fame, in simpler times, right there on that field.
Shortly after our arrival Locker asks to hold Blake, cradling my two-month-old with the right arm that shot him to fame. He gestures toward a kitchen buffet of cinnamon rolls, quiche, granola and fruit. A wall-mounted TV in the living room plays a Patriots-Jets game in which Locker’s favorite target, former Huskies receiver Jermaine Kearse, hauls in a pass for New York.
The retired QB hardly pays any attention. Dressed in a brown plaid shirt; dusty, scuffed cowboy boots; and a belt buckle the size of a go-kart steering wheel—the world’s most affable cowboy, basically—he’s deep into a dissertation about his refurbished laptop. He’s not sure exactly how the computer wizards fixed it (something about more RAM and a new hard drive), but it’s crucial for writing theology papers for his online seminary classes, and, thank goodness, the thing is back up and running.
Locker’s kids bolt around the living room, running from Jake to his wife, Lauren, rattling wooden signs that announce, for example: AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSE, WE SERVE THE LORD. Locker tickles his children, reads to them, puts Colt down for an afternoon nap and takes turns with his mother, Anita, holding Blake. It’s left unsaid that he can do all of this on a Sunday afternoon because he’s not guiding an offense or holding a clipboard. Because he’s home. And he’s home because he made a choice that he believes most people will never understand.
On this Sunday he doesn’t want to relive his 30 NFL games, his 4,967 passing yards, his 27 TD passes. He isn’t prepared to debate those who label him a draft bust. Instead, he wants me, my football-ambivalent wife and my football-indifferent son—who, yes, will throw up on himself this afternoon—to understand not what Jake Locker ran from but what he ran toward. Then, perhaps we’ll understand why he left football.
Start with Ferndale. That’s where Locker guided the Golden Eagles to the Class 3A state championship in 2005, working with his buddies through drizzly afternoon practices, throwing his way onto national recruiting radars, riding in the parade downtown as all his neighbors screamed and cheered. He decided to go to college in Seattle, south on I-5, and in his debut, as a redshirt freshman in ’07, scored twice to help beat Syracuse. Huskies fans quickly nicknamed him Montlake Jake, after the street that hugs their waterfront stadium. They made T-shirts comparing him with Jesus and plopped his name into Bible verses. JAKE 3:16. Locker says he wasn’t all that religious then, but he was billed that way and his reputation as a God-fearing, program-saving deity stuck, even as, privately, it started to make him uncomfortable.
“A recruit of his caliber, local kid—people looked at him a certain way,” says Kearse. “As their savior, basically.”
There was the embarrassment of a winless 2008 season, though Locker played only four games due to a left-hamstring injury (establishing an unfortunate theme). He patrolled the outfield that summer for the Bellingham Bells of the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League, and in the fall carried the Huskies to a September upset of No. 3 USC. Everyone loved Locker. Scott Woodward, then UW’s athletic director, points to the appeal of the QB’s “aura” and “genuineness.”
To every person except one, Locker’s career had become a feel-good narrative, steeped (inexplicably) in religion, steeled by success. But as his story spun into fable, his fame and draft stock ballooned, and so did the pressure. He still loved football—the game itself, anyway—but the demands required of a star QB felt like a burden. He didn’t know it then, but already he viewed the game from two disparate vantage points. He relished Saturday afternoons, daily practices, even film study—it was everything else he struggled with.
He had a way out if he wanted it: baseball. But he turned down an offer from the Angels, who chose him in the 10th round (“I’m sorry, Dad, I don’t have the heart for baseball like I do football,” he told his father, Scott), and he returned for his senior season, even after NFL scouts predicted he’d go No. 1 in the 2010 draft—6'3", 230 pounds and mobile, with a major league arm. Locker and everyone else knew the NFL planned to introduce a rookie wage scale after that draft, which means that a 21-year-old college student knowingly passed on almost $30 million in guaranteed money. (The top pick in ’10, Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford, got $50 million guaranteed with the Rams; a year later, Auburn’s Cam Newton received $22 million from the Panthers in the same slot.)
