How NFL players are thinking about life after football

Will NFL players continue to retire earlier? (1:52)

Jeff Saturday, Jeff Darlington and Josina Anderson debate whether players retiring early from the NFL is a trend that will continue. (1:52)

IT'S MIDAFTERNOON, and Kyle Long has everything and nothing to do. He plays video games well into the night and wakes up whenever he wants. He went off-roading in the desert south of Las Vegas recently, unfettered by contract restrictions. He has lost 50 pounds.

Retiring from the NFL at 31, Long says, was a great decision. He has his whole life ahead of him.

"I feel like a phoenix rising from the ashes," he says. "You don't realize how bad Stockholm syndrome is until you get outside the building and can speak for yourself, feel for yourself and express emotions and actually have a voice. Nothing against the NFL, it's just the nature of being a good soldier.

"Now I get to figure out who the hell Kyle Long is, and it's as exciting as anything I've ever done."

Long quietly announced his retirement on Jan. 5, during wild-card weekend. Just seven years ago, he was a first-round draft pick for the Chicago Bears. His Pro Football Hall of Fame father, Howie Long, played 13 years in the NFL. Howie once told his son that offensive linemen, with proper technique, can play forever.

But forever has a different meaning today in the NFL. Superstars Andrew Luck and Rob Gronkowski retired this past year before their 30th birthdays. Nine days after Long's announcement, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly left football at the age of 28.

All have been battered by major injuries and live in a time when players are armed with more information than ever about their bodies and minds. They have choices.

Today's generation knows about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and has watched childhood heroes limp through middle age. It helps that the players listed above also have tens of millions of dollars to fortify their transition.

Long, a three-time Pro Bowl guard, could identify with Luck when, in his farewell news conference last August, he spoke of breaking the agonizing cycle of injuries and rehab. Long's body has been through neck surgery, reconstructive ankle surgery, a torn labrum, a foot injury and a dislocated finger (in multiple places). A hip injury is what put him on injured reserve this past season, though he played an entire game with it just before being put on IR in October.

Long knew the end was near at least a year ago. He was sitting in the O-line room, one of his favorite places. For years, Long was a game-film darling. A laser pointer would flash on his blocks, and the whole room knew, without any words, that this was the way it was supposed to be done.

Then the injuries piled up, and one day Long looked up at the screen and saw a different person.

"You want to look down," Long says, "because the guy you're watching on film, wearing your number and impersonating you and your name, is no longer capable of doing the things that you are. ...

"When those two things are mismatched, that's when you know you've got to get the hell out of there."

So here it is, life after football, and Long is content. He's buying his own coffee for the first time, and it's liberating. Not so liberating: figuring out his own taxes.

Just before Long hangs up the phone -- he has all the time in the world to talk now, he says -- he adds one thing.

"You could say I'm retired, but I could always come back," he says. "One thing you can rule out is me playing for anyone but the Bears."

THIS PAST FALL, ESPN's NFL Nation reporters sought to gauge current players' thoughts on retirement. In the past few years, some of the league's best players -- Luck, Gronkowski, Calvin Johnson and Patrick Willis -- have left football voluntarily, and surely that must say something about how today's players view their NFL careers. Or does it?

Eighty-seven players throughout the league were interviewed about subjects such as when they plan to leave the game, how pain might factor into that decision and how they are approaching life after football from a financial standpoint.

First, the good news: All but one player said he was saving for retirement, which is likely a byproduct of all the "Scared Straight" stimuli out there today such as rookie symposiums and documentaries like 30 for 30's "Broke." (When told of this, however, Kyle Long said he did not believe that 86 of 87 players are saving money. "There are three things you don't talk about in NFL locker rooms: family, religion and money.")

A majority of those interviewed had no immediate plans to retire and said that injuries or health concerns would be the main reason for leaving football before they had intended.

Asked what pain level it would take for them to leave the game, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most painful, more than 20% of the players responded 10 or above.

New York Giants safety Michael Thomas said it would take "them dragging me off the field" to retire. One anonymous player in his mid-20s replied, "When they stop paying me. The only way I would retire is [if] I suffered a severe head injury, which I fortunately have never had."

