Fantasy Football for Poets, Week 12

By

THREE WAYS TO LEAVE THE NFL

Anyone who played sports in high school remembers that one girl or boy who was better than everyone else, who had it, who was doubtlessly headed towards a full ride to a Division I school where we’d lose touch with them, until one day we’d see them on TV, at Wimbledon, in the Olympics, at the Super Bowl.

So when we as adults turn on ESPN and learn that this splendid football player we knew in high school has suddenly quit the game mid-season, we spill coffee, miss trains, and stare into our Wheat Chex in astonishment. We want answers, wildly curious how a man could turn down this achievement, money, prestige, and lifestyle.

This week, I’m writing about three players who, though healthy and young, have all quit America’s most popular and visible sport mid-season. Their reasons for quitting are as different as their trajectories, but in each of them, there are shards of a much larger and tragic American story.

 

SLIP OUT THE BACK, JACK

On November 11, a blog post with the headline “NFL Player Quits Because, You Know, Noam Chomsky” made its way around social media. The provocative headline cut to the most unusual angle of another early NFL retirement.

On November 5, offensive lineman John Moffitt abruptly quit the Denver Broncos, a successful team with a popular coach and a winning quarterback. Doubtlessly headed toward the playoffs, if not the Super Bowl, this year, the Broncos are a well-run franchise with few of the hazing or internal issues that have dogged other clubs. Why would anyone leave this team?

“It’s all dirty business and the worst part about it is—all business is dirty business,” John Moffitt said on Peter Schrager’s podcast for FOX Sports. “Let’s be honest, let’s look at corporate America and what they try to instill in people, like it’s such a big deal because I leave the NFL. That’s how brainwashed people are with money and a false sense of security, but not only is the NFL dirty corporate America business, but now you’re risking people’s health.”

“Money is just an illusion,” John adds. “Especially in the current economic system we have right now.”

John has cited linguistics professor and political activist Noam Chomsky as an influence on his decision to the leave the NFL, and, understanding Chomsky’s opinion of sports as spectacle, one can see how they’d inspire cognitive dissonance in a professional football player.

“Sports is another crucial example of the indoctrination system,” Chomsky says in the documentary Manufacturing Consent. “It offers people something to pay attention to that is of no importance … The purpose of those media is to dull people’s brains. The main thing for them is to divert [the audience]…get them to watch National Football League. Just get them away, get them away from things that matter. And for that, it’s important to reduce their capacity to think.”

John hasn’t stopped his extracurricular reading with Chomsky, also tweeting quotes from author/pyschonaut Terence McKenna, including this one:

Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.

The vast majority of the media offering new or direct information on John Moffitt’s retirement does not meaningfully delve into these influences, and skirts John’s holistic reasons for leaving the NFL. While this is not surprising, the media is leaving out the more interesting and complex aspect of John’s early retirement: his evolution as a thinker.

Much to John’s chagrin, his story, to most media outlets, is about the money he’s leaving on the table by quitting. According to Sports Illustrated, John will give up $1 million by retiring now; approximately $312,500 of it is for the rest of this current season and another $752,000 would have come from his non-guaranteed salary in 2014.

“How could you give that up?” How could you quit mid-season?” ESPN anchor Dan Patrick asked, rhetorically, on his morning sports radio show. “And you gotta tell [Broncos president] John Elway, I don’t have the passion anymore. That’s gotta be a tough conversation.”

“I’ve saved enough,” John told USA Today. “That’s what I kind of realized. I’m sitting here and I got to this point and I was like, ‘What is the number that you need? How much do you really need? What do you want in life?’ And I decided that I don’t really need to be a millionaire.”

In the meantime, John has been concentrating on further developing his non-profit clothing line, Moffit Merch, which donates 100% of its proceeds to Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. He also plans to start a podcast (perhaps heavier on the Chomsky?) and slim down from his 319-pound weight for health reasons.

“I’m the one being called crazy, but I think everyone else is crazy,” John said to the New York Times. “It’s disturbing that people are questioning my sanity for giving up the money. What does that say about our world?”

 

MAKE A NEW PLAN, STAN

Almost everyone is great at something that’s not their first love. My brother, a heavy metal singer and guitarist, can, when he wants to, sound exactly like Billy Joel. My chef friend Patty Clark, a vegetarian, makes the best jerk chicken and osso buco I’ve ever had in my life. Tom Zbikowski, who retired from the NFL last week, was an excellent football player, when he wanted to be.