Millions were millions, reasoned Locker, who says he doesn’t regret sticking around, even if his draft stock slid in his senior season, after which he went No. 8 to the Titans and signed for $12.5 million. Locker had explained to reporters that he came back because he loved school and wanted to finish his history degree. But that wasn’t entirely true, he says now. In reality he knew he wasn’t ready, knew he couldn’t leave yet. All the savior stuff, all the expectations, “it wore him down,” says Scott.
Locker never had a drink of alcohol in high school. Before he tried it, as a UW sophomore, he called his dad. “Just be careful,” Scott told him. But that first night of drinking led to regular consumption, Locker says, and eventually he was partying most weekends—often after games—sometimes until he blacked out. He would wake up some mornings “with this pit in my stomach,” he says, “because you’re hoping something bad didn’t happen. You’re asking your roommates questions in a roundabout way, to make sure the night wasn’t too crazy.”
Former teammates, coaches and administrators describe Locker’s drinking as typical for a college student, but he sees a deeper meaning in what he calls his “double life.” He wasn’t an alcoholic. It never appeared to affect his performance; he remained one of the Huskies’ best, most consistent and most dedicated players. But alcohol did provide a means of coping, allowing him to forget the implications of the JAKE 3:16 signs. It was, he says, “my way to not have to be that guy for six hours.”
Matt Hasselbeck was a veteran of 10 NFL seasons, a three-time Pro Bowler who started Super Bowl XL for the Seahawks, when Tennessee signed him in July 2011. “When Jake is ready, he’ll play,” team officials told Hasselbeck of their draft choice. “Until then, just win games. You don’t have to mentor him.”
Hasselbeck mentored anyway, and the Titans’ QB meetings turned quickly into a pigskin sitcom. He played the bald, old city slicker getting one final shot at glory. Locker and Rusty Smith, a sixth-rounder from 2010, were the country-bred little brothers Hasselbeck never wanted but grew to appreciate. They took the old veteran duck hunting, forced him to sing karaoke at Nashville’s country bars and gave him pocket knives for Christmas.
Locker, in particular, struck Hasselbeck as different from any QB he’d ever been around. In the complicated world of NFL stardom, Locker preferred simplicity. He eschewed jewelry and new cars; instead he planned to put part of his signing bonus toward cattle. He wanted to start a family, desired to return to the farm when he retired and disdained all the interviews and autograph requests that came with his draft status. He wasn’t shy; he just didn’t view himself the way others did. “He wasn’t motivated by the things that typically motivate people,” says Hasselbeck.
With a nudge from his mentor, Locker started to explore his relationship with Jesus. Hasselbeck could sense Locker’s angst over his hero status, and he told the rookie that trusting in Jesus could help him cope. Locker still drank at that point, but not as heavily as in college. Alcohol wasn’t his problem; it was a symptom of his problem, how he masked his problem.
Hasselbeck invited Locker—who had attended Catholic services growing up but who didn’t yet consider himself religious—to team chapel. Eventually the two men came to play a game that Hasselbeck called the Daily Bread, in which they competed to compliment at least one person each day. Later that first winter, after Locker appeared in five games, Titans players were packing up for the offseason when Hasselbeck invited Jake to fly to Orlando with him for a Pro Athletes Outreach conference—“just a weekend retreat looking at God’s design for your life,” Hasselbeck explains.
Locker had no preconceptions as he listened at one symposium to hip-hop artist Lecrae, but instantly the QB felt connected to this rapper who grew up surrounded by drugs and gang violence. After becoming successful, Lecrae explained, the pressure to “keep it real” overwhelmed him, until finally he chose to end the double life. He’d prioritize Jesus and his family above all else. The internal conflicts that Lecrae described seemed to mirror Locker’s inner turbulence.
Lauren had joined him on the trip, and she was pregnant with Colbie. Their life appeared to be perfect—millions in the bank, daughter on the way—but that’s not how Locker felt. “I was pretending with everybody,” he says, “because I wasn’t authentic with anybody.” (Says Lecrae of the notion that his Orlando talk in any way led to Locker’s retirement: “I hope his fans aren’t mad at me.”)
As the conference wound down, Jake and Lauren decided to be baptized, and with Hasselbeck standing in the water beside them, they dedicated their lives to Jesus. That moment, Locker says, is why “I can sit here today and say that I’m an extremely happy man.” It marked the first day of Locker’s new life—and the first time he asked himself, Do I want to play football anymore?