But if the new collective bargaining agreement is ratified in the next few weeks, adding a 17th game to the season, it's possible that more players will choose long-term health over football. San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman was among those on the NFLPA's executive committee who voted no to the deal, but it passed 17-14 and will be sent to the rest of the players for a vote.

Sherman tweeted, "Health and Wellness of our men is always the most important aspect. There is no price you can put on that and that is why I Voted No."

Retirement talk is no longer taboo in NFL locker rooms. Tyrann Mathieu, who had sort of a career revival when he joined the Kansas City Chiefs in the offseason and won a Super Bowl, told NFL Nation's Adam Teicher that he thought about retiring after his second knee surgery in Arizona. Mathieu is 27.

"I knew how hard it was for me to come back the first time," Mathieu says. "So I've had those thoughts before.

"I'd say a good percentage of guys think about what their life would be like without football. Football offers people great resources, financial stability, fame, all those kinds of things. But there's a flip side to that. It can make a lot of people miserable, especially when you're dealing with injuries and things like that. It's a double-edged sword."

ON THE LAST weekend of the NFL season, longtime agent Leigh Steinberg held a brain health summit before his annual Super Bowl party. Steinberg, the inspiration behind the crisis-of-conscience agent in the movie "Jerry Maguire," sat on a stage with a stoic group of panelists while partygoers began to filter into Miami's design district.

Chris Borland grabbed a microphone. Five years ago, Borland retired after his rookie season with the 49ers, giving up most of a $2.93 million contract.

"I had two brain injuries when I was 14 and 16," Borland says. "I probably would've stopped playing contact sports, if I was born 10 years later, after that second concussion."

A few hours later, across the MacArthur Causeway to South Beach, Frank Gore dashed down a flight of stairs and fired up the crowd at Pitbull's nightclub. The fact that Gore can do anything after 15 seasons as an NFL running back is somewhat of a feat. Running back is the most physically demanding position in football -- with the shortest shelf life -- and Gore had just come off a season in which he'd carried the ball 166 times. At 36 years old.

Gore says he wants to play again next season.

"I love the game of football," he says. "My body still feels good. I know I can still play the game, and I want to still play.

"I'll be fine. I don't let guys get big hits on me. I'll be fine."

The NFL does not believe that the retirements of Luck, Gronkowski and Kuechly represent any kind of trend. When asked about the subject, Brian McCarthy, the NFL's vice president of communications, forwarded a document titled "Player Longevity."

It states that during the 2019 kickoff weekend, 500 players had at least five years of experience and 81 had at least 10 years. (There are 1,696 players during the regular season.) It highlights the lengthy careers of quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and says that the average lifespan of an NFL player with at least one season under his belt is 4.2 years, which is "practically unchanged from 2014-18."

"This is a very personal and individual decision based on a player's career, their family, their lives," McCarthy said in an email. "We're always respectful of players' ability to make choices about what's best for them, including for their physical and mental health."

SOME DAYS, WHEN his knee pops or his hip hurts, Everson Walls thinks of Roy Green. Walls and Green were going up for a ball in 1985, stretching their young bodies to their limits. Walls, a defensive back who began his career in 1981, came down with the interception; Green, a wide receiver, came down on his ankle. The pain from that injury never went away, eventually traveling to Walls' knee and hip and affecting his gait.

Walls played another eight years after that injury, and today his neck cracks and he feels numbness in his fingertips. Walls and just about everyone interviewed for this story concede that football players know that pain is a tradeoff for a game they love. But many of them could not grasp the lasting effects of that pain.

Dr. Ilan Danan, a sports neurologist and pain management specialist at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute, says chronic pain can affect a retired player's confidence, self-worth and ability to integrate in family activities.

"Undoubtedly we'll run into patients who as a result of chronic pain are having a much more difficult time finding out what their new norm is," Danan says. "In a lot of these instances, they'll find themselves falling into some level of quote-unquote depression. Generally speaking, mood and behavior-related issues, whether that's primarily depression, anxiety or a combination of both, it's certainly something where if it's not identified or addressed early, it can get the best of them and really take over.

"Not only are they focused on the pain but they are a shell of themselves."

Walls, 60, considers himself lucky. Many of his old NFL friends have harder lives.

