Running out early on the NFL

Not even a king's ransom could keep these young stars in the football game.

Despite the records beckoning to be broken, and the lure of cheers, money, and fame, some professional athletes suddenly call it quits. At the top of their game, they retire from the sport that made them famous.

It can happen to any athlete. But in recent years, retiring young has become a recurring theme in the National Football League, especially among running backs. The latest to turn in his shoulder pads: Ricky Williams, the 27-year-old star of the Miami Dolphins.

His retirement has rocked the Dolphins, who will have to scramble to rebuild around other marquee players. It also raises a deeper question: What impels a pro athlete, still at his peak, to walk away?

The answers vary. Some running backs grow tired of the scrutiny, some simply lose interest, and others fear a devastating injury.

"They take more of a pounding than anyone," says Howie Long, a Hall of Fame defensive lineman who now serves as an analyst for Fox Sports. "The life expectancy of a running back isn't very long."

In fact, the average NFL running back's career lasts only 2.6 seasons, less than the overall pro football life span of 3.8 years.

Mr. Williams, who made his decision after spending much of the summer trekking across Europe with rock star Lenny Kravitz, joins a string of star running backs who quit the NFL early. In 1999, Barry Sanders, who became a member of the Hall of Fame this month, retired at age 31. Two years later, Robert Smith, after setting a team season rushing record, left the Minnesota Vikings a month shy of his 29th birthday.

"It wasn't easy to do, but at the same time, it wasn't like my life was over," says Mr. Smith. "I never saw myself as a football player; I was a person who played football. I figured it's better to walk away early than limp away late."

For Mr. Sanders, the decision to retire early may have had more to do with never playing for a championship team, say Mr. Long and other observers. After playing many losing seasons with Detroit, he got tired of losing and opted out, they say.

The latest retirements belie the notion of players wanting bigger and bigger paychecks. Sanders left more than $18 million in future earnings on the table when he retired. He was later forced to return a large chunk of his $11 million signing bonus. Williams had three years and $11 million left on his current contract.

The Dolphins reportedly may seek repayment of more than $5 million in incentives paid to their top running back. Smith, a free-agent-to-be when he quit in February 2001, would have garnered a long-term deal in the $40 million range, according to estimates.

"People think that earning money, getting richer, getting adulation, and being in a high-profile job like that is a goal in and of itself - and [that] there's never enough money," Smith says. "That's an American mentality."

Finding a common thread for retirements in sports is tricky, says Dave Yukelson, a sports psychologist at Penn State University. Michael Jordan, for example, initially retired from the NBA because he no longer felt challenged. He changed his mind - two more times - before leaving professional basketball for the third (and final) time after the 2002-03 season.

"When the passion is no longer there, it's a choice," Mr. Yukelson says. "Sometimes people go away and never come back, and sometimes they decide to try it again. There are so many factors, and each of these decisions is a very personal thing. You can't lump them all together."

In his newly released autobiography, Smith remembers dreading the endless preparations, game films, and chalk-talk sessions. "It all became very tedious for me," he writes in "The Rest of the Iceberg: An Insider's View on the World of Sport and Celebrity." "It was like being caught in a remedial math class each week."

For Smith, the constant adulation and attention also pushed him away from the game. Although flattered by still being recognized by fans, he says the obsession with sports in America has become ridiculous. "What we need to focus on is the fact that less than 50 percent of Americans read at a 10th-grade level," he says.

Such cerebral musings may have little place in most NFL locker rooms. Williams, in particular, didn't fit the NFL mold. He once posed for the cover of ESPN The Magazine in a wedding dress. He refused to give postgame interviews without wearing his helmet, and became a spokesman for the antidepressant Paxil after being diagnosed with social-anxiety disorder. He later stopped taking the drug, citing side effects. In May, he tested positive for marijuana use - for the second time during his Dolphins tenure.

"Ricky [Williams] had such an extraordinary talent from when he was a kid that it almost demanded and dictated that he play football," says Long, the Fox analyst. "I don't know that Ricky was ever necessarily in love with football."

Long describes football as a sport for desperate men. Soon after he himself retired, Long recalls sitting on his boat on a lake near his Montana home, thinking all the while, 'This is what people do in the summer.' "

"Once you assimilate into society beyond football, that's the day you're done," he says. "I'm sure Ricky had some of those thoughts while he was in Europe with Lenny Kravitz: 'This is what life is like and, you know what, it's not so bad.' And that was it."

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