In one of the weirdest moments in this young NFL season, Bills 30-year-old cornerback Vontae Davis went into halftime with his team and left before the start of the second half, retiring from the league.
Davis released a statement later noting reality hit him, and he realized, “I shouldn’t be out there anymore.” A ten-year veteran, Davis made it well past the average NFL career of 3.3 years and said he meant no disrespect to his coaches or teammates but felt he could no longer play at the standard he sets for himself.
The timing of Davis’ retirement has been the subject of much debate, and retiring at halftime is clearly not ideal, but his reasoning should not be overlooked. Davis’ retirement is the latest in a trend that should be troubling for the NFL.
Later in his retirement note, Davis wrote, “I also wondered: Do I want to keep sacrificing? And truthfully, I do not…it’s more important for me and my family to walk away healthy than to willfully embrace the warrior mentality and limp away too late.”
As more research comes out about CTE, the degenerative brain disease caused by sub-concussive blows to the head, players are taking their long-term health more seriously than ever. We don’t know if fear of brain trauma specifically factored into Davis’s decision but maintaining his health certainly did.
He’s not the only one in recent years.In 2016, at just 32 years old Jets left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson retired after 10 seasons. Ferguson never missed a practice or appeared on an injury report in his time in the NFL. Ferguson walked away completely healthy but did so to protect his future. Before his retirement, in a December 2015 article in SI,Ferguson wrote “I fear the unavoidable truth is that playing football has placed me in harm’s way, and I am not yet sure of the full extent of what it might cost me.”
This past July at 24 years old Josh Perry announced his retirement. Leading up to his decision, Perry suffered his sixth concussion on what he called a very “pedestrian” play. He wrote in his retirement announcement, “The last thing I want to do is put the health of my brain and my future wellbeing in jeopardy over a game and a paycheck.”
The list goes on; Chris Borland the 49ers third round pick retired abruptly after a stellar 2014 rookie season and is now a spokesman for CTE awareness. That same off-season ex-49ers QB Patrick Willis, ex-Titans QB Jake Locker, and ex-Steelers LB Jason Worilds all retired early.
This trend isn’t going away and when you look closer at the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell situation, it’s clear Bell is concerned not just about money, but about his health and his long-term viability in the NFL. Bell may not be spooked by CTE but he’s well aware that wear and tear including concussions can greatly impact his bottom line.
Sunday night, just a few hours after Davis abruptly retired, 60 Minutes aired a feature on CTE. The program interviewed neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee who has been a leading researcher of CTE. Last year, she found evidence of CTE in 110 of 111 NFL players she autopsied. McKee says the most severe case she ever saw of CTE in someone under the age of 30 was Aaron Hernandez, former Patriots tight end who killed himself after being convicted of double murder.
With the risks so high and career longevity so short, it’s very likely more players will be assessing risk of their long-time health and air on the side of caution. While they may not all retire at halftime like Davis, expect to see a lot more players walking out on their terms.