Since the Steelers were eliminated in the AFC Wild Card game Saturday, much of the post-mortem conversation has centered around the statuses of four of their defense’s best players over the past decade-plus.
Will Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor retire? If they play next season, will it be for the Steelers? Will the Steelers want them back if they want to?
Each individual case is different — age, wear-and-tear, the 2014 season he had, the degree of decline in his play since his prime, injury statuses, family situations, the Steelers’ depth chart at each respective position…
But before any other question can be answered, the most fundamental one to examine first is: Does the player want to keep playing, or does he want to retire? It’s a question all athletes eventually must face. It’s a fascinating one for us, as outsiders and non-professional athletes, to ponder.
It’s a topic I explored some in a story that ran in Saturday’s Trib. With the exception of the affable Taylor, the players who are facing this decision head-on weren’t eager to discuss it. That’s understandable, what with a game (and, they hoped, a few more games) to be played still at that point. So I tried to do the next-best thing and interview some former greats.
I was thrilled that Super Steelers Franco Harris and Jack Ham opened up on the topic, as did the face of the franchise for about a 10-year stretch beginning in the mid-90s, Jerome Bettis. And for a non-Steelers perspective, former Aliquippa and Pitt star and Bears Super Bowl-winning coach and now ESPN analyst Mike Ditka was gracious enough, too, to talk. That’s three Hall of Famers and a fourth, Bettis, who will almost assuredly – and deservedly – make it to Canton some day.
The realities of modern newsprint (to say nothing of the realities of the modern American attention span) left my story much too short to dive too deep into the issue. So, this blog is the next best thing. Some more thoughts on retirement from the Hall of Fame quartet…
How his retirement came about–
“In my 10th year I ended up dislocating my foot, and I came back from that injury and that’s the injury I had when I did not play in the Super Bowl. And I played two years after that…
You watch tape. You know. I got to the point I didn’t want to have some kind of injuries or whatever late in my career, and I just felt like 12 years was long enough and I could see with the injuries the burst you normally have as a linebacker – or any position, for that matter – (was missing). It was more difficult getting off the blocks… The tape doesn’t lie. And I think I’m my own worst critic kind of thing, so I think… it wasn’t a decision that I was racking my brain going back and forth with. I knew that it was time for me to retire.
I wasn’t effective enough; the caliber of play for me my last two years was not the same as my first 10. And that was something you could see; I made more big plays, more interceptions in those first 10 years than I did the last two. It just, you see it. At least I did. You see it. It’s time, you realize it. It’s a short-lived career in pro football and 12 years is probably, I don’t know what the percentage is out there of guys who played that long – probably a very, very small percentage — just the tape and how I felt, it’s a game, the injuries have kind of a cumulative effect. But really the dislocating the foot in my 10th year that really, after coming back from that, I really was not the same player.”
On if coach Chuck Noll tried to talk him out of it–
“No, there was no discussion like that. Chuck was very, ‘If a guy wants to retire and feels like he should, then that’s the decision, no other decision needs to be made,’ because he feels like if the individual player feels that way, there won’t be any discussion about trying to talk him out of retirement. At least with me anyway; I just came in and I was done. It was nothing earth-shaking; just the fact I just said so. Chuck thanked me for all the years and we had a nice discussion, nice last-meeting kind of thing. There was no dialogue back and forth about playing another year. There wasn’t going to be one – I just knew. I knew that I wasn’t going to be out there for my 13th year.”
On the differences of retirement today than when he played–
“I think today it’s a lot tougher today because of the money that players make. It wasn’t as difficult back in the 60s and 70s because the money was totally different. But today there’s no doubt that players would like to play as long as they can.
I guess (teams) have to look at situations to see with where that player is at their stage right now. (Age) 32, 33, whatever, do they have backup players that can go in and be as equal or better than them where they’re at at that stage or at that age. And also do they have a young promising player who has that potential to develop into this type of player if he has more playing time. So there’s a number of different factors. And just like anything, people age differently. What has been the injury factor with that person, is that injury factor now evident in their play and in the things that they can do. And also I’m sure they look at and teams look at salary caps and things like that now, too. And so there’s a lot of different factors that enter into it and is it one thing that comes forward or multiple things that come forward that make that choice. And then as we know, some ballplayers will say, ‘Hey, it’s time for me to hang it up. I don’t feel I can be productive anymore and I don’t have that burning desire anymore,’ and so you do see times when ballplayers hang it up.”
On coming to that conclusion that your career is over–
“Those are always tough choices in sports, and especially if someone played on one team for a long time, it does make it tougher on that one team with those choices at times. There’s no doubt about that. But everybody knows that their career’s coming to an end, and I knew that that was going to be my last year, so that wasn’t the issue. And everybody comes to that realization eventually that, ‘This is it,’ you know what I mean?
But you know what, it’s something that you shouldn’t approach like, ‘Oh man, this is terrible. Oh no,’ If you’re lucky enough to play for over a decade in the NFL, you’re very blessed. And so to me there shouldn’t be those type of hard feelings this, hard feelings that – sometimes other things get in the way, but to play that long in the NFL, you’re pretty lucky and you’re pretty blessed.”
On when the “right” time is to proverbially hang ‘em up—
“You try to play as long as you can. But I think you can’t fool yourself. You look at the film from the games, and you know you aren’t the same player you were five years before that. And if you’re not, there’s not much point in hanging in there. I probably could have played a couple more years but they wouldn’t have been the best years. So to me, I did the right thing when I retired.”
On if he grappled at all with his decision to retire—
“I didn’t think too much about it. We won the (NFL championship) the year before I retired and the year I retired we got beat in the championship game in Dallas. I was in business down there and I had taken enough; my body was ready to retire. It wasn’t like… They weren’t losing a great player, believe me, they were losing just another player.”
On his perspective as a coach of noticing when a player needs to retire—
“There’s no question, the hardest thing is, when it’s time, the coach has to tell him. You’re with these guys everyday during the season, you’re with them a lot and you form great relationships and friendships – but there’s a time. And when the time comes, you’ve got to be able to tell them. I wasn’t good at that – I wasn’t good at cutting people, but you just have to do it, that’s part of the job, so you have to make a decision on what’s best for the team and sometimes, it’s tough.”
On coming to grips with retiring and if knowing he had a job (in broadcasting) lined up helped him come to it—
“I knew when physically my body didn’t respond in terms of the time it took for me to get healthy from one game to the next…
“I came back for another year; I had job opportunities (before) that year, so I came back because I wanted to still play. If I wanted to play one more year, that job opportunity I felt would have been there again. It was never a situation where I felt that there wasn’t time or that I had to rush away from football because of a job opportunity; I felt as though the job opportunities would be there whenever I decided to leave. So I didn’t base my decision on after football; it was about me not being able to do the things I was used to doing and being effective. I felt there was no need to be out there taking up a place when a younger player can help the football team a lot better.”
And with that, I’ll turn the reins of this blog back over to The Great Mark Kaboly (#StickToThePrintProductKaboly?). Enjoy your day.