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Will early retirements become more common for NFL players?

Linebacker Patrick Willis of the 49ers announced his retirement this week at age 30 (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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It has been a week of big-money free agent transactions and titanic trades in the NFL. The deals involving Ndamukong Suh, Darrelle Revis, Jimmy Graham, Sam Bradford, Nick Foles and others dominated the headlines and threatened to reshape the on-field competitive balance of the league.

But it also has been a week of abrupt, unexpected retirements by players supposedly in their NFL primes. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds caught just about everyone who pays attention to the sport by surprise by walking away from the game.

One person who was not overly shocked was Robert Smith. He can relate. Smith retired from the NFL at age 28, just after ranking second in the league with his 1,521 rushing yards for the Minnesota Vikings in the 2000 season.

“It was interesting to me,” Smith said by telephone this week. “I remember when I did it, it was the only season when I didn’t miss any games. And I still needed knee surgery after the season. As I heard about it with these guys, I was sitting in a doctor’s office, getting ready to have another knee surgery. The money is so much bigger now. Guys can afford it. And with all the things we’re learning about head injuries and the effects of playing the game, it doesn’t really surprise me.”

Willis, one of the league’s top inside linebackers over much of his eight-season NFL career, just turned 30 in January. The seven-time Pro Bowl selection said when announcing his decision that injuries to his feet made retirement necessary in his mind.

Worilds is 27, and, like Locker, he was to be an unrestricted free agent this week. That likely would have meant a lucrative contract after Worilds totaled 15 1/2 sacks over the past two seasons for the Steelers. Instead, he announced his retirement in a statement released through his agent. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Worilds intends to devote his time to working for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Locker, 26, is four seasons removed from being the eighth overall selection in the NFL draft by the Titans. He’d failed to develop into a franchise quarterback in Tennessee, totaling just 27 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions. But he almost certainly would have found work in a free agent market severely lacking in reliable quarterbacks. His father told the Seattle Times that Locker plans to dedicate his time to his family and children.

Smith said he never has regretted his decision to leave the game when he did.

“Not at all,” Smith said.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t miss football.

“Absolutely,” Smith said. “You miss anything that you enjoy that much. But no matter how good you are, it’s over at some point. You have to realize that and accept that. I never realized how much of my identity had been tied up into being an athlete. It’s definitely an adjustment. But you make it.”

NFL careers weren’t as lucrative during Smith’s playing days as they are now. Players and the public did not have as much information before them about the possible long-term health ramifications of concussions as they do now. But Smith said he considered the long-term physical consequences of continuing to play.

“Not with my head, but with my legs,” Smith said. “I would have been a 45-year-old knee-replacement guy if I’d played one more season, I believe. It was a tough decision. People always said, ‘What about the money?’ But what good does the money do you if you’re not able to live the life that you want to live? I wanted to be able to do some other things. I wanted to have some kids and be able to play with them. Now I have a son. I have a daughter. We run around and play Ninja Turtles and all kinds of things. Daddy has to have a knee surgery coming up here. But I’ll be back and be able to play with them soon.”

Going forward, many NFL players undoubtedly will continue to play football as long as they possibly can, because it’s what they do and what they know. Many others will be told by NFL teams that they’re no longer wanted.

But, perhaps increasingly, the financial security now achieved by many younger players will lead them to weigh the potential consequences of a long career and contemplate early retirement.

“There will be a segment of guys who do that,” Smith said. “I think more guys will do that. The money is such and the information is such that guys will do it. They’ll say that it’s far better to leave too soon than too late. There will be guys who don’t get to make that decision, who have that decision made for them for competitive reasons. And there will always be guys that stick around as long as they can because they love it so much and they can’t give it up. That won’t change.”