Sunday, September 21, 2008

I Can, But I'd Rather Not

Stefan Fatsis at Slate discusses Tennessee Titans QB Vince Young's recent crisis of confidence in the context of others who have walked away from the NFL on their own terms.

A week before NFL training camps opened in late July, an Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman named Quinn Pitcock delivered a message to his employer: I quit.

That a gifted 24-year-old athlete would voluntarily abandon a career in the glamorous NFL might make little sense to fans.....Ask a player, though, and you'll likely get a different reaction. I'm willing to bet that more than a few Colts privately admire Quinn Pitcock for having the stones to walk away from the NFL—and wish they had them, too.

The surprise isn't that a player like Quinn Pitcock quits the NFL. It's that it doesn't happen more often. "When I tell people that I left after five years on my own, you should see the looks on their faces," says Ed Cunningham, an offensive lineman with the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks from 1992-'96 who's now a college-football analyst for ESPN. "Well, hey, man, it sucked. It was not fun. And oh, by the way, I was getting beaten up every single day at work."

I think "it was not fun" is an underrated factor here. When these guys started playing football, it was for fun or camaraderie or community pride. It took some effort, but their superior physical gifts could carry them. College was probably tougher, but there was still a positive school spirit, as well as (theoretically) the idea that it's a means to an end (a college degree) . At my Alma mater, athletics was strictly for fun; scholarship money was inconsequential, and the faculty attitude was "if you want to do that, it's your problem". I know the big-time schools are different, but there's still a sense of belonging to something outside of football.

The NFL, however, is purely about the entertainment business; the goal is to produce football that people will pay to watch. Combine that with the much narrower talent/physical ability gap between players (few can consistently overpower or outrun others at this level, and if someone can, schemes are devised to account for it), the greater size and speed of players, and the other pressures mentioned in the article, and the result is a grind that requires a special love of the game to tolerate.

This would be an especially big shock to someone like Vince Young, who not only is a unique physical specimen but grew up in Texas, where football is king. Playing would be fun under those conditions. He's probably never had to confront the possibility that he doesn't like football as much as he thought; that it isn't the game itself he enjoys but the perks that come with being the stud QB.

The article mentions that even Vince's mother wonders if he wouldn't be better off without football, as the others mentioned ultimately decided. I also recall Barry Sanders walking away while he was still able to play at a high level and with the all-time rushing record within reach. He just decided he was done. Other people may not walk away on their own but get cut from a team and decide to move on even though they could probably play elsewhere.

People in other fields have had the same conflict; Elizabeth Taylor once said she thought Montgomery Clift would have been happier pumping gas. Most of us have had doubts about our chosen professions at some point, or have gotten sidetracked into something else; when I was in college I would never have guessed I'd be doing what I do. It's just that few reach the level these people did while harboring such misgivings.

Hopefully Vince Young can make the right decision for himself; whatever makes him feel better about life.

No comments: