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NFL players becoming more comfortable walking away ... which is a good thing

Calvin Johnson had the means to walk away from football, but he follows a path that's becoming more common -- players leaving the game before the NFL decides they have to. AP Photo/Rick Osentoski

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson made it official Tuesday morning, informing the Detroit Lions that he is walking away from the NFL after a nine-year career in which he broke numerous franchise receiving marks and set 15 NFL records. The decision was neither easy nor hasty, he said in a statement released by the team. There was a lot of soul searching and prayer that went into it.

It's simple to view the impact of his decision through a narrow prism and focus on how it will immediately affect the Lions. But I choose to view it through a wider lens and see how it could influence players down the line. Johnson's retirement is an affirmation that the iceberg is melting, that pro athletes see themselves as people and not just as players and perhaps that the money earned even during a short NFL career makes life away from the game less scary a proposition.

Last year, we saw a handful of players walk away while still relatively early in their careers, mainly due to concerns about quality of life beyond the game. Linebackers Chris Borland of San Francisco and Jason Worilds of Pittsburgh, for instance, worried about the consequences of concussions. Linebacker Patrick Willis, also a 49er, was certainly a veteran, but he was still a good player who decided he wanted to be able to walk without pain in his later years after dealing with foot issues. And quarterback Jake Locker, who missed 18 games over his final two seasons after being drafted eighth overall by Tennessee in 2011, cited a diminished interest in football.

Their actions contrast with those of players from previous decades who tried to wring as many seasons and as many dollars out of the game as possible. Part of it was financial -- players didn't make as much money then as they do today. But part of it was emotional. Their identities were tied to the game.

But slowly we're seeing a shift. It might not be a 7.0, 8.0 or 9.0 on the Richter scale, but even at 3.0, it's changing the landscape.

"We constantly address our players about the need to understand they are businessmen in the business of football," said NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. "I know that everybody else spends a lot of time talking about the game and looking at it as a fan, but we want our players to not only love the game, but to be in a position financially and educationally where they know when is the best time for them to do something else. The fact that our guys are going to live and have far more of the balance of their lives as non-football players, it's a positive step when people are looking at issues of education and things they want to do other than playing football, when they're looking at their own health and making decisions based on that."

According to ESPN Stats & Information, five players age 30 or younger retired in 2011, a figure that accounted for 24 percent of the players who retired. The numbers have increased steadily each season since, with a five-year high of 20 players age 30 or younger having retired already this offseason.

To some outsiders, it's hard to fathom why someone would walk away from the game while still an impact performer. The fame, the adulation, the money, the camaraderie, the competition -- it's intoxicating. But the reality is that more and more players are beginning to look at the big picture and find meaning in life beyond the game. Not a huge amount, perhaps, but enough to notice the difference.

"I haven't really talked about it all since I got done because a lot of the stuff -- a lot of people didn't understand that aspect of it, and if they didn't understand it, they weren't going to understand it by me talking about it for 15 minutes," Locker said. "I believe that you're much more than an athlete. We were created for a much bigger purpose than to play a sport. That's the reason behind why I chose what I did. I felt that God was calling me in a different direction in my life, and that's far more important to me -- and where I know my purpose is -- than ever taking another snap under center.

"I got to know a personal relationship with Christ, and I didn't feel that desire to play that I always had. I felt like it was because He was calling me in a new direction. I got to be away from the game for a year, and I see what that is now, and I'm living it out. I'm so thankful for it. I look at a lot of things that I've gone through this last year, and if I would've been playing, it would've been a lot more difficult."

When he retired after only four seasons, Locker was surprised at some of the messages he received from other players.

"I got more messages than I thought I would from guys who said: 'Hey,I really respect and admire you for what you did. I wish I could do the same thing,'" he said. "It took me back. Why? Because if you feel that way, why don't you do it? That's my thought process. If you wish you could do it, you can. Nobody is holding a gun to your head and having you play football."

Johnson isn't departing at the top of his game, but he's not far from it. His 88 catches last season were his most since 2012, when he set a franchise record with 122. He also had 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns. Standing 6-foot-5, 237 pounds with sprinter's speed and tremendous leaping ability, he still commanded double and triple teams. But injuries took a toll on his body over the past four years despite appearing in all 16 games last season.

There has been speculation that he retired for the same reason that iconic Lions running back Barry Sanders did before the 1999 season: frustration with direction of the franchise. In the documentary "Barry Sanders: A Football Life", the Hall of Famer said he had lost the "drive, determination and enjoyment" for the game, adding: "Over the next few years, it looked like we would probably be rebuilding, and we had gotten rid of some good players. I just felt like it was time to make a change."

The Lions had seven losing seasons and appeared in only two postseasons in Johnson's nine seasons. Still, he did not mention frustration with the organization in the statement released by the team. In fact, he predicted a bright future for the franchise.

Johnson could follow his heart in part because of what was in his wallet. He earned nearly $114 million over his career, which likely made it easier to walk away from the nearly $16 million in salary he was scheduled to earn this year. He was able to view football as a business, not just a game.

"I think it's great when any player has put himself in a position where he can make a decision that is best for him," said Bengals offensive tackle and NFLPA president Eric Winston. "Calvin was so much fun to watch, a truly dominant player for a long time. I'm incredibly happy for him that he leaves the game on his own terms."