How to succeed in causing a media firestorm without really trying.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall shocked the sports world by retiring at the ripe age of 26. Mendenhall was drafted in the first round out of the University of Illinois in 2008, and after taking the reins from Willie Parker, he enjoyed three prime years on the Pittsburgh Steelers, topping 1,000 yards twice and appearing in two Super Bowls (winning one), and has now hung it up after one season with the Arizona Cardinals.
It is rare to see a well-known athlete pull a Ricky Williams and retire in what is normally one’s athletic prime. Mendenhall apparently was a bit surprised at the shock that his announcement has engendered, and so he took to his blog at the Huffington Post to explain the decision as he sees it: Link to article at Huffington Post. What is most interesting is how this decision will shape his legacy perhaps more than anything he did on the field.
Now what good would this blog be if we took all of his musings at face value?
Mendenhall is an interesting fellow. I have heard from Steelers fans who never knew quite what to make of Mendenhall’s sometimes-on sometimes-off mentality. It makes a little more sense now, I suppose, but his introspective article reads a bit strange to me. He seems to be trying to come across as both SATISFIED! and contemplative, and both THANKFUL! and utterly jaded by the realities of the modern NFL. It strikes me as delightfully genuine at times, and contradictory at others. We’ll focus on two points he makes in particular.
The first key phrase in Mendenhall’s piece, and one that is very enlightening, is that he feels like he has “done it all.” He defines this as having played in two Super Bowls, having enjoyed many different successes, and having had a variety of different experiences. To be sure, Mendenhall has had a wild and wonderful ride full of many authentic adventures that most 26 year olds will never get to try. In many ways, his outlook is a surprisingly human viewpoint. But it is notable because of the ways it differs from the way most star athletes view their lives and accomplishments.
Most athletes, at least in team sports, live cumulative lives. Winning a game is the goal, but only until the next game, when the goal becomes winning that game too. Winning a title is the goal, but only until the next season, when the goal becomes winning that season’s title too. One exhilarating experience is great, but once the game is over and the lights fade, the next exhilarating experience is all that matters. Brett Favre oscillated in and out of retirement for years, just because he couldn’t give up the limelight. Like Don Draper said, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”
In most athletes, those present tense urges coexist with a future (and past) tense cumulative urge as well — that is to say, the notion of building an impressive legacy that will stand the test of time. Scoring points is great, but winning a scoring title is better, and a spot on the all-time scoring list is the best. Kobe Bryant is still signing contract extensions that are essentially dead weight on a terrible Lakers team that has no hope of winning the title, largely because he wants to cement himself at or near the top of the all time scoring leaders. He is not wrong to do so. After all, Sandy Koufax, in his prime, was about as dominant as any pitcher ever, but his prime was fleeting, and his career was short. Few would rank him ahead of the more durable greats like Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Greg Maddux, Pete Alexander, Christy Mathewson, Roger Clemens, and so on, because he just didn’t do enough of what he did best. In America, we look at career accomplishments. More, more, more.
We have witnessed countless athletes become swept up in one if not both of these tidal waves. After all, the exhilaration plus the long-term glory are what drive athletes to wake up in the dead hours of the morning to work out and punish and push themselves day after day after arduous day. Mendenhall seems to be saying that he is different. He had fun playing football, but as a 26 year old, the game has lost its luster. He played in two Super Bowls, but he has no interest in trying to play in three, or four, or ten Super Bowls.
To me, this is somewhat refreshing, mostly because it is very similar to how most civilians live and view their lives (as opposed to the athlete mentality above). The man doesn’t want to play football anymore — can there really be a better reason for retiring? Why does everything need to be cumulative? When someone lands their dream job, they usually focus on the satisfaction that it brings, not the dissatisfaction that comes with not also landing a bunch of different jobs. Like Dr. Melfi said to Tony Soprano: “You don’t have to eat every dish of rigatoni.” Playing in the NFL and in two Super Bowls are amazing achievements. It’s cool that Mendenhall thinks so.
