- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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LATELY IT SEEMS everything in John Moffitt's life has acquired a veneer of existential drama. There is nothing easy, nothing unexamined, nothing remotely as basic as putting his hand in the dirt and driving his head and body into another human being. Case in point: the simple question of whether to have a beer while watching his former team, the Broncos, play the Chiefs on Sunday night of Week 11.
The setting is important for context. Moffitt sits in the upstairs TV room of his rented house in the Seattle suburb of Renton, a sliver of Lake Washington visible through the front window. Two cameramen and a photographer crowd the room, ready to watch him watch the game. He can tell the action is about to begin because the muted television keeps alternating between Peyton Manning's stoic face and a line of soldiers on hand to celebrate the NFL's ongoing merger with the United States military. On a counter downstairs, a medium-size farm's worth of grilled meat covers the kitchen island, a case of beer tantalizingly close.
Moffitt is an oversize Jack Black, 312 pounds of childlike ebullience, easy distractibility and, at this moment, indecision. The room is silent as he grapples with the beer-or-no-beer decision. He plays with his long, dark hair, which will spend the evening in and out of a tight bun. With an air of finality, he tells his manager, Wael Abou-Zaki, "I'm not going to have a beer. I really can't."
There is no response. Moffitt looks around the room and says, as if answering a question nobody asked, "Okay, I'll have one." He prods Abou-Zaki, "Are you going to have one, L? I just don't want to be the only one drinking, you know? There are cameras here, and if it's just me sitting on the couch drinking beer ... You know what I'm saying?"
To illustrate, Moffitt throws his enormous and relatively formless body into the back corner of the brown sectional and adopts a voice filled with mock concern, like a bad impression of a news anchor reporting a tragedy. "Yeah, John looks good," he says. "John looks like he's doing well. Great. Great. Really good to see."
Two weeks removed from walking away from a lucrative career as a third-year guard with the Broncos, he reports that sitting in front of the television (without a beer, ultimately) "feels super normal. There is no part of me that wants to go out there and do that." He would not be watching this game if it weren't for the cameras on hand to watch him watch it. In fact, nobody here could watch this game at all if Moffitt hadn't discovered that morning that his cable had been turned off. His mother ("My accountant," he says) forgot to make a payment. "I turned it on. No channels," he says. "Oh, that's just perfect." He spent a good part of his day on the phone in a panic to reach a human who could reconnect him by kickoff.
"I should've left it off," he says. "Made it part of the story, you know? I'm done with the NFL and don't have money for cable. I'm a minimalist. We only read books in this house now."
We are here because Moffitt -- financially stable for now -- made a decision so outlandish, so heretical, so anti-American that it simply can't escape further scrutiny. It bears repeating: John Moffitt, 27 years old, with a contract that would have paid him $312,500 for the rest of this season and $752,500 the next, quit the Super Bowl favorite in midseason. To boil it down to the essence of Moffitt -- a Moffitt reduction sauce, as it were -- he just wasn't feeling it anymore. Instead, he felt objectified, a pawn in a soulless enterprise. Practice had become drudgery. "It got to the point where I didn't want to step out onto the practice field another day," he says. "When you're stretching and you're like, 'This is the worst,' I think it's time to change something."
Within a week of his leaving, the game started to look different from the outside too. Moffitt's coach, John Fox, required heart surgery for a pre-existing condition. Texans coach Gary Kubiak suffered a ministroke on the field. In Dallas, Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett announced that doctors told him he was showing signs of CTE. In Miami, a bullied Jonathan Martin left the Dolphins, and his teammate, a hypertrophic thug named Richie Incognito, was the new national warden of football culture.
The thinking class noticed and recoiled, and suddenly a big, thoughtful guy who had been inactive for six of the first eight games of the season was greeted as if he were auditioning for NFL ombudsman. Opportunist or product of circumstance? "I had no idea anyone would care about me," Moffitt says. "I thought I was a backup who would slip out of the league."
