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Boxed In, Then Leaving NFL At Age 26


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk football now. The NFL's free agency period is in full swing. That means star players are switching teams and signing big-money deals in the process. But one big name who will not be signing on the dotted line is running back Rashard Mendenhall. He played in 15 games for the Arizona Cardinals last year. At the age of 26, you could say he's entering his prime.

But Mendenhall says he is hanging up the cleats, and he is not going after another job in football. And Rashard Mendenhall joins us now from Chicago. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

RASHARD MENDENHALL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for speaking with us because you've been relatively reticent about your decision. I mean, you didn't hold a press conference or anything like that. You did write about it for the Huffington Post. How come?

MENDENHALL: It seemed like it was more me. Even when I told my agent I was going to be walking away and he asked me how I wanted to make the announcement, and, you know, I didn't even think I needed to make an announcement. But I write for the Huffington Post, you know, pretty regularly, so I decided to just kind of put my thoughts and feelings out there and put them truly.

MARTIN: The piece in the Huffington Post is very interesting. I mean, it covers a number of different points. But I want to pick a couple of lines from near the end of the piece, where you say: 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'm grateful that I can walk away feeling as good as I did when I stepped into it.

Is that a big part of it, the desire to not be injured?

MENDENHALL: That's a small part of it, you know, 'cause with football, there comes that risk and there comes that danger. And I think I just grew to a point where, you know, I've accomplished what I wanted to. And you kind of ask yourself, what do you want to do going forward and why? And, you know, as an athlete, as a competitor, you kind of want to chase the pinnacle. You want to chase your height, and I've done that for some time. But it was starting to feel like, you know, when I say for the sake of entertainment, it was starting to feel like, is it really for that anymore? Is that what really matters?

MARTIN: You say in the same piece, I'm not an entertainer. I never have been. Playing that role was never easy for me. The box deemed for professional athletes is a very small box. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

MENDENHALL: You kind of always feel like you have to represent so many things all the time and - you know, from the NFL and the shield, from your personal team, to the city that you live in. And by represent them, that doesn't necessarily mean, be an upstanding citizen 'cause you can be that. But you kind of have to - I almost feel like - be what they want you to be. You know, things that I greatly enjoy - you know, the arts, music and reading and dance, and things like that - it would be questioned.

You know, people would question, you know, what makes you a football player, or how serious are you about your job? And it would kind of be frustrating because I work very hard at my job, and I work very diligently at everything that I do. But my interests outside of sports, I don't know why they were conflicting. I don't know why it would be a problem. And just kind of having to fit in that box, kind of having to dull myself to be accepted, was - you know, was a bit much for me on a regular basis.

MARTIN: Do you think that race plays a role in this? I mean, one of the other things that you wrote about in the piece is that there's an ugly side to the communications with the fans that perhaps other people don't see. You talked about the fact that you said, I can't even count how many times I've been called a - and I don't - we don't use this word on the air - but a dumb...


MARTIN: ...And it's the N-word. There's a bold coarseness you receive from non-supporters that seems to only exist on the Internet. And you say that it still shapes people's perceptions of you. So I just - so there - I guess I have a couple of questions embedded in that, right? But I do wonder if that small box has something to do with race, in your view.

MENDENHALL: I definitely think so. I believe so. And you kind of feel it as you're going through from college to the NFL because just in the same sense, there's a lot of players, you know, that aren't black, that have outside interests. And they're kind of praised for that because they're seen - for lack of a better way to put it - they're seen more as people, or more as human beings. But being a black and being a black athlete, it's like you're just kind of assumed to not have anything besides football, or besides sports. And it's kind of assumed that you would hold onto it for dear life. And...

MARTIN: Is the argument that you should just be so grateful to have the opportunity...


MARTIN: ...To play football that you shouldn't possibly be thinking about anything else?

MENDENHALL: Exactly. It's that you should be grateful and thank everybody for giving you the opportunity and for, you know, being able to play the game. It's like - and it's a great - it is a great opportunity, but I think it goes both ways. You know, they get something out of it as well. You're exploited as well for your physical abilities, and it works both ways. But they make it one way a lot of the time and especially for black players, the box you're in is a lot smaller.

MARTIN: Is that in part why you are leaving, or you just tired...

MENDENHALL: No, it's just...

MARTIN: ...Of it?

MENDENHALL: And, you know, it's just the thing I noticed when I was going through, you know. I'm pretty perceptive. I would just kind of watch things and pay attention. And even, you know, just kind of to be in a locker room, you know, there's just - there's a difference. It is what it is. And there's a culture in the NFL, and in that bubble or that realm, just like there is anywhere and everywhere. And I understand it, and I accepted it. And it was cool, and it was fine. But I felt like it wasn't for me anymore.

