It is rather uncustomary for a healthy football player to bow out of the NFL at a young age. But that’s what former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall did a few days before the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2014 NFL Season. Even more unusual, rather than taking a full page of the Phoenix newspaper and give a wistful and thanks filled goodbye, Mendenhall took to a blog post filled with odd statements and unfair characterizations that landed on the Huffington Post and has gained some national attention.
Interesting considering Mendenhall has always defined himself as such a private person. One main reason why he wants to get out of football altogether.
But that’s always really been the Medenhall Steelers Nation knew while he played for the Black & Gold. He’s been a free speaker of his mind, sharing thoughts and the inner workings of his mind and heart through his writings and poetry. Usually those things stayed out of the spotlight. He sometimes used Twitter as his soap box – nothing more memorable than his reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden in the spring of 2011. He was critical of those who celebrated bin Laden’s death and even went as far to admit in not so many words that he’s a 9/11 Truther. Putting himself out in the public eye came with consequences – fans and analysts scratching their head or becoming critical and Champion cutting their ties with the young running back as an endorser for their products…. so much for being a private man.
I have no beef with Mendenhall as a man, though I nicknamed him “Twinkle Toes” in his final two seasons as a Steeler because of his affinity to dance at the line of scrimmage and looking for the perfect hole rather than just lower that shoulder sometimes and get as many yards as a collapsing offensive line would allow. I have no beef with him retiring. Good for him to be able to make such a huge life decision. I’m sure his brain cells will be happier for it in about 20 years when he probably suffers from a far more milder case of brain trauma than some longer toothed vets in the league.
I find it strange that a man who claims to be so private and, truth be told, gives us the impression that he’s been severely victimized by being thrust into the public eye 24/7, would go to such lengths to be put into the public eye on his way out the door. It’s as if he doesn’t understand simple social constructs – Speak and you shall be heard. Give an opinion and you shall be criticized for that opinion. Don’t like criticism? Then just stay quiet.
There are plenty of athletes in the NFL who would rather keep themselves out of the spotlight and just do their jobs every Sunday. Troy Polamalu comes to mind. If that was such a hard concept for Mendenhall to carry, then why offer up your opinions on things like bin Laden? Why offer up this blog post – a post that feels to me a final attempt of a “Hey in case you ever wondered what happened to me, this will appear if you type my name into Google.” He could have just walked away silently and hardly anyone would have given a second thought about it. Honestly ask yourself of those among in Steeler Nation who thought about Mendenhall over the last couple of seasons? Enough to find out what he was up to?
I found it as unjust as his own claims to trials and tribulations that he took a microcosm of folks on social media and made them every fan. It was pretty unfair of him to make a general and judgmental statement that fans don’t understand the nuances of the game – as if we have no brain and just waive our Terrible Towels every week drooling for the next touchdown. He may be right in that the league has a tendency to follow more popular players. But, just as he feels left out playing a game that isn’t ‘old school’ enough for him, many of us feel those same pains.
Could it be that he just wanted to make sure that a reason was given that went above objective criticism of his production? Not to be entirely cynical here (I’m sure folks will rake me through the coals; it’s ok, I can take it), but I just can’t help but think that maybe the more noble reasons of leaving because the game had changed too much in a mere six years within the league is a bit of a cover for the fact that this year’s free agent market at running back is huge. There are so many available and able backs that as Pete Prisco from CBS quipped on Twitter on Monday night – “Can anyone trade a ham sandwich for a running back? Anyone?” Could it be that Mendenhall realized that he would be sitting around for the next four to five months hoping and waiting for a phone call from a team in the NFL that just lots its premier back and needs a veteran backup? Maybe. That in of itself puts a toll on someone that they may just not want to deal with.
To be frank, Mendenhall could have just said he was retiring from the league and then just include the final two paragraphs with nothing else:
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. 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.
As for the question of what will I do now, with an entire life in front of me? I say to that, I will LIVE! I plan to live in a way that I never have before, and that is freely, able to fully be me, without the expectation of representing any league, club, shield or city. I do have a plan going forward, but I will admit that I do not know how things will totally shape out. That is the beauty of it! I look forward to chasing my desires and passions without restriction, and to sharing them with anyone who wants to come along with me! And I’ll start with writing!
It’s not the fans to criticize. It’s not the coarseness to condemn and then dish it out yourself. It’s that you want to live your life as you want. That is certainly respectable. And for that I wish him well.