Rashard Mendenhall, former running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals, is retiring. The interesting bit is that Mendenhall is only twenty six years old: right in the prime of the typical NFL player's career. The main reaction from sports outlets seems to ask, "Why?" While Mendenhall is not a premier running back, it's likely some team would have wanted the former first round pick to join their stable of backs. Considering the financial consequences of the decision, it's hard to imagine why he would leave this lucrative career. Even role players and bench-warmers make extremely good money: NFL players with six years of experience earn at least the minimum salary of $715,000, not including any signing bonuses. It's possible Mendenhall could have made a good deal more than that: last season he earned $2.5M with the Cardinals.
Like most Steeler fans, I always had conflicted feelings about Mendenhall. When he was drafted by the Steelers in 2008, he had the look and pedigree of a future star. In college, Mendenhall played well in the Big 10, a notoriously tough conference for running backs. And he passed the eye test: dude was built like the proverbial brick outhouse. But his production never matched the fans' expectations. He was adequate, but never particularly impressive. My lasting memory of Mendenhall was his fumble in Super Bowl XLV against the Packers. It came at the worst possible time: right as the Steelers were starting to wear down the defense with their running game, within 4 points, and in the fourth quarter. The game turned, the Steelers lost, and I've never really forgiven him. When he left for Arizona, I was happy to see him go.
Despite my conflicted feelings, I was still a bit shocked to hear he was retiring after only six years. But then I realized that Mendenhall is pulling off the extreme early retirement of NFL players. He is leaving on his own volition, while he's still healthy, and on his own terms. Hardly anyone does this. The typical career path is to play until your body does not allow you to play anymore and the contract offers stop coming in: when the league's teams collectively tell you it's time to hang up your cleats.
Presumably, Mendenhall has saved a good bit of the $15.1 million he's earned over his six year career. If he has enough saved and wants to do something else with his life, why shouldn't he leave? The part I like best about Mendenhall's decision, which he explains in a piece he's written for the Huffington Post, are the similarities between the constraints of a professional football career and a typical corporate career. Here are some direct quotes from his article:
"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...."
"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."
"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."
"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!"First, I am struck by what a talented writer Mendenhall is. It is bad enough that he was a better football player at the age of ten than I ever was. Now, at twenty six, he is a better writer than I can probably ever hope to be. Some guys have all the luck.
But I love how similar Mendenhall's decision to leave his career track is to that of so many early retirement bloggers. The pressures that plague the typical American corporate worker are also present in the NFL. The job that you never really clock out from; whether you're at home or on vacation, you're only an email or a call away from being back on the job. Always feeling the pressure to get praise and to avoid criticism from leadership and your peers. Being defined by your career: living within the box of, "What do you do for a living?" And that nagging feeling that there is a lot more to life than the one you're currently living.
Despite the allure of a six or seven figure salary, and a career that so many American men dream of having for themselves, he walked away. And he did so with no road map: only with a desire to live an authentic life, one in which he's true to himself. I may not have loved him as a player, but I love him now. Rashard Mendenhall is my new hero.
*Photo is from Steve Snodgrass at Flickr Creative Commons.