Moffitt had worked most of his life to reach the league, and now he was walking away? How many fans would give limbs to trade places? How many would love to just once run out onto the field to the seductive wash of all those cheers? "How dare you -- right?" Moffitt asks, palms upraised. The decision was so outside the paradigm that friends and family asked just one question: Are you okay? "I was really okay," he says. "I was great. I was walking away from their dream, not mine."
On the television, Moffitt watches huge armored men protect Manning at the expense of their own bodies. Two weeks ago, they were teammates, buddies, yet nothing on-screen causes him to change his expression, nothing causes him to so much as lean forward with expectancy. He is right. He is done. His body bears the toll: a shredded knee, elbow surgery, countless blows to the head. Though he has no history of concussions, he is disturbed by studies linking cognitive difficulties to repeated small collisions, the raison d'être of the offensive lineman. He says he looked at the pageantry -- the military flyovers, the crazed passion of fans and what he views as the sacrifice of humanity for a television show -- and felt a growing unease. His faith was shaken. He turned to books by Noam Chomsky, the Dalai Lama and Deepak Chopra, which led him to question the intellectual capital being expended on sports.
"I offered a service, and I no longer wanted to offer the service and I no longer request money for it," he says. "You can change a passion. You can change a dream. I had the NFL dream, and it was no longer what I envisioned. I don't expect people to understand."
The details are strikingly mundane. He returned to Renton during the Broncos' bye week to be with his longtime girlfriend, Dani Bunker, and her 5-year-old daughter. On Sunday, Nov. 3, he called his agent, Michael George, and told him he was finished with football; George told Moffitt to sleep on it. The next day, Moffitt called Broncos VP of football operations John Elway and said: "I don't have a passion for football anymore, and I don't want to play. I'm not happy." Elway was supportive.
"I was very insistent on telling John I didn't want to waste his time," Moffitt says. "I told him, 'I'm good.'"
And then, in typical Moffitt fashion, he tweeted, "Football was fun but my head hurts-haha kidding roger goodell. I'm on to new things, thanks to everyone along the way!!!" He swears he thought that would be the end of it, that nobody would care about a story he dismissively calls "Backup Retires." But then interview requests rolled in and Moffitt started talking about the sports-industrial complex and the controversial writings of libertarian socialist Chomsky and brain trauma and universal harmony. Pretty soon, "Backup Retires" had developed layers, existential and otherwise. Doors opened. His phone rang.
ON THE BIG-ASS SAMSUNG, it's the second quarter, and Manning is running up to the line, screaming, neck veins in serious bas-relief. He backs up, looks around, barks something to his right and heads back toward the line to start all over again. It's the whole Peyton oeuvre, and as it plays out, Abou-Zaki asks Moffitt, "What's Peyton saying right now?" Moffitt shrugs and says, "That's the hardest part about playing with him. Every play has 30 different names." He tells the story of one young player who spent most of training camp running the wrong play until one day Manning put his arm around him and said, "I've got to ask: Did you graduate from college?"
Moffitt is barefoot, and his blocky feet, seemingly as wide as they are long, are propped up on the ottoman, their cleat-induced calluses exoskeletal. Nearly 27 million Americans are watching this game, and it's difficult to imagine any of them less invested than Moffitt. At no point does he express excitement or wonder or even anticipation. He might as well be a vegan forced to watch Duck Dynasty.
Conscientious objection is rare in the NFL. Dave Meggyesy quit the league in 1969, citing football's militarization and dehumanization. Fiction provides a closer parallel to Moffitt, though. Gary Harkness, the narrator of Don DeLillo's novel End Zone, plays blocking back for a Texas college while fretting over nuclear holocaust. His metaphysical unease peaks during a game, when he gets a playcall and simply leaves the field. "I reached the huddle. I realized I didn't want to be with all these people. They were all staring at me through their cages."
