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Dealing With The End

Posted Jan 27, 2010

At some point, every player faces athletic mortality

 Kurt Warner will make a decision on his retirement plans soon.
 
 
Late in the season in 2004, Emmitt Smith was sitting at his locker after a practice when the subject of his eventual retirement was broached.

“You know what I’m going to miss the most when I’m done?” Smith asked. “This.”

Smith looked around the locker room. It wasn’t necessarily playing for the Cardinals to which he was referring, or a weekday practice. It was everything and anything. It was the chance to feel a part of something.

It was why dealing with one’s athletic mortality is so difficult.

Retirement talk has enveloped the Cardinals since their season ended. Public chatter has quarterback Kurt Warner hanging it up soon – Warner's agent confirmed to the Associated Press there will be a Friday press conference for Warner to discuss his future – and linebacker Bertrand Berry announced the end of his 12-year career last week.

To go out on one’s own terms is a rare gift.

“There aren’t too many guys who get to play as long as they did,” Cardinals safety Matt Ware said of his teammates. “Most guys don’t really have the option to say, ‘I think I’m good.’ The rug just gets pulled out from under your feet.”

Berry said there are multiple factors that went into his decision. Finances play a part, making sure the family is in good shape – post-football jobs simply don’t pay as well as playing the game, even for the guys at the end of the roster. A player’s legacy has an impact as well.

The biggest reality when it comes to athletic mortality, however, is health.

“Everybody wants to be able to able to walk away from the game and I emphasize the word ‘walk’ because you play this game, you run the risk of doing damage to your body,” Berry said.

That is, of course, the driving theme of Warner’s retirement consideration. Most players aren’t lucky enough to have the choice to play until age 39 (which Warner would be in May), but more years on the field means that many more violent collisions to endure.

“At some point you say, ‘How much longer can I do it, how much longer can I wake up and feel like hell?’ ” Ware said. “In Kurt’s case, taking blows … he’s already had a Hall of Fame career. At some point, he’s got to say, ‘What more can I do?’ ”

Usually, though, health becomes the turning point to retirement only when a player is forced in that direction (i.e., Steve Young, Troy Aikman). Warner isn’t in that situation. Nor is there an issue of finding a place to play; the Cardinals have made no secret about (desperately) wanting him back.

Warner, if he were to stay, also guarantees himself another $11.5 million ($4 million in salary, $7.5 million in his remaining signing bonus that he may not be able to collect by leaving). Berry, who was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, could have been brought back but it was no guarantee. His earning power had faded far from the days when he got his five-year, $25 million contract. Risking his well-being for a smaller paycheck has to be a consideration.

Berry, though, said he leaves “with no regrets.” His perspective was changed back in 2000, when he found himself out of the NFL for a year after playing three seasons. It was “the best and the worst thing to ever happen to me,” Berry said.

It drove home to him how much he wasn’t ready for life after football, in any aspect.

Berry was able to draw upon that when making his most recent choice. Now, he said, he was ready for post-NFL life and retirement for him wasn’t a difficult decision.

“I am at a great sense of peace,” Berry said.

Maybe that’s where Warner finds himself these days, after authoring what looks like a Hall of Fame career and most certainly one of the NFL’s Hall of Fame stories. With such strong roots with family, faith and his charitable foundation, he’s in a different place than most NFL players. Money is certainly not an issue, and while Warner has always wanted to make sure he was recognized for being a great player (especially when his career dipped there for a while), his ego isn’t as big as many other athletes. 

Maybe that’s why he’d be strong enough to walk away when he doesn’t have to walk away – a concept many cannot embrace.

Smith was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher before he even came to Arizona. He had won three Super Bowls and was now playing for a team that wasn’t going to compete for the Super Bowl anytime soon. But he only retired after making a final pitch to the Cards asking to come back another season.

The team said no. Smith’s hand was forced.

 “It’s what you do, what you’ve been doing since you were 8 years old and you really don’t know anything else,” Ware said. “Then there is the reality that, when it is over, you wish you were playing again.

“For me, they will have to tell me, ‘Don’t come back.’ ”
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