When is it time to retire?
For some, the answer’s easy. For others, the decision can be complex and emotional.
Fitzgerald, a future Hall of Famer, completed his 15th NFL season last month. He joked about his future as questions about retirement came fast and furious as at season’s end.
“When they don’t need my services anymore,” Fitzgerald said of the Cardinals’ organization, “they’ll stop offering contracts and they’ll put me out to pasture, give me an apple and a road map.”
In a more serious moment, Fitzgerald said he had talked to several former players about retirement.
“All the guys that came before me that I asked advice about, they tell me that you know when it’s time,” Fitzgerald said. “So, I’ll know when it’s time.”
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Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe said he has talked with Fitzgerald, a close friend, about retirement more than once. Sharpe, who retired in 2004, has told Fitzgerald he needs to be absolutely certain he’s ready to quit. Fitzgerald clearly decided he is not.
“There’s no reason for him to hang it up,” Sharpe said. “There’s no senior circuit. It’s not like golf and you can go on the senior tour. It’s not like bowling, you go on the senior tour. When you play pro football, when it’s over, it’s over. Play as long as you can, as long as you feel you can go out there and help the team, as long as you feel like getting up, you feel like training in the offseason.
“The preparing is hard. As long as you want to prepare, as long as you want to do that grind on a day-to-day basis, do it as long as you can because, I’m telling you, when it’s over and it’s over, you’ll never do anything to replace that.”
Byron Leftwich, who played quarterback for nine years in the NFL and coached with the Cardinals from 2016 to 2018, said there was a lot of uncertainty when it came time for him to retire.
“You know but you don’t really know because, when you are a player, you think you’re Superman,” Leftwich said.
“I knew it was time for me to get away from the game and get to my second phase of life, which ended up being coaching. It was just time for me. I could’ve kept playing another two, three more years, but it was time for me.”
The lure of returning for another season or even the one after that is a force players reckon with in those decisive moments. If they’re physically capable of playing, some guys feel the tug of the competition, a paycheck, the camaraderie of the locker room on a daily basis.
Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner contemplated retirement for about a year before he announced he would in January 2010 after his 12th season, at age 38. The more Warner thought about walking away from football, the more he wondered if it was the right time. He prayed often to find the answer.
He started getting some clarity midway through the 2009 season, when he decided it would be his last season. But, he said, he wasn’t retiring because he was injured or because of head trauma. He walked away because he was physically, mentally and emotionally drained.
“The biggest part of it was just, coming to Arizona, we had a completely different culture when I got here than when I left,” Warner said. “That nobody expected to win, nobody expected me to win again, nobody expected this organization to ever have success. I think there were people in this organization that never expected themselves to have success. It was just kind of the culture that was here and the air that was in this place.”
Warner helped change that.
He now calls leading the Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII — their only Super Bowl in franchise history — “probably one of the greatest accomplishments” of his career.
“There was a huge toll that was taken on me personally going through that and having to carry the torches that I had to carry and to kind of bring people along and show them what it meant to be successful,” said Warner, who previously played in two Super Bowls as the Rams’ quarterback. “I had to give and extend myself in ways that I never foresaw before that.”
Warner said he feels the stress of his time in Arizona cut off “a couple extra years” from his career.
There have been times since Warner retired he felt he could still play, especially in the current era of quarterback play. But Warner knows his thinking is a Catch-22. One of the main reasons he feels as good as he does and can keep himself in such great shape is because he retired when he did.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” he said.
Retirement became realistic for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck after the Indianapolis Colts released him in 2015. ESPN had offered him a job as an analyst on two shows — NFL Live and NFL Countdown. Initially, Hasselbeck declined the offer. The lure of continuing his career, even after four teams in 17 years, was too great.
But he knew the end was coming and a decision to retire would likely be made that offseason or the one after, despite interest from a number of teams. When a surefire offer from the Denver Broncos to sign as a free agent and mentor Brock Osweiler fell through after Osweiler signed with the Houston Texans, Hasselbeck said ESPN called back with an even better offer.
After a family discussion, Hasselbeck, who has three kids, decided it was time to give his children stability and allow his daughter, who was in eighth grade at the time, a chance to go to high school in the same place.
Two days after Hasselbeck accepted the ESPN job, all but ending his NFL career, he regretted it. A quarterbacks coach called on behalf of his head coach to tell Hasselbeck the starting job was his. It felt like a test.
“It was like this moment, it was like a movie — good conscience, bad conscience,” he said. “And, like, what do you do?
“It was like a two-second hesitation.”
Hasselbeck stayed at ESPN, but his hesitation is not uncommon.
Cornerback Jerraud Powers began thinking about retirement in 2015, a year before he made his decision. Ultimately, with his free agency looming, it was facing another offseason of change that sealed his decision.
“I just couldn’t wrap my head around getting to know a brand-new coach, a brand-new city,” Powers said. “My son getting into his fourth school, or his third school, or whatever it was. I just couldn’t wrap my head around starting over and that’s when I kind of told myself, if you’re not mentally strong enough to keep it going, there’s no point in wasting somebody’s time if you’re not all the way in it.”
Powers, who announced his retirement on Instagram, paused for a moment before hitting the button. It was hard, he admits now. Once it was posted for the world to see, he felt he was no longer an NFL player and has never looked back.
Letting go of football after playing for most of your life can be an agonizing decision. Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater began playing when he was 13. He retired when he was 41 after 20 seasons in the NFL. Eventually, toward the end of his career, the realization that football was a young man’s game settled in. As Slater got older, his body began breaking down. Coming to grips with that was tough.
After the decision is made, the hardest part for recently retired players can be when the NFL starts up again. For some, it hits home during organized team activities and minicamp. For others, it’s training camp.
“You still get that feeling obviously once you do it and July comes around, August comes around,” Leftwich said. “That’s a weird feeling ’cause most of your friends are going into training camp. You really become a civilian. You realize most of your friends you talk to every day play football, so there’s nobody you’re talking to during training camp. July and August is a boring time for all former players.
“It’s a weird feeling there at first.”
Said Powers: “It goes from you’re in all these group messages with all these players to you’re the only one that’s writing in the group message and you feel like a bum at home doing nothing with your life. You’re, I guess, just reaping the benefits of everything that you’ve conquered and got in your life [and] you’re just doing nothing with it. I kind of felt ashamed.
“I told all my friends from back home, like my local friends, I told them I want them back in my life and they all thought it was funny. I was like, ‘Man, I’m bored. None of my NFL friends talk to me anymore.’ That was a thing. Like if I hit Pat [Peterson] up, he might not hit me back until like 8 that night and I’m like, ‘I forgot what I wanted.’ It was kind of weird of being out of the loop a little bit.”
Said Slater: “When the preseason games started, I felt like, ‘Man, I should be out there. I just got really antsy during that time. A little bit anxious, to be honest with you.”
Finding structure has helped. Warner found it first on “Dancing with the Stars” and then as an NFL analyst. Hasselbeck, Sharpe and Slater all became TV analysts immediately after football. For Hasselbeck, it continues to give him the feeling of being on a team, which he has always “craved.” And working alongside fellow former NFL players such as Randy Moss, Charles Woodson and Hasselbeck’s brother, Tim, gives him the camaraderie left behind in the NFL. Slater said working as an analyst for ESPN helped him “a huge amount” with his transition out of football.
Like those before him, the Fitzgerald’s decision to retire, when it does come, will not be easy.
“It’s not pulling teeth,” Fitzgerald said of playing in the NFL. “It’s great to be around the guys and work and practice and cultivate these relationships like this group of receivers I’ve had this year, even from training camp, some of the fondest memories I’ve ever experienced.”