Retiring at 26 to ‘Fully Be Me’

Rashard Mendenhall didn’t want to make a big deal of retiring at the age of 26.

The former Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers running back explained in his essay “Why I Retired At 26” for the Huffington Post on Sunday that he didn’t want to hold a press conference or announce his retirement at all — he just “kind of wanted to disappear.”

In a sport like football, and at such an early age, Mendenhall’s choice has left the sports world surprised and confused. For Mendenhall, however, the decision couldn’t be clearer. In the post, he writes that it simply came down to feeling fulfilled by his time in the NFL:

”I feel like I’ve done it all. I’ve been to two Super Bowls; made a bunch of money; had a lot of success; traveled all over the country and overseas; met some really cool people; made lasting relationships; had the opportunity to give back to causes close to my heart; and have been able to share my experiences and wisdom with friends, family and people all over the world. Not to mention all the fun I had goofing around at work day after day with my teammates!”

Mendenhall expressed his gratitude for the opportunities playing in the NFL had provided him yet also lamented the cultural changes in the sport he grew up playing. He described his “model of football” — where respect for one’s teammates, the opponent, the officials and the game itself stood above everything else — noting that the professional football player had become the entertainer, and that he no longer wanted to put “his body at risk for the sake of entertainment.”

“Today, game-day cameras follow the most popular players on teams,” he writes. “Guys who dance after touchdowns are extolled on Dancing With the Starters; games are analyzed and brought to fans without any use of coaches tape; practice non-participants are reported throughout the week for predicted fantasy value; and success and failure for skill players is measured solely in stats and fantasy points.”

The decision to retire also came in part due to the constant pressure of being in the public limelight.

“There is a bold coarseness you receive from non-supporters that seems to only exist on the Internet,” Mendenhall writes. “However, even if you try to avoid these things completely — because I’ve tried — somehow they still reach you. If not first-hand, then through friends and loved ones who take to heart all that they read and hear.”

Upon his announcement, veteran ESPN sports journalists like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smithexpressed their admiration of Mendenhall’s articulate and honest explanation of his decision to retire. Football fans, some of whom professed to have never followed Mendenhall’s career, echoed that response on Twitter.

To those who would question his commitment to the sport, Mendenhall affirmed that he always has loved football, but playing the role of entertainer on millions of screens across the country had never been easy. That’s why he chose to retire at the tender age of 26.

As for what’s next, the former NFL running back wrote about the advantage of going out on his own terms: the millions of dollars he made allow him to comfortably follow his pursuits. He says he wants to travel, write and 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,” Mendenhall wrote. “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!”

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