Tom Zbikowski retired this month after five seasons as an NFL safety spent mostly with the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts. He grew up outside Chicago as a Bears fan, and took up both football and boxing as a kid. However, what he seems to have really wanted to be was a fireman, like his father Ed, his grandfather Wilbur, and later, his brother E.J.

But when you receive sixty scholarship offers to play Division I football, as Tom did—meaning you can basically have your choice of free college almost anywhere in the country, while playing a game you still find easy and fun—maybe the hook and ladder can wait.

In college at Notre Dame, he was a team captain and All-American. He would also drive to Chicago to participate in boxing matches on nights before 5:00 a.m. football practice. He was a hard partier and a goofball who drove around a white ’91 Cadillac Seville with a horn that played “La Cucaracha.” He would also, in the name of tradition, drink four glasses of Scotch and four Guinnesses on nights before game days. Of the sixty-four games Tom played in the NFL, he estimated that he played at least twelve with a massive hangover.

“Get a little messed up, sneak a girl into your room, feel on top of the world,” Zbikowski told the Chicago Tribune. “I had some of my best games off of benders—some of my worst too. My two best seasons ever were 2005 (at Notre Dame) and 2009 (in Baltimore) when I was the most out of control drinking.”

I knew guys like Tom in my own Division I college, and good Lord, I hated them. They ruled the school, they seemed to be having a blast, and I wasn’t invited to any of it. Anyway, I thought I was too smart for their keg parties with their inane beer and terrifying music. Now I watch their adult iterations on TV every weekend, so who’s the fool?

Tom, for his part, seemed to derive more happiness from partying than from football. Maybe a naturally talented jock can float like this through high school and college, but in the NFL, if the game isn’t your top priority in life, you will suffer.

During Tom’s rookie year with the Ravens in 2008, his coach John Harbaugh described him as “225 pounds with a beer gut” and openly wondered why the team didn’t draft athletic LSU safety Craig Steltz instead of “Tommy Z,” the lush from Notre Dame.

“I knew (Ravens general manager) Ozzie Newsome and (then-defensive coordinator) Rex Ryan wanted me but John didn’t, so I was like, ‘Point taken, coach, I’ll get my (stuff) together,” Tom told the Chicago Tribune.

Five years later, Tom ended up in camp with the third team of his career, his hometown Bears, and in a twist of fate, ended up competing with Craig for a job in the Chicago secondary.

“We’ll see,” Bears defensive coach Mel Tucker told the Daily Herald when asked to evaluate Tom’s chances of making the team. “He’s there for a reason. Obviously he passed the [physical] evaluation.”

Tom lost the competition, and early.

“It was the easiest training camp I’ve been involved with, schedule-wise, but I couldn’t move, so I don’t blame them,” Tom said.

After being cut, he was suspended by the NFL for using a diuretic. Now eligible again this month to sign with any team, Tom has cleaned up, cut back on the drinking, and decided to pursue his dream job—and a promise he made to his late grandfather to continue a family tradition.

“Football got old to me,” he said in the Tribune interview. “After a while you don’t care whether you win or lose because you’re still getting a paycheck. I enjoyed high school and college much more.”

Tom was often trying to break into his second career while still involved in his first one. Even most Notre Dame fans probably don’t know that he originally applied to be a Chicago city firefighter in 2006, while still playing for the Fighting Irish. Tom also, while with the Bears, attended the South Clinton Street Fire department’s Academy Day in May of this year, but was turned away for not being properly dressed.

“Whatever it was, it did not fit the description of business casual, as we say,” said fire department spokesman Larry Langford of the incident.

Now, with that lesson learned, Tom will finally begin Chicago Fire Department training next month. Given his options and resources, as well as his long journey to the precipice of his personal dream job, it seems that Tom may finally have what he’d never experienced in football: a sustained sense of happiness and purpose.

“I’ve had an extremely blessed life and I saved three-quarters of my money, so I can do whatever I want and I want to be of service to a community,” he said. “Firemen show up in scary situations. They’re symbols of pride, of faith, of what’s good in society.”

 

DROP OFF THE KEY, LEE

Months ago, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Rolando McClain was on edge. “I was feeling like [indicted murderer & former NFL player] Aaron Hernandez or something,” he told ESPN. “Like I just wanted to kill somebody.”