In the fall of 2012, as Titans fans started to question Locker’s place as the starter, the QB was asking himself deeper questions. Who am I?Who is my daughter going to know me as? And the answers that he found surprised him. Football wasn’t just his job: It had become his addiction. To get his fix and to earn his millions he had to obsess over every detail, had to stay late at the facility, had to take the game home with him. His work-life balance felt off, he says. Then he corrects himself. There was no balance.
“Jake loved football,” Hasselbeck explains. “He just didn’t love being in the NFL.”
Locker hated all the forced media interaction, how outside forces wanted to mold his answers to make him more corporate, more bland. He questioned the motives of reporters he never really got to know. He made the mistake of reading their stories—all the praise after wins, all the criticism after losses—and now blames himself that those relationships had turned acrimonious. That tension only added to the main concern percolating in Locker’s soul: that he was inauthentic, that he was projecting an image of star quarterback that didn’t square with how he saw himself. “I don’t want to say [he was a] fraud,” says Camron Hahn, Locker’s agent, “but everybody else assumed his life was perfect. And I don’t think he ever truly felt fulfilled.”
When Locker left football, his injuries seemed the most plausible rationale. His second season, 2012, had ended after 11 starts with a mangled left shoulder; in ’13 he started seven games before suffering a Lisfranc injury in his right foot. But while he had surgery following three of his four seasons, it wasn’t the injuries that ended his desire to play—it was the time they gave him to reflect. The more days he spent away from the field, the more he wondered why the game seemed so damn important to him. Because everyone else thinks it should be? Because of all the commas in my bank statement? He started to pray daily, mostly about his future. And the more he prayed, the less significant the game seemed compared to his family and his relationship with Jesus.
Locker decided to give football one more go, vowing that the 2014 season would be different: He would stay healthy and focus on the game itself, rather than his off-field angst. The Titans announced that spring that they would not be picking up his fifth-year option; Locker told reporters that he cared only about winning, not money. And then everything lined up. He earned the starting job. His new coach, Ken Whisenhunt, installed an offense that gave the quarterback more responsibility, allowing him to change protections and play calls at the line. In the opener, at Kansas City, Locker threw for 266 yards and two touchdowns in a resounding 26–10 victory. “Awesome,” he says, eyes widening as he recalls an afternoon that embodied “everything I loved about football.”
It didn’t last. Locker was benched before the calendar even turned to October. Hasselbeck says his friend got “a raw deal. Just a terrible situation. So many coaches [three coordinators in four years]. You never knew who was in charge. The coach? The general manager? The owner? That organization was really bizarre, and so far behind in terms of nutrition and everything else.” (The Titans declined to comment.)
None of that ultimately mattered, Locker says. He went on injured reserve in December 2014 after separating the same shoulder against the Jets, and again he weighed his priorities. He spoke to his wife, his parents and his agent, and he came to what he considers a fairly obvious conclusion.
Sure, he loved football. But he loved his family and Jesus more.
Once he decided, Locker told Lauren first. He can’t recall that conversation in much detail. He rang his father next, and that was tough. Scott was the kind of guy who sometimes woke up in the morning and thanked God that he was one of just 32 men who could say his son was a starting NFL quarterback. He still watched film of Jake’s exploits at Ferndale High, calling out touchdowns before Jake threw them.
“Dad, I know this might disappoint you,” Jake said, “but I just don’t think I want to play anymore. I’m done.”
“And that was hard to [hear], as a dad,” Scott says, “because I loved him. I mean, obviously as a person, but I loved him as an athlete too. He had so much to give.”
Scott swallowed his emotions. “You’d be foolish to think I’m disappointed,” he told his son while choking back tears.
Locker called his agent next, and Hahn asked what everyone else eventually would: Did you think it through? He had, and though he wanted to keep in touch, he made Hahn promise he wouldn’t call the QB with any offers. Locker then released a 128-word statement, explaining that “to continue [playing] would be unfair” to any team that signed him. He says he would have made the same decision even if he’d been winning Super Bowl after Super Bowl playing for the Patriots, even if he’d never been injured. He understands how someone could find his decision crazy. He knows that only a small number of men can say they’ve started an NFL game at the sport’s premier position, soaking in the adoration of thousands, feeling like a god.