When he played for the New York Giants, he roomed with Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson. They became good friends. Around 2011, Walls saw him at a Super Bowl concert with Duerson's fiancée, Antoinette Sykes. "God, they were so happy," Walls says. Shortly after that, Duerson was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.

When Walls heard of Duerson's death, he was so stunned that he thought his friend must have been murdered. He saw no signs of trouble.

Duerson had left a note asking that his brain be sent to the NFL's Brain Bank. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University's School of Medicine confirmed that Duerson had CTE, the result of the concussions he suffered during his playing career.

Despite all of this, Walls says that if he knew then what players know now, he'd still play football.

"I would still play," he says. "I would want full knowledge to make that decision myself. I played a certain way. I wasn't that amazingly physical guy. I knew how to get in there and not get hit in the head most of the time.

"All I know is, I play the game, I'm supposed to hurt. It's a physical game. When you start talking lasting effects, that's when it gets scary."

ANDREW LUCK'S DAD was 26 when he retired from the NFL. He was not a No. 1 draft pick like his son, but Oliver Luck made $250,000 to be Warren Moon's backup, good money in 1986. But the elder Luck was going to law school while he was playing for the Houston Oilers and wanted to move on. He had bigger things to do.

His farewell news conference was attended by three or four people, and Luck recited a stanza from the Robert Frost poem "Provide, Provide."

He can still recite it today:

No memory of having starred

Atones for later disregard

Or keeps the end from being hard.

Andrew never knew his dad as a football player. He knew him as West Virginia's athletic director, the GM for the Frankfurt Galaxy and now as the commissioner of the XFL. Even if just by osmosis, Oliver Luck taught his son that there was plenty of life after football.

"I think for every player it's different," Oliver Luck says. "Most guys play for as long as they can until they're sort of pushed out the door.

"But I do think there are guys who realize there's a whole 40 years of a working life ahead of you when you're 25 or 30 and you want to get on with it."

WES HORTON DOESN'T plan on coming back. He retired on Feb. 4, just after his 30th birthday.

Like Long, Horton was part of the 2013 rookie class. He went undrafted, but ended up playing in 10 games his first season with the Panthers and recorded two sacks. Three years later, he was in the Super Bowl.

An undrafted player is always on the bubble, so Horton did not have the option of sitting out when he was in pain. He could get cut.

When he was 28, he noticed that his body took more time to recover from injuries. As he got older and the injuries started to accumulate, Horton says, he began to feel them all -- the shoulder, the groin and the hamstring, which he was certain had a slight tear.

Shortly after the 2019 season, Horton was playing a game of basketball when he felt his hamstring tear. He was uninterested in rehabbing another injury, and decided it was time to leave football.

One of the first calls he made was to his alma mater, Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California. Horton was offered an assistant coaching job with the football team.

"I'm not the type of person who takes a lot of time off," Horton says.

The life of a football player is centered on routine, and one of the first things that NFLPA president Eric Winston tells retiring players is to find something to do, something that gives them a reason to wake up every morning.

One resource is the NFL Trust, which was established out of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement between the players' union and the NFL. Bahati VanPelt, executive director of the trust, says one of the program's goals is to see former players "doing the things they need to live a long, productive life." The trust offers benefits such as educational scholarships, wellness screenings and gym memberships.

With help from the Trust, Winston, went back to school to get his MBA and will complete his degree in May.

"For me to opine on how you transition would be ridiculous," Winston says, "because I'm still figuring it out."

Winston says he doesn't have any numbers to track retirement trends. Neither does the NFL Trust. But Winston has noticed that today's players seem more interested in long-term benefits than in short-term rewards.

"Listen, if it's a trend, is it bad? No," Winston says. "I don't think it's bad if a guy is deciding, 'Hey, you know what? I've got other options and I have some ideas of what I want to do, therefore I'm going to go do that.'

"Isn't that what we've always been saying about NFL guys? That they need to think about what's next and you can only play for so long, yada yada? Now all of a sudden guys are doing that and everyone is like, 'Oh, man, this is gonna be a big issue.' No it's not. Even if that hypothesis is true, it's still OK, and the game's going to be fine too."