Reed can’t walk away from football

The NFL has a bigger drug problem than Ray Lewis and his deer antler velvet extract.

It’s the game of football itself.

The habit is so strong that players will literally risk life and limb for the opportunity to take the field and enjoy all the other trappings the sport brings.

Ed Reed is one of those junkies. The Baltimore Ravens all-star safety admitted Tuesday to suffering occasional memory loss from what he believes are a series of concussions. He has played with a painful nerve impingement for “the last six or seven years.” Reed’s recent performances and workouts to prepare for action are being hindered by a torn labrum in his shoulder from early in the 2012 season. Reed even pays out-of-pocket for weekly doctor visits just so he can stay off the sideline.

“It makes you think about your livelihood after football, how much you’re going to have to spend to take care of your body, the toll that it puts on us,” Reed said. “We age faster than everybody for what we do.”

Like Lewis is doing, Reed should walk away after Super Bowl XLVII before any more damage is done. Reed could enjoy the substantial wealth he has accumulated, spend more time with his family, move on to the next phase of his life and likely join his teammate in five years as a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame selection.

Unlike Lewis, Reed won’t be doing this. He still needs his gridiron fix.

Reed has every intention of putting his battered body and mind through a 12th NFL season in 2013. It might not be with the Ravens, the only franchise that Reed has ever known. His contract is expiring, and Baltimore might decide to head in a different direction with younger, sprier talent. If the Ravens do that, Reed won’t be lacking suitors even with all the wear and tear on his 34-year-old body. He’s that good.

Reed has publically toyed with the idea of retirement before. Although some of that was probably a ploy to land a restructured contract — it didn’t work — Reed has a keen sense of his football mortality. He knows the long-term risks involved and remains willing to take them.

This could someday prove a regrettable decision. But like anyone hooked on the game, the long-term future is secondary to the game-day adrenaline rush that can’t be duplicated in any other setting.

Reed also is appreciative for all that football has given him. This entire Super Bowl week in New Orleans is a reminder as Reed experiences "This Is Your Life"-style nostalgia from being raised in nearby St. Rose, La.

On Tuesday, Reed fondly recalled trudging home at night from football practice wearing his father’s work shirt over his shoulder pads. He remembers being on the same Louisiana Superdome field in January 1997 to watch Super Bowl XXXI media day as a prize for winning a Punt, Pass and Kick competition. He dreamt of someday being in the same spotlight as the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots were that season.

Reed made this happen not only through physical gifts — he was a four-sport star at Destrehan High School — but by outworking his peers and outsmarting quarterbacks. No player has more postseason interceptions than the eight Reed has tallied. He has a career total of 61 during the regular season, along with nine Pro Bowl selections.

Ravens backup safety and five-year NFL veteran James Ihedigbo said Reed has the ability to “study the game at a level I’ve never seen before.” Pressed for an example, Ihedigbo said, “We could be watching a play and he’ll say, ‘Hey, did you see that?’ I’ll be like, ‘No, it just looks like a regular route to me.’

“He’ll then point something out and show previous plays from other games that tip off what play they’re going to run. It’s like, ‘Wow! How did you see that?’ It’s that type of ability to see the not-so-obvious.”

As his backup, Ravens safety Sean Considine also marvels at the dedication Reed has toward his craft.

“It just reinforces the thing I’ve known about guys who are Hall of Fame level,” Considine said. “Not only are they the most talented. They’re always the smartest and hardest-working. Ed exemplifies that. He spends most of his life thinking about football and defense, and he loves it.”

This also makes it that much harder for Reed to say goodbye.

“Football is the greatest sport ever invented,” said Considine, who himself has weighed retirement at times during his eight-year pro career. “You can’t have more fun playing any game. But at the same time, it does take a tremendous toll on you. It’s a lot of work. You start getting older and thinking about some of the things that are happening to your body because of the game.

“It’s just part of life. You can’t play forever. Eventually, you’re going to have to make a decision of when it’s time to give it up.”

Reed can’t. He’s an addict.