We got a chance yesterday to bring you the fact that Pittsburgh Steelers veteran safety Will Allen was involved in a project for 120 Sports called Versus the Game, in which Allen spoke with retired players about their decision to leave the game, and how that decision has changed for players over time.
The first of two parts of the interview segment was posted on Tuesday, with the second part posted yesterday, and it contained a segment of an interview conducted with former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith, who played from 1993 to 2000.
Smith was a former first-round draft pick and played the entire length of his career in Minnesota, accumulating 6818 rushing yards on 1411 carries for a robust 4.8 yards per rush, adding 32 touchdowns along the way. He also caught 178 passes for another 1292 yards and six receiving touchdowns.
The early part of Smith’s career was a struggle, and he dealt with a series of injuries during his career. He entered the starting lineup in year three, but for the next two years was limited to just 14 starts in 17 games. He would miss at least two starts in each of the next three seasons.
But he started at least 12 games in each of his final four years, topping 1000 yards in each. He was at the peak of his career in 2000 when he rushed for 1521 yards on 295 carries and seven touchdowns, with another three receiving, being rewarded with a second-team All-Pro nomination.
Smith talked to Allen about his decision to retire, which began following knee surgery after the 1998 season. He said that he has required two follow-up operations since then, one of which came earlier this year.
“It’s better to walk away from the game early than to limp away late”, he told Allen, going on to discuss the need to prioritize, during which he made what I felt to be a very poignant point, and stated well:
“If you lost your health, you would pay any amount of money to get it back. So what amount of money is worth the very real chance of losing your health?”, he posited.
This is the heart of the issue that every NFL player is currently facing as we advance beyond what is simply the love of the game. With today’s science, we now know all too well the long-term repercussions that professional football can have on the body, and there is mounting evidence that the younger generation of athletes is weighing this conscientiously.
It’s a sort of comfort to Romanticize the ‘old days’ of sports, where players consistently disregarded their health, no doubt largely out of ignorance, to play what was once only a part-time job.
But today’s game is a far different beast. It’s now a year-round enterprise even for the media, which means that it’s a 365-day job for the athlete. Former Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall talked about how it was an all-consuming affair that goes beyond the physical demands of the game.
But those physical demands are very real, as encapsulated in the question posed by former running back Robert Smith. Certainly players play for a love of the game. But just take a long at the Getting to Know series on the Steelers’ website and see how often the opportunity to provide for family is cited as motivation to play.
At a certain point in time, and at a certain income level, to be frank, money is just money, and at that point in time you must decide whether or not it’s worth it to continually risk your health as you put your future on hold.