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A Sign of the Future? Concussions Push NFL Players to Retire Early

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On the weekend of the NFL Draft, Jack Miller was in Las Vegas.

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It was a previously scheduled trip with some college buddies to experience the whole Sin City thing after finishing their senior year at Michigan. There were the usual Vegas trappings, coupled with the added bonus of being in town during one of the most memorable sporting days in recent memory. But there were a few times — actually, more than a few — when Miller found himself in his hotel room, flipping on ESPN or the NFL Network to see what was happening with the draft.

He watched the scroll and saw names of familiar foes throughout the Big Ten. Names of kids he knew from high school games and offseason camps. And of course, three of his Wolverine teammates.

A few years ago, Miller would’ve pictured this day unfolding differently. He’d be watching with eagerness. He’d be thinking how a year from now, he’d be waiting for his name to be called — waiting to find out which NFL team would be providing his livelihood for the next decade. Instead, Miller was having what he calls his “rare days.”

Days where he misses football.

“There are days where it’s hard,” Miller says, “where I think, ‘Boy, I do miss the game.’ There’s no other way in the world where you can hit somebody at full-speed and not get in trouble for it. Part of that, I have to get used to. But at the end of the day, I know it was the right decision for me. And I’m at peace with it.”

Jack Miller is 21 years old. He’s in his second month of retirement from the game of football.

His story, though, is becoming far less uncommon. Miller, a 16-game starter at center for Michigan, announced in early March that he would be leaving the team and quitting football before his fifth season with the Wolverines. One reason was that he was burned out from the game. Another was that he was concerned about his own health, largely because of concussions. He was a kid with a potential future in the NFL who decided that continuing to play wasn’t worth the risk.

And he’s not the only one who has recently made the difficult decision to walk away. Patrick Willis, the San Francisco 49ers All-Pro linebacker, retired in the offseason at the age of 30 after eight seasons. Jason Worilds, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, retired in March at the age of 27 after five seasons — despite being one of the most coveted free agents this offseason. Jake Locker, the Tennessee Titans quarterback and eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft, called it a career after only four seasons at age 26. And Chris Borland, a linebacker and teammate of Willis in San Francisco, retired at the age of 24 after only one season in the NFL.

“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” in March. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

He’s not alone.

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Getting out too late?

By the time that Hunter Hillenmeyer decided to retire, there wasn’t much football left for him to play. At 29, he’d already maxed out his potential with the Chicago Bears. A fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt in the 2003 draft, he was selected by the Green Bay Packers and was assigned to the team’s practice squad. He was cut by the end of the preseason but resurfaced with the Bears and spent most of his rookie season on special teams.

A year later, he started 11 games at strong-side linebacker. The next season, 12 starts. Pretty soon, he was an invaluable member of a Bears linebacking corps that was the nucleus for the 2006 NFC champion team, which lost to the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI.

He also was being concussed at an alarming rate.

“I had a concussion in the preseason of 2010, got out there for the season-opener and, without even getting hit, just didn’t feel right,” Hillenmeyer recalls about his final game. “They pulled me off the field and ran the battery of tests. And after the game, we went through my entire history of my five diagnosed concussions. And the fact is that I had gotten to a susceptibility point where I really couldn’t take a hit to the head.”

That was when Hillenmeyer knew it was time to retire.

Today, at 34, he doesn’t consider his decision to retire to be anything like that of Borland, Willis, Worilds or Locker. Those players decided to walk away from the game while their health was still intact. Hillenmeyer didn’t, despite being at the forefront on the head trauma issue during his time in the league. He managed his career around his concussions instead of stopping it because of them.

He says he is symptom-free of any concussions five years later. He doesn’t have chronic headaches or memory loss or any of the early signs of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), which has been linked to concussions related to football. Yet, he wonders sometimes if a headache is just a headache or if it’s a warning sign of something more serious. If forgetting a phone number or where he put the car keys is cause for alarm.

Hillenmeyer has great respect for the players who choose to walk away early, because for them, staying in the game another year for another big payday or fame or any of the other trappings associated with being in the NFL simply isn’t a priority.

“I feel great,” Hillenmeyer says. “In some ways, the fact that I was as informed as I was for a player playing during the 2000s helped. Even in 2006-07, I was aware that I needed to be very cautious with how I handled a brain injury. But when you’re a retired player in your 30s and you look at the generation ahead of you — I’ve been to a couple of alumni events in Chicago — and anecdotally, they paint a pretty grim picture.”

Hillenmeyer knows that his situation might be on the rosier side, too. He was an academic All-American at Vanderbilt and while in the league served on the NFL’s Player Safety and Welfare Committee. He was privy to the arguments being made by the medical community about the long-term effects of concussions.

Hillenmeyer, who co-founded the gaming app company OverDog, where fans can compete against pro athletes, wonders what his life might be like in a few years if that “grim picture” becomes a reality for him. He never hid concussions from the Bears, but he also continued to play the sport even though he was aware of the risks. He wonders if going the route that Borland, Worilds and Willis took might not have been the better plan.

