Surprise retirements provide reminder NFL careers don’t last forever
One day into the new league year, lots of NFL players have been on the move and lots of NFL players have been getting paid.
A few have announced they’re walking away, too, and not just players past their prime who realized that one more huge paycheck wasn’t coming.
Football is a temporary game, not a permanent game.
Even Joe Thomas isn’t going to play forever.
That’s not to say this should scare the heck out of the Cleveland Browns in regard to Thomas, the 30-year old left tackle who’s gone to eight Pro Bowls in his eight NFL seasons. The Browns appreciate Thomas, pay him handsomely and last season gave him at least one day off of practice every week to keep him fresh for Sundays.
This isn’t to say Thomas is ready to retire, either. He’s never said he was ready to go — or anything close to that. Thomas is maybe the nicest guy in the Browns locker room and also one I wouldn’t want angry at me, so I am not saying he’s walking away.
It’s just that he’s played a lot of football, has made a bunch of money and eventually might want to walk away while he can still walk away on his own.
Patrick Willis did that Tuesday after eight years with the 49ers. Thomas was drafted eight spots ahead of Willis in 2007.
Jason Worilds is walking away at 27 instead of signing another contract that would have been worth probably $15 million and maybe more. Thomas has been blocking Worilds the last few years in Browns-Steelers games.
Thomas has also spent a lot of time blocking James Harrison, who’s 36 and recently announced he’s coming back for another year. Harrison is a crazy person. All of these NFL players, to an extent, are crazy people. It’s a brutal, unforgiving game. These guys are wired differently. As they age, they prepare and re-wire themselves differently for the five or six-month season.
They earn every penny.
When Thomas shows up for work next month with the Browns he’ll be playing for his seventh offensive coordinator in eight years and fifth different play caller. Mike Pettine is the fifth Browns head coach for whom he’s played. They’re practically best friends having been together 14 months now.
Maybe Thomas will play forever – he’s never missed a snap. Or, maybe, one day he’ll get tired of all the change and the losing and go to Wisconsin for the offseason and come back five years later on his way to Canton.
This just seemed a time to take stock of that. All the names and trades and surprises and dollars create all this buzz, and we’re talking about people. Real people. It’s easy to forget.
Last September, I asked Thomas about where he was — in his life and his career — and if he sees the end.
This is what he said: "You’re always taking personal inventory. Most guys play until they can’t, whether it’s injury or a team just doesn’t want you anymore. Very few guys that can still do it walk away. One of the only ones I can think of is Matt Light. He played 10 or 11 years and he was ready to go.
"I’ve been extremely fortunate to avoid major injury. But when you’re out there in the NFL, there are things that happen every single week that pile up. From the wear and tear to the minor things that get braced up or taped up…you get back out there.
"My body is a little raggedy. It’s a lot harder to get ready for practices and games than it used to be. To recover takes twice as long. The rookies go out there from sitting in the locker room to sprinting down the field full speed and at my age, you get a little jealous of that. That’s not me anymore."
Thomas is still really good. He’s still very much wanted.
He’s still appreciated, too. As he should be.