26 the New 36: Twentysomethings Announce NFL Retirements

Jake Locker AP

Jason Worilds faced a massive payday after compiling 7.5 sacks and starting every game for the first time in his career. Instead of cashing in, Worilds cashed out. On Tuesday, the Steelers linebacker announced, at 27, his retirement from the National Football League.

Fans can cite dozens of veterans who hung on too long. Think Johnny Unitas in Charger blue or Jerry Rice playing in Seattle rather than San Francisco. Worilds represents a trend in the other direction, guys who part before they peak.

“Football has always played a pivotal role in my life, and I love the game,” Jake Locker announced Tuesday, “but I no longer have the burning desire necessary to play the game for a living; to continue to do so would be unfair to the next organization with whom I would eventually sign.”

The Tennessee Titans drafted Locker with the eighth pick less than four years ago. The oft-injured quarterback turns 27 in June. He only recently escaped paying the under-age driver’s fee at Hertz and lost his eligibility for coverage on his parents’ health-insurance plans through ObamaCare.

Patrick Willis won a Pro Bowl nod in his first seven seasons in the league. After his eighth, the 49ers linebacker retired. He turned 30 a few weeks after his last game.

“In my head, I’m already a Hall of Famer,” Willis said as a way of noting his contentment after his announcement. “I am leaving this with closure. I’m happy today, more happy today than the day I was drafted.”

Jim Brown, Robert Smith, Billy Sims, and Gayle Sayers never played into their thirties. Barry Sanders booked a trip to Europe, and Earl Campbell limped off the field, at 30. So it’s not as though saying sayonara so young in so punishing a sport strikes as unprecedented. It’s just that the guys waving goodbye so soon after we said hello disproportionately played the punishing position of running back. The trio exiting the NFL this week play elsewhere, which explains why their departures cause such a commotion.

Willis cites injuries, Locker blames a lack of passion, and Worilds offers an MYOB. Last year, former Cardinals and Steelers running back Rahsard Mendenhall lamented the transformation of sport into show business as a major factor in getting out at 26.

“So when they ask me why I want to leave the NFL at the age of 26, I tell them that I’ve greatly enjoyed my time, but I no longer wish to put my body at risk for the sake of entertainment,” Mendenhall reasoned after he called it quits last year. “I think about the rest of my life and I want to live it with much quality. And physically, I am grateful that I can walk away feeling as good as I did when I stepped into it.”

The first rule of professional sports has always been don’t leave any money still on the table. The first rule of show business remains leave the audience wanting more. Locker, Willis, and Worilds do just that. They also leave part of the audience scratching their heads.