The other of the two most interesting parts of Mendenhall’s piece, on the other hand, falls flat in my view. That is to say, it makes no damn sense at all to me. I’m referring to his statement about his public persona, which includes his image and the media scrutiny and, unfortunately, public abuse that come with it. Mendenhall claims that that stuff never made him sensitive and never mattered to him “until [he] realized that it actually had an impact on [his] career.” He says that he has always been an athlete and a competitor, and a very hard worker, and a professional, and someone who works extremely diligently to “prepare to be great — week after week, season after season.” He grew up in a football world where showboating was never commended and where doing the hard grunt work was the right way to play. He’s not blowing smoke — just look at the type of block he could throw even when he approached a blitzing linebacker at a less than optimal angle during his Steelers days:
But beyond all of those attributes, he laments that nowadays, swagger and image and branding and preening are the way of the League, and men boost their profile on Dancing with the Stars, and he apparently feels that there is no place for him anymore. After all, he has a calm demeanor and he is interested in art, literature, and dance,1 and not self-aggrandizement.
“I am not an entertainer. I never have been.”
Okay. So he is not an object of entertainment for others and doesn’t want to boost his profile and brand himself, but he’s retiring because others are objects of entertainment and boost their own profiles and brand themselves? Huh? To the extent those others have any effect on the public perception of Mendenhall (and I would argue they do not), wouldn’t they by comparison make him look more like the calm and contemplative non-entertainer that he is and takes so much pride in being? If he wants to block and do the grunt work and play football the “right way” like he says he does, why does he care at all about the effect of the wattage of the brightest stars? Doesn’t he just want to band with his teammates and win games and shut out all the other stuff — the other stuff that is allegedly leading him to retire?
I think his piece gets into trouble when it starts to point to external justifications for him falling out of love with life in the NFL. He had me when he said he was satisfied with what he has accomplished and the people he has met. That makes sense. The rest of the article amounts to pulling one block too many out of the Jenga tower.
Also, perhaps Mendenhall cares more about his legacy than he is letting on, and he is now sensing that his decline has progressed enough that he would look like a different player now if he suited up, which he doesn’t want his fans to see. After all, running backs these days have notoriously short shelf lives, due to the bigger/stronger/faster NFL and the punishment RBs take on a day to day basis. After three straight successful seasons, he only played in six games in 2012. His yards-per-attempt last year on Arizona were the lowest since the very beginning of his career. He has probably lost a step from his prime Steelers days, not to mention losing a Cardinals depth chart battle with rising dynamo Andre Ellington. Even though Mendenhall is only 26, there seem to be many real reasons to think his best gridiron days are in the rear view mirror. Maybe he is simply the latest in a long line of athletes who want to dictate the narrative of how their careers end.
Last month, I wrote about the oddly convergent legacies of Derek Jeter and figure skating GOAT Evgeni Plushenko, both of whom announced the ends of their respective runs within a day or so of one another, and I concluded that while many athletes seek to control the narrative that surrounds their careers and their exits, only the great ones actually manage it. I think Mendenhall, to a degree, is helping to prove that point once again. There can be no more overt an attempt at controlling one’s narrative than by broadcasting on the Internet a carefully crafted written soliloquy about one’s own retirement decision and the reasons (justifications) for it. Based on many initial reactions, however, I am not so sure that Mendenhall’s exit will be viewed through the lens he has offered us, and will instead be seen as a lack of willpower, energy, or “heart” by many people. After all, he does not have the belt notches or career accomplishments of a Jeter or a Plushenko, and the court of public opinion is less likely to give him the benefit of the same doubts to which they seem to be entitled.
So he wants to go relax and jet-set with his piles of money. I don’t blame him. Indeed, I think it’s admirable in some ways to cast off his shackles and follow his heart. I just don’t understand his decision to keep talking and end up blaming external dynamics for his internal preferences. He is very introspective and perceptive, but maybe he just doesn’t see every contradiction he’s a part of. After all, this is a man who is weary from the crushing onslaught of day-to-day media attention, and yet he was somehow surprised at the amount of reaction that his sudden retirement brought. For someone who is “not an entertainer,” he sure is making an entertaining exit.
- If he’s so into dance, why not try out for Dancing with the Stars?