“You don’t see a lot of guys that are aging very well — and that scares you,” Hillenmeyer says of his conversations with older NFL retirees. “Unless you’re just burying your head in the sand, any player would get a little nervous when they look at that. So at worst, you’re headed in the exact same trajectory. So you do have to step back, take pause and ask yourself, ‘Was it all worth it?’”

‘It’s kind of like a depression’

Before the end came for Reggie Wilkes, he had begun the process of preparing himself. A linebacker with the Eagles and Falcons from 1978-87, Wilkes took classes at Temple University’s School of Medicine early in his career. After realizing that medical school and the NFL couldn’t co-exist, he turned his attention to business, and he began taking classes at Penn’s Wharton School.

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Midway through his career, he started working for Merrill Lynch in the offseason as a second job. So when he was released following an injury during the 1987 season, he decided it was time for the next step.

“I was just ready, mentally, to go and move on,” Wilkes says. “I knew it was going to end.”

Why is Wilkes’ story an important one? Because he was prepared for life after the NFL. He parlayed his experiences with Merrill Lynch while he was a player into a successful career in business, returning to the wealth management giant in 2007. He is now a senior financial advisor in suburban Philadelphia, where many of his clients are current or former professional athletes.

And more often than not, he sees players who think they are mentally ready to leave professional sports. But most aren’t.

“Every professional athlete — whether you’ve played one year in the league or 10 — goes through a physiological change,” Wilkes says. “It’s kind of like a depression. You’re trying to figure out how you wean yourself off of something that you’ve been so emotionally and physically attached to.”

For Wilkes, his safety net was his financial career. For Hillenmeyer, it was his own company.

Some players transition better than others.

Running back Rashard Mendenhall, a former first-round pick in 2008 with the Steelers, abruptly retired after the 2013 season. He was 26. “Football was pretty cool, but I don’t want to play anymore,” he wrote in an article for The Huffington Post announcing his retirement. Mendenhall is now a screenwriter, living in Los Angeles, where he recently served as a script consultant for an upcoming HBO series about the life of retired pro football players.

Worilds, whose representatives declined an interview for this story on his behalf, left the NFL and began working with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

For others, the absence of football can only make a bad situation worse.

“For football players, on average, the retirement age is 25,” Wilkes says. “You still have 60 years of living, so you’ve got to figure out how your money is going to last. Players don’t think about that — that normal people are earning income until around 55 years, but for football players, it’s half that. The average length of a career is 3.5 years, so once you’re 25, you’re on the down end of your career in football.”

A new path

When he’s asked about football, Miller is clear: He did not leave the game to become a crusader against it.

Without football, he doesn’t get from Perrysburg, Ohio, to the University of Michigan. Without football, he doesn’t get the opportunity to learn some of the life lessons about discipline, accountability and teamwork. Without football, he doesn’t get to begin the next phase of his life — entering the business world.

But at some point, between high school and college, it stopped being fun.

“It’s a job. It’s your livelihood, whereas before that, it’s a game,” Miller says. “It becomes work, and that’s okay. We all know that’s what we’re signing up for.”

Miller had thoughts last season about making the 2014 campaign his final one in a Michigan uniform, but he decided to give it another go after Jim Harbaugh was hired to replace Brady Hoke. He went through the offseason workout programs and the first week of spring practice — which he described as one of his best. But he no longer had the desire to play and announced his intention to leave the team.

“For some people that’s really hard to understand,” he says. “And I understand that. To play college football is a blessing.”

There were some people who tried to convince him that he was making a short-sighted and ill-informed decision. Miller wouldn’t be swayed. He had already suffered one concussion in high school, and he believes he had two or three more at Michigan (though he only reported one). Given what he knows about the long-terms effects, he decided that if he had lost the desire to play, it wasn’t worth it.

Miller wasn’t the only college football player to make that decision this spring. Vanderbilt quarterback Patton Robinette — who started five games in two seasons — retired from the sport in March. Robinette, who will enroll at Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine in the fall, missed five games last fall after suffering a concussion against South Carolina. He also had a concussion in high school.

West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett, a two-year starter, was forced into retirement before the Mountaineers’ bowl game. Trickett had suffered five concussions in a 14-month span. He hid two of them from team trainers in order to keep playing.

That’s a familiar refrain, even at the next level.

“After I retired, I had two good friends of mine who were still on the Bears call me with a slightly different version of the same story,” Hillenmeyer says. “That Tuesday or Wednesday after they took a big hit in a game, they definitely felt a little bit off, but they didn’t tell the trainers or get noticed by the trainers. But now they were pretty sure they had a concussion, and they were trying to decide whether or not to tell the doctors.”

That’s why Borland decided not to risk more years in the NFL. That’s why Willis and Worilds and Locker made the same decision. That’s why Hillenmeyer decided it was time to stop playing and trying to avoid the next big hit. That’s why Wilkes warns players that their careers won’t last forever.

That’s why one of Miller’s “rare days” when he misses football lasted only briefly during the NFL Draft.

It was his dream, but now he has a different one. He hopes to get into high school coaching, where he can work with kids before the game of football gets to be too big.

“Some people love the game more than I do, and that’s their only way,” he says. “And that’s fine. That’s their prerogative. For me, it wasn’t that. And I’m very excited about the next chapter.”

-By Brendan Prunty