BARRY SANDERS, CALVIN JOHNSON AND THE DETROIT LIONS

What is it about the Detroit Lions — apart from their mind-boggling ineptitude — that demands the premature and voluntary retirement of two of the franchise’s greatest players within twenty years of one another?

Is it in fact even about the organization itself or rather simply a testament to the violence of the sport and the sweeping physical and mental cataclysmic state it creates, bodies and brains splintered and strewn and left in its unforgiving wake?

Or is this happenstance a coincidental though mildly curious response by two thoughtful and intelligent athletes who independently of one another decided that enough was enough, the bright lights, embracing accolades and staggering amounts of money be damned?

In fairness, maybe all three factors were carefully considered along with something else.

Perhaps Barry Sanders and Calvin “Megatron” Johnson wanted to cement their respective legacies by going out on top, before their indescribable skills showed their first hint(s) of erosion.

(Editor’s Note: Billy Sims, the #1 overall selection in the 1980 NFL Draft, by — yup — the Detroit Lions played only from ’80 through ’84 racking up some very impressive numbers in a truncated career, before being forced out by a serious knee injury).

Neither Sanders nor Johnson would be among the first to choose this path.

Universally acclaimed as the top rung-holder on the short list is Football’s Jim Brown who quit at age 30 after an NFL career which lasted only eight years, a remarkably short time for a player of his ilk.

Michael Jordan ‘retired’ for the first time at 29 to try his hand at baseball.

Bo Jackson left the NFL at 28 and MLB at 32.

And there are others including Pat Tillman, Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa, Bobby Jones, Rocky Marciano, Mark Spitz, Ken Dryden, Robert Smith, Tiki Barber, Doug Baldwin, Brandon Roy, Steffi Graf, Justine Henin, Elena Dementieva, Ralph Kiner, John Elway, Bjorn Borg and Sandy Koufax who walked away for various reasons, all still in their primes.

Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion specifies that “for every action there is an equal (in size) and opposite (in direction) reaction force.”

Forces always come in pairs…“equal and opposite action-reaction force pairs.”

In this scientific context you don’t have to be Newton or one of his disciples to figure out what comes next.

Sadly, the collection of wonderful athletes who waited too long to say good-bye is seemingly endless.

The great Willie Mays immediately comes to mind, which just slightly tarnishes the career of the ballplayer some believe to have been the very best 5-tool performer ever in baseball’s illustrious history.

Joining the Say Hey Kid in shouldering the cloak of this dubious distinction (and earning honorable mention status) are Julio Franco, Patrick Ewing, Omar Vizquel, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roy Jones Jr., Deion Sanders, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Jerry Quarry, Dikembe Mutombo, Chuck Liddell, Pele, Shaq, Junior Seau, George Foreman, Chris Chelios, Johnny Unitas, Larry Holmes, Steve Carlton, Evander Holyfield, Gordie Howe, Emmitt Smith, Rickey Henderson, Jerry Rice, Michael Jordan (again), Brett Favre and finally The Greatest of All-Time, Muhammad Ali.

Whatever host of reasons informing their decisions to hang on too long is immaterial.

If truth be told, each one of these legendary athletes will indubitably be remembered for their grandiose achievements but also for departing way after last call.

Following deep introspection and plenty of mental angst, Sanders finally admitted that he had lost the “drive, determination and enjoyment” for the game.

“Over the next few years it looked like we would probably be rebuilding and we had gotten rid of some good players…I just felt like it was time to make a change,” he remarked then. “I knew [going into the final game of the 1998 season] that was pretty much it, so I remember after the game I just broke down. I was glad to get out of there.”

At the time of his retirement Sanders was fewer than 1,500 yards shy of Walter Payton’s NFL career rushing record. But the pursuit and attainment of one of football’s most hallowed marks was not alluring to him.

“I understood full well who Walter Payton was, what he accomplished. Not just Walter Payton, with all the guys that had tried to do what Walter did. The record to me was not important enough to force myself to stay around…”

Calvin Johnson, although clearly frustrated with the travails of the Ford family’s moribund franchise, chose to cite another reason for his early(?) departure.

“I wouldn’t just quit because we were losing,” he steadfastly asserted. “It was just body. I was just tired of it, fed up. Just had enough,” he lamented.

Johnson, according to Alex Reimer of sbnation.com, said “he could no longer take the daily grind of playing in the NFL…the physical toll of playing football became too much to bear.”

This thought process is fast becoming a more prevalent one.

Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and the Patriots’ Jerod Mayo are two of the latest star players to hang ’em up while they could still play. (Lynch has since returned).

The 49ers’ Chris Borland, after a stellar career at the University of Wisconsin and a very fine rookie season abruptly retired, petrified by the prospect of looming brain damage.

He has described his retirement “as a pre-emptive strike to (hopefully) preserve his mental health.”

Specifically he says that “if there were no possibility of brain damage, I’d still be playing.”

Borland’s case is the most revealing and dramatic.

His retirement due to concerns over head injuries inarguably inherent to the sport — he himself stated in an interview with CBS News that he believes football to be “inherently dangerous” — is a harbinger of things to come.

Long-term effects of repetitive head trauma and specifically the relationship between football and neurodegenerative disease has become a hot-button issue and gets hotter by the minute.

More than 70* former players have been diagnosed posthumously with progressive neurological disease and numerous studies have cited a direct and inextricable link between the repetitive head trauma associated with football and brain damage, memory loss and depression.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE is the devastating brain disease which has afflicted these players and in some circles is thought to be largely responsible for the suicides of Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling.

After much thought along with a legitimate fear of and healthy respect for the possible repercussions of continuing to play football, Borland concluded that his decision was ultimately a “simple” one.

(When he announced his retirement he was the fourth NFL player age 30 or younger — Jason Worilds, 27; Jake Locker, 26; and teammate Patrick Willis, 30 — to do so within a week, albeit for assorted publicly-stated reasons).

Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson retired at the top of their games. And so did Chris Borland. Each man had his reasons, whatever they may have been. Hopefully all of them are comfortable with the decisions they have made.

As for the sport’s future, common sense would dictate that the game as we have known it will continue to change in an effort to address ever-mounting safety issues and health concerns.

Selfishly, I hope it lasts long enough for the Lions to be good again; they haven’t won a championship since 1957 and they are the only NFC entry yet to play in the Super Bowl.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in September 2016.]

ADDENDA:

Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly is the latest NFL player to retire before 30; he was 28 when he called it quits in January 2020. Andrew Luck and Rob Gronkowski immediately preceded him, although Gronk has since been lured out of retirement.

*(As of today — August 2020 — the number of former NFL players diagnosed posthumously with CTE has climbed to 110).

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