To that, “I’d ask, Why? Why are we so enamored with football?” Locker says at the food court. “I’d argue that if you”—meaning me, the writer in the room—“signed a four-year, $12 million contract [to write stories], people would wonder why you quit writing if you ever stepped away.” He laughs. (Yes, that is quite a funny notion.) “Fame and fortune equal success for most people. But those aren’t things that last.
“I had to come to an understanding that I did not leave the NFL on bad terms. I was grateful for the experience. I was just moving in a different direction.”
Three years later, Hahn says that roughly 10 teams did inquire about his client. Some sought Locker as a bridge starter, as Hasselbeck was for the Titans in 2011. Others saw him as a top-shelf backup. Hahn estimates that Locker could have banked another $5 million to $10 million, even if he played sparingly over several years. “Put it this way,” he says: “I had a lot of [clients] sign with a lot less interest, especially that first year [Jake left].” Hahn also says he kept his word and never told Locker about any of this.
Locker, for his part, insists that he never even thought about a comeback. That seems like a stretch, and so I ask: “What about when you watch Marcus Mariota sling it all over the field for the Titans?”
“Well, heck yeah, that looks fun,” Locker says. “But I never had any doubt. Never once have I regretted what I did. Naw. No way.”
Hasselbeck relays that he heard coach Chip Kelly wanted to sign Locker to the Eagles’ roster in 2015. The veteran QB recommended Locker to his own team, the Colts, that same season after he was injured in relief of Andrew Luck. Hasselbeck even dialed up his old buddy to gauge his interest.
“I’ve got a big softball game tonight,” Locker told him by way of explanation.
Decision made, career over, Locker returned to Ferndale and moved his family in with Scott and Anita while he remodeled his grandparents’ house. During the day, father and son did demo work, tearing out walls and installing new sheetrock. At night, Jake did the dishes and took the garbage out and read the Bible. Locker used some of his NFL earnings to buy cows and chickens for his remodeled farm; he hired contractors to move the fireplace and add a pantry and raise the ceilings in the living room as high as 13 feet. It was the closest he would come to directing an offense after football. It also marked the first time his outward-facing self was the same as his private one.
For that first year of retirement, the year he turned 27, Locker didn’t watch the game much. He had stopped drinking not long after the church conference. He told his father that his favorite gridiron memory remained the state title he’d won with Ferndale—not his Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska, not draft night. Well-meaning strangers, meanwhile, continued to ask about a comeback. He would answer that he was done with football and they’d pivot. So how do you keep busy? “And that was interesting, this idea that you have to be busy to be valuable,” he says. “That I couldn’t just be a dad.”
Locker did some volunteer work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, ministering to local players, coaches and businessmen. He mentored the quarterbacks at his old high school, including last year’s starter, James Hinson, whose post-practice dedication sometimes reminds Locker of his own. He works as a life coach and leadership consultant at a local lumber company and co-owns the town gym, which he named the Locker Room. On weekends he hunts birds, deer and turkey, and spends time with his kids. He still works out every morning, still throws the football around occasionally. But, please, don’t get any ideas.
As controversy swirled last fall about NFL players kneeling for the anthem, Locker called up one of his old Titans wideouts, Nate Washington, in hopes of better understanding the position of protesting African-American players. They spoke about race and police brutality and Jesus and the need for everyone to better understand their neighbors. But football never came up. “That’s Jake,” says Washington.
The NFL moved on—always does—and with each passing year fewer people ask Locker about his comeback. The fact that the local Seahawks, or even his old team, the Titans, could have used a solid backup in 2017 went unsaid. Locker is busy raising cattle, milking cows, writing about theology. His career is but a memory that many have already forgotten.
But not Hasselbeck. “Look,” he says. “Every coach I ever played for says these are the priorities: faith, family, football. But no one really lives that way. No one. Jake didn’t retire. He put family and faith first. This is the way I judge people now: If you don’t like Jake Locker, I don’t think I can like you.”