Rolando_McClainHis family had recently held a $20,000 funeral for Rolando’s grandfather, complete with five limos—and sent Rolando the bill. His relationship with his fiancée, the mother of one of his children, was under great duress. His estranged father, who reappeared in Rolando’s life as soon as he started making money in the NFL, was a continued stressful presence.

Rolando’s entourage from his hometown of Decatur was also getting expensive. After signing his rookie contract with the Oakland Raiders, ESPN reports, Rolando spent $600,000 on his friends and family in a six-month period, mostly on cars. Everyone had a hand out, but his crew back in his hometown insisted that Rolando wouldn’t be where is today without them. “A little piece of you feels like maybe they’re right,” Rolando said.

“Everything was happening so fast,” he told the Decatur Daily. “Everybody wants this and they want that. I was thinking I was Superman; I could take it all on. I was headed down a bad road.”

Rolando’s journey to the NFL couldn’t have been more different from suburban party boy Tom Zbikowski’s. Rolando ran away from home at fifteen after his mom threatened him with a knife, couch-surfing with friends until he earned a football scholarship to Alabama.

“Football was my mask,” Rolando tells ESPN now. “It was the cover-up. You got problems—go break something, work it out that way.”

“I asked him at one point if he’d gone to see a therapist,” ESPN’s Seth Wickersham says, in a recorded conversation with fellow journalist Cary Chow. “And he said that [Alabama head coach Nick] Saban had introduced him to a counselor, but he wasn’t quite ready to go because he was scared of what he might say, and scared of what the counselor might learn about him.”

In college, Rolando thrived—he made the dean’s list twice—and football was, for a time, an effective outlet for his anger management issues. At Alabama, he became one of the best college linebackers in the nation, and in 2010, was a first-round pick of the Oakland Raiders, signing a $40 million contract.

However, according to Wickersham, Rolando “hated much of pro football.” While his entourage and his family were sucking his wallet dry, Rolando was getting chewed out by coaches for loafing in practice. Hoping a change of scenery would reignite some love for the game, Rolando left the Raiders and signed with the Ravens earlier this year.

It didn’t change his temperament, or, more importantly, his peer group back home. While partying in a public area with friends from his hometown this April, Rolando was jailed on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. “I was just mad,” Rolando said. “I just wanted to fight people.”

He also considered suicide. “You sit there and think, ‘Why am I even here?’” he told ESPN. “If I’m gone, all this shit will go away.”

Instead, he got out. Less than a month after signing with Baltimore, he told the team he was retiring, and then cut off all of his friends and family in Decatur, promising to never set foot in that town again.

“I can’t forget where I come from,” Rolando said. “But at some point, a man’s got to move on and look out for his family … it was the time for me to stop and take a break and reflect on my life and get myself right, and that’s what I’m doing at this time.”

Rolando returned to college at the University of Alabama, where he’s completing a degree in family financial planning. Otherwise, he takes care of his two small children, plays pickup basketball, goes fishing, and hangs out with a couple of trusted old friends.

The few intimates still in his life don’t think that Rolando is crazy for giving up NFL prestige and millions, particularly under the circumstances. “We want Ro to make good choices and decisions about what he does in the future,” his former college coach Nick Saban told Alabama.com. “We want to help him every way that we can.”

He knows he needs to do more work on himself, but after what he’s been through, it’s one step at a time. “I don’t know if I’m ready to know, man, why I was so angry,” Rolando said. “I don’t know if I’m ready to know what triggers my anger. I just feel like I figured out on my own how to stay calm, how to enjoy life, how to be happy. Eventually, I might find the source of the problem, get over it. But right now…”

“If I choose to do football or I choose to just sit on my porch and fish for the rest of my life,” he told the Decatur Daily, “I’ll have a clear head.” Consider everything that this twenty-four-year old man has walked away from, and just try to doubt this.

“Smart lad, to slip betimes away / from fields where glory does not stay,” A. E . Housman writes in “To an Athlete Dying Young,” and today, those words have relevance in an American sport where the early death of a career is, ultimately, the smartest form of self-preservation.

***

Feature photo credit

Second photo credit


J. Ryan Stradal is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest and the forthcoming The Lager Queen of Minnesota. His shorter writing has appeared in Hobart, the Wall Street Journal, Granta, the Guardian, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. More from this author →