Wearing a burgundy Washington Commanders T-shirt, Ryan Kerrigan stood silently behind the end zone as the defensive line rammed into sleds and dodged padded cones. Explicit instructions from coaches became his background music as he adjusted to a new view.
“Even though I know it’s the right decision, ultimately it’s still not easy to know that I’m not going to play football anymore,” he said. “I kind of had that realization the other night. … I’m not going to play football anymore. That’s kind of crazy. Been doing it for so long. But I just know where I’m at, health-wise and whatnot, that this is the best thing for me moving forward.”
The former defensive end and the franchise’s all-time sack leader decided in June and announced Friday he was retiring, capping an 11-season run in the NFL, including 10 with the Commanders. This was his plan for more than a year, even though at times the Indiana native wondered whether he could keep going.
Following the Commanders’ playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in early 2021, Kerrigan trotted back out to an empty FedEx Field, sat on the team bench and took a final glimpse at the stadium he has called “home.” When he returned to FedEx a year later as a Philadelphia Eagle, he relished playing in front of Washington’s fans. And when his body felt “nice” after a couple of months off from training, his mind couldn’t help but wonder about playing some more.
“[I] was like: ‘Oh, my body feels nice! I can do this again,’ ” he said. “It’s like, well, your body feels nice because you haven’t trained for football in two months, so you got to kind of acknowledge the truth there.”
And the truth was that his knee was shot.
Doctors gave him poor reports on his knee in May 2021, and he was encouraged to call it a career. But while his knee needed him to retire, his mind wasn’t close to being ready.
Over the past two years, and especially in recent days, he has had to time to reflect on his years in Washington. He has gone back to 2012, when Washington defeated Dallas in Week 17 to win the division at home. He has thought about that 2018 matchup with the Cowboys at FedEx Field, where he forced a fumble and defensive end Preston Smith recovered it for a touchdown. Kerrigan has thought back to his pick-six in his first game and the many locker room interactions of the past decade.
“But it’s when I come back here to [the training facility] that I really am like, ‘That’s why I’ve loved this place,’ ” he said. “Because it’s all the relationships you built over the years with teammates, coaches, the people in the kitchen, the strength staff, [media]. . . . It’s hard to walk away, even though I know it’s the right thing.”
Kerrigan’s retirement closes a chapter; he is one of the last players to star for the franchise under its former name. His last season in Washington was the franchise’s first year as the Washington Football Team, and his last day was as a Commander.
On Friday, he returned to Ashburn, where he was welcomed with applause by former teammates and coaches in the lobby of the facility. He received a hug from third-year defensive end Chase Young and later signed his one-day contract to end his career with Washington.
“He’s a guy that you could always count on,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s a guy that always could help set the example. I mean, you only get so many of those guys, and when you get them, they most certainly need to be celebrated.”
Kerrigan, a model player and staple of the Washington franchise, attended Saturday’s training camp practice with an unrelenting smile and peace with his decision. But he admitted he still would be playing if those medical reports were cleaner, if his knee could hold up longer, if his body could still go at the same intensity of his mind.
“That’s what kind of makes it tough,” he said. “It’s complicated because I still feel like I can but knowing that it’s not a guarantee that I would get a roster spot at the end of camp. Because that was kind of my plan this offseason was to kind of wait throughout training camp and, once rosters started to shake out, hopefully find a good situation. But without that guarantee, to continue to put more stress on my knee and whatnot, it wasn’t worth it.”
Players in Washington still revere Kerrigan as the savvy veteran who showed him this technique or this move on the field or this recovery method after games. His work ethic, which bordered on maniacal, is cited by players as almost legendary. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin remembers tips Kerrigan gave him to stay healthy and ready for game days. Young remembers the practices with Kerrigan and how the vet took him under his wing, even as Young supplanted him as a starter.
“He’s a guy I looked up to since middle school,” said Young, who has been rehabbing from a knee injury himself. “So it was definitely an honor just to play with him. Good to see him. Good to see all the little RKs with him. … RK never really talked too much, but every time he joked, it was funny. I used to want him to talk more. Just how we used to laugh in practice and he would give me certain things, certain tips on the field.”
Kerrigan’s 172 career regular season games — including 139 consecutive to begin his career — 147 quarterback hits, 95.5 sacks, 26 forced fumbles and three interceptions returned for touchdowns put him among the game’s finest pass rushers and among Washington’s finest players.
His durability and regimented work ethic were part of an all-consuming football lifestyle. He stressed out when he couldn’t get a chicken and rice dinner on the road, and he treated breakfast as another job. Every meal and every decision was geared toward the game: How would it help him be better at football?
Eliminating the rigidity in his diet and lifestyle has been “freeing,” he said — “If I want a beer, I’ll have a beer” — but his approach to the game is one he hopes fans will remember when they think of his performance.
“I just want [fans] to know that I gave them everything I had, like, literally everything I had,” Kerrigan said. “Emotionally, physically, they got all of me. Football was my life. … I just want fans to know that it meant that much to me, that my performance and what I was showing on Sundays was that important to me, that it was my driving force in life.”
Though Kerrigan appears resigned to his decision to retire, he is hardly done with the game. His hope is to parlay his career into one as a coach so he can continue to be a mentor.
Maybe his next career, perhaps as a consultant or assistant, also will start in Washington, where he feels at home in foreign territory: on the sideline.
“I love football too much,” he said. “I just love football too much to not be involved in it in any capacity.”