On Sunday, Rashard Mendenhall penned his decision to retire from the NFL at age 26, laying his reasons in an eloquent article on the Huffington Post. It was surprisingly passive news around a media cycle that can stretch a man fumbling the ball off a teammate’s backside into a week’s worth of debate. Maybe this is because Mendenhall was a good, but never great, player.
Or maybe it’s because we’re not quite sure what to make of a guy leaving money on the table.
We have become preconditioned to expect certain norms from athletes. Big houses, fast cars, late nights in clubs, celebritism, and opulent lifestyles. Rugged, cold-blooded, milking the body for all its worth before retiring, live-breathe-die the game: a warrior’s mentality.
But what if an athlete is a Renaissance man?
In his letter, Mendenhall addresses the changing nature of this world. Athletes are boiled down and packaged as names on a stat sheet. People are not so much rewarded for their work ethic, but some combination of work, skill and showmanship. Perhaps this is why we should celebrate Rashard Mendenhall: his apparent normalcy in an abnormal world. The desire to step away from a hollow spotlight that so many desperately cling to.
By addressing criticism and personal attacks – such as being called a “dumb nigger” – Mendenhall humanized himself. Any writer with even the smallest Internet following can empathize. Who hasn’t been called a “dumb ass,” “fucking idiot,” “moron” or “hack” by commenters with keyboard courage? Yet, not every writer is Skip Bayless, fueled by hatred; not every athlete is Michael Jordan, channeling negativity into competitive fire. Some carry the burden of every personal attack, and must peel away truth from fabrication.
By all accounts, Mendenhall appears to have a broad worldview. He respects the luxuries football has afforded him, yet is not beholden to its money or prestige. He reached the pinnacle of the sport, and has now charted a course to explore other interests.
Rashard Mendenhall will soon be forgotten. Because of that we should praise him today. In a culture that angles for exposure and builds brands, he held fast to something more intimate: his identity.