MARTIN: I just feel like I have to ask - because I know that there are people who are listening, who will want me to ask. There are people who just think you're crazy. They're thinking, how can you walk - you're - if you are healthy...


MARTIN: ...You sound fine. Like, there's nothing bothering you...


MARTIN: ...And you're walking away from what? Potentially millions of dollars, right?


MARTIN: So some people would - gee, that's like leaving a lottery ticket on the table.

MENDENHALL: But it's not. It's not winning the lottery. You have to work for that, and there's a lot that comes with that. And, you know, I think it only seems crazy to people who don't really know me. And I have known since I was younger that football would only last for a time. You have to stop, at some time. For some guys, it's after high school; some guys, after college; for some guys, after 10 years in the NFL. For some, it's after a few years in the NFL.

And I always wanted to be able to - from when I was younger, from college, I remember going to the NFL, and I knew the second that, you know, I was ready to walk away that I would, no matter what was going on, no matter what was there. And anybody that knows me knows that, and they know that I never found my whole identity in football. I've always known who I was - as Rashard - and grown in that. So stepping away from that is a piece of my life, but that's not the entire part of my life.

MARTIN: Did anybody try to talk you out of it?

MENDENHALL: Yes, definitely. But it wasn't like I did it without any thought. You know, it took a lot of talking. For somebody to talk me out of it, it would have taken a lot of talking. .

MARTIN: Your agent didn't fall on his knees and start crying?

MENDENHALL: No. The only thing was, you know, being from Chicago, when one of my friends asked me, would you play for the Bears? And I was like, oh, that's interesting. But then I thought about how cold it is in Chicago, and trying to play game in January. And I said no, I'm straight.

MARTIN: You had one other thing I did want to mention. You mentioned a couple of things about just disappointment with the way the game is going. You did have kind of like, an old-fogey moment in your piece. You know, these kids today who - you say - who don't want to work. You talked about one of your brothers. Your older brother coaches football at the high school and youth level. And one day he called and said, these kids don't want to work hard. All they want to do is look cool, celebrate after plays, and get more followers on Instagram.


MARTIN: And you were saying that it actually is more like that than people might think. I mean, is - it's - I'm interested in that just because, you know, we hear that that's the opposite, right? We hear that those are - the people who are really celebrated are people who, like yourself, have a work ethic, no showboat - you know, things of that sort.


MARTIN: You're saying that the way the game is actually played is just not satisfying to you.

MENDENHALL: Yeah, I would say this - I didn't really say that I was disappointed. I was saying, oh, these kids - I'm saying it's different from when I was in high school and college and kind of the way things were, kind of the way I saw it. I'm just saying it's different now. And you know, with the entertainment aspect of it, with the 24-hour news cycle around the NFL, with the making up stories, with, you know, fans being able to connect to players and things like, you know, social media when they never have before, it is what it is. And it's great. It's great for everybody. It's brought so much more attention to the game. You know, there's a lot more revenue. People have a lot of fun with it.

And it's just different. I would say, for me, it's just different. And I wouldn't say one's greater than the other. But for me and what I kind of got into and what I signed up for, it's like, this isn't really for me. That's the best thing I could say. You know, for some people, it's perfect. For some people, it's great for them. But for me, it isn't really for me.

MARTIN: So what are you going to do with yourself...

MENDENHALL: A lot of things.

MARTIN: ...In the fall?

MENDENHALL: A lot of things. You know, I left school early. I wanted to finish school.

MARTIN: So are you, in fact, going to finish school? People always say they're going to, and they very rarely do. Are you going to?

MENDENHALL: You know what? I always said I wasn't going to.


MENDENHALL: When I left school, I was always like, no, I'm not going to finish school. People always tell you to finish school - 'cause I really didn't think it mattered or was necessary, especially for what I would want to do and what happened to me. But I decided to go back and finish school, you know, to - you know, I put in all that time, I might as well and, you know, for the sake of credibility, to say I have my degree.

So I decided I would finish school, after all this time of saying that I wouldn't. And outside of finishing school, I want to really kind of grow with my writing. That's something I'm passionate about, and something I've been doing this whole time and will continue to do, going forward, and continue to grow at. And wherever that goes, whatever happens with that, I'll be pleased with.

MARTIN: So art, writing, literature, dance - you could be an NPR host. Wait a minute.


MARTIN: I'm talking myself out of a job here. Let's let this go. Well, congratulations on everything, and good luck to you.

MENDENHALL: Thanks a lot.


MENDENHALL: I appreciate that.

MARTIN: Rashard Mendenhall is retired. As an NFL running back, he played for the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers. And he was kind enough to join us from Chicago. Rashard Mendenhall, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MENDENHALL: No problem. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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