Moffitt's disillusionment was gradual. Growing up in Guilford, Conn., he had his father tie his cleats because he was too fat to reach the laces. Big boys often feel an obligation to play football, but Moffitt says he loved it, motivated early by a desire to play in the Big Ten. He played four years at Wisconsin and graduated with a degree in sociology. Never one to ignore the quirks of the game, he was amused by the rituals at the NFL combine. But as he stood on the scale in his underwear and looked up at the NFL coaches and executives assessing body types, he thought: This is creepy. I feel like they should throw in a couple of women, maybe, because now it's like 40 dudes staring down at you like they're picking out meat.
Although he played less than three seasons, Moffitt was put through the grinder. Seattle drafted him in the third round in 2011, and he started nine games as a rookie. He started six more in 2012 before tearing ligaments in his right knee. The Seahawks tried to trade him to Cleveland this summer after the coaches decreed him the loser in a competition for a starting job. In Cleveland he was told he failed his physical because of his surgically repaired knee, a decision he believes was made after his agent refused to renegotiate his contract. The Browns have denied this.
Almost immediately, the Seahawks traded him to Denver. "Going to Denver impacted my decision, even though it's a great organization with good people," Moffitt says. "If I were still with Seattle, I'd probably still be playing." He liked the city and his teammates and Pete Carroll and the fact that he lived close enough to walk to the facility. "But the moment was going to come anyway. It was a matter of time."
As the game drones on in the background, Moffitt bounces from one topic to another like a radio on scan. His free spirit makes it unsurprising that Moffitt has had moments of impulsivity and poor judgment. He was suspended for four games while with the Seahawks after testing positive for Adderall. He had three incidents at a mall in nearby Bellevue. The first involved public urination, and he then was arrested twice for trespassing when he failed to honor a one-year ban. "Yeah, I peed in an alley," he says. "When I went back, I had no idea I was going to be arrested. I mean, banned from the whole mall? There are a bunch of restaurants there I like."
Early in the fourth quarter, Wes Welker takes a hit from the Chiefs' Eric Berry and staggers off the field. A series of replays had shown the Broncos receiver taking big hits, including a decleater by Brandon Flowers. Welker pops off the ground like a Super Ball. "I've never seen anyone bounce like him," Moffitt says. Welker undergoes a sideline medical assessment after the Berry hit, retaking the field after less than two minutes elapsed from the clock. After the game, it's revealed that Welker suffered a concussion.
ABOUT A YEAR and a half ago, Moffitt's curiosity led him to Chomsky's writings on society, politics and sports. Chomsky calls football "training in irrational jingoism" for "a bewildered herd" in need of distraction. Moffitt didn't disagree. When the need arose, he still liked to hit people, but he began to view the NFL through a slightly different lens. Chomsky's How the World Works gave him a rebuttal for those obsessed with money and status. "Security is an illusion," he says. "You look at the way the world works, you're just a cog in the system."
Pointing at the television, as cameras pan the disappointed Chiefs sideline near the end of the Broncos' win, Moffitt says, "This makes people watchers. It's kind of like politics: lots of watchers, very few participants. It makes you docile. You watch and listen, and you look at the advertising and you buy everything because that's what makes you happy -- stuff. Do stuff for stuff, and that's it."
Not that he's above still making a buck off the game. Moffitt is planning a podcast on society and sports, and he's attempting to land a radio gig. He gets the contradiction. "Sure, I'll take some money, but now the most important thing to me is to be honest." He considers himself an insider with an outsider's mentality, uniquely suited to say things current players can't.
"To an extent, I can live the way I want now," he says. "I like higher ideas and higher thoughts, and I think that's not promoted enough. How much do you really value intelligence when as a society you continue to do unintelligent things? I'm not saying I can't do better. I can improve."
He pauses, searching his mind for an example.
"Hey, I could recycle better," he says. "Little stuff, but doesn't little stuff matter?"
In ESPN The Magazine's One Day issue, One Game issue, Tim Keown writes that John Moffitt left $1 million on the Mile High turf to pursue happiness. What was he thinking?