Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Walking wounded: NFL running backs forced to retire early

Brett Favre is 40 years old, as in only a couple months younger than Woodstock. Vinny Testaverde was 44 when he finally retired, and some people still don’t believe he’ll stay inactive. Morten Andersen was 48 when he decided to check out (and he only missed three out of 28 field goals in his last season!). George Blanda was something like 103 when he took his last NFL snap, but I don’t have the exact number in front of me. Old age is not an unknown phenomenon in pro football. Why is it then that NFL running backs, especially halfbacks, are expected to be washed up by the time they are 32, or 31, or even 29?

It’s a force even more feared than the “Madden Curse”: the Bermuda Triangle of the NFL: that few, if any, star running backs have been able to defeat. There have been a multitude of examples in recent years: Edgerrin James, the leading rusher among active players was unable to find a job at 31; Shaun Alexander, a back who rushed for 27 touchdowns in a single season, sat by a silent phone at 32; Larry Johnson, before he got cut for being a bigot, rushed for 2.7 yards per carry after setting the league record for rushing attempts two seasons ago.

Sadly, the 30 year curse seems to have claimed another member for its less-than-illustrious club. This year Ladainian Tomlinson has continued the slow slide towards mediocrity that started shortly after his record-breaking 2006 season. Through six games he has rushed for 289 yards, putting him on pace for a very un-LT-like 771 yards this season. Now, at this juncture, some might point to the emergence of the mighty mouse Darren Sproles as an explosive option out of the same Charger’s backfield, cutting in on Tomlinson’s carries. This may be a valid reason for the decline in production, and as a football fan I would love to see Tomlinson stiff-arming his way to NFL records well into his 50s, but history, as illustrated above, is not on LT’s side.

Man is not meant to play running back. Our knees and heads and spines just aren’t built to absorb the force that battering yourself into a linebacker over and over again produces; NFL running backs are expected to do this 20-30 times per game without whining, turning the ball over or getting injured. Players like Tomlinson have been doing this for the better part of 20 years, since they were kids and football was just a way of getting a shot at college and maybe, if they were lucky, some time in the bigs. The average NFL career is all of four years long, not much time to make that indelible mark that all great players dream of.

Now NFL running backs like LT are being told, by their bodies as much as their bosses, that they are unable to do the job that they love any longer. All those years of preparation for a career that will probably, even if the player is lucky, only last eight or nine. All that work is paid off, in the end, by a flood of ineffectual games and a spot on the practice squad.

Tomlinson has only two real choices now: He can continue to play the game that he loves, the game that has made him a millionaire, or he can give it all up and walk away. Robert Smith did it. Barry Sanders did it. Great players have walked away at or near the peaks of their respective careers. The problem with giving it all up and retiring happily with both your money and your dignity lies in the people who have been with you all the way up, those same people who are prepared to follow you all the way back down. The fans, they will never be satisfied. To this day Sanders is hounded by Lions fanatics who ask him why he walked away from what many consider to be the prime of his career. This then is LT’s choice: What-ifs or mediocrity? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

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  • J

    John SmitheNov 13, 2009 at 9:42 am

    Curtis Martin gained 1600+ yards at 31 and Thomas Jones is 32 and on his way to 1200 or 1400 yards. Its part luck, part the way you play, and part how you take care of your body.

  • T

    Tom BaughNov 12, 2009 at 6:08 am

    Just because some men HAVE endured many years doesn’t mean all should be capable. Blanda is an exception. Just as the Multi-Million dollar QB is the exception. Not all professionals make that kind of money, not all pro’s last into their 40’s these are the exception rather than the rule. That’s why you remember them.