On Sunday, news that former Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals running back Rashard Mendenhall is leaving professional football behind struck an odd note. Via Twitter, Mendenhall's agent, Mike McCartney, posted that Mendenhall is retiring after just six seasons in the National Football League. It may appear strange to many that a 26-year-old would leave millions of money on the table and just walk away, but Mendenhall apparently seeks the solace of opening a new chapter in his life, albeit a more literary one.
Mendenhall's article in the Huffington Post in February titled “The Vision” may have been a foretelling of where the young man's life was headed. In the piece, Mendenhall described what many would say was as a spiritual awakening. “I was moving towards something, that I could barely see in the distance,” wrote Mendenhall. “I would have to work hard to get there. There was no way I could stay where I was and survive, nor did I want to. Getting there would be anything but easy. But it would ultimately be worth it.” He continued by adding that this event occurred the day after he tore an ACL in his knee and that the images he saw made him “fully at peace.”
Largely ignored by NFL fans due to infamous quotes in the past about various politically-charged issues, Mendenhall's experience went unheralded for the most part. His survival in football-oriented Pittsburgh was questionable following the post-Twitter uproar and a fumble during Super Bowl XLV that made him the target of the loss to the Green Bay Packers; unfairly or not. Mendenhall's NFL career started off with a busted shoulder during the fourth game of his rookie season (2008) after Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis made a clean, but devastating hit on him. During the 2010 season, the same year that the Steelers met the Packers in the Super Bowl, Mendenhall posted 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns. His play led Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to write, “Go ahead, blame the Super Bowl XLV loss on him if you like. The Steelers wouldn't have made it there without him.”
Mendenhall further distanced himself from fans, teammates and even coaches late in his career with Pittsburgh. His 2012 play was questionable enough that head coach Mike Tomlin inactivated him for two games. During the second game, Mendenhall didn't even show up. It was his end with the Steelers.
Bruce Arians picked Mendenhall up and took him to the Arizona Cardinals where he was signed to a one-year, $2.5 million contract for 2013. Mendenhall led the team in rushing. As for 2014, Mendenhall has opted for what he feels are higher pursuits – and maybe they are.
Mendenhall's most recent article to the Huffington Post is titled, “Why I retired at 26”, and sheds a completely different light on where he sees himself headed. It also puts a spotlight on how Mendenhall feels the NFL has changed.
Imagine having a job where you're always on duty, and can never fully relax or you just may drown. Having to fight through waves and currents of praise and criticism, but mostly hate,” wrote Mendenhall. “There is a bold coarseness you receive from non-supporters that seems to only exist on the Internet. However, even if you try to avoid these things completely – because I've tried – somehow they still reach you...Over my career, I would learn that everything people say behind these computer and smartphones actually shape the perception of you – the brand, the athlete and the person. Go figure!
Mendenhall admits that he never wanted to be an “entertainer” and that he now sees the NFL as little more than a show. “Today, game-day cameras follow the most popular players on teams; guys who dance after touchdowns...This is a very different model of football than the one I grew up with.” He has no interest in putting his “body at risk for the sake of entertainment” and looks forward to being himself. “I look forward to chasing my desires and passions without restriction, and to sharing them with anyone who wants to come along with me!”
Mendenhall's passion to be a writer won't surprise a ton of people. He's been sharing his views for quite some time. As a writer, I applaud Mendenhall's passion to find himself, free himself and pursue his dreams. Controversial or not, Mendenhall's take has always been his own – uniquely honest.