- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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The family RV rolled into Naples, Fla., just after dawn Wednesday, 22½ hours after Matt Birk left Maryland with his wife, six kids and a dog. They were about to embark on a little offseason retreat, and by the sounds in the background, it was clear the kids -- ranging from 9 years old to 6 weeks old -- were revved up. They hollered Dada and horsed around until Birk finally pulled the phone away and said, "Will you play football for a while?"
He might have come into the NFL alone, but Birk will decide how he wants to leave surrounded by an army of people he loves the most. Birk, a 35-year-old center for the Baltimore Ravens, has a huge decision to make in the next couple of weeks: Will he return for his 15th season or is it time to let go?
While most players believe they're indestructible -- they have to -- and avoid coming within 100 yards of the subject, Birk has thought of his NFL mortality since his rookie season. Maybe it's the Harvard graduate in him; he thinks way too much. There's a pros-and-cons list kicking around in his head, but here's the gist of it: Birk does not want to leave on a stretcher or hang on too long. But he cannot imagine life without football.
And so he contemplates, near the ocean, next to his wife, Adrianna, who tells him, "Whatever you want, we'll be good." She has made so many sacrifices for Birk. He thinks about that. He thinks about hundreds of things.
"There is no handbook for how the process is supposed to go," he said.
"All I know is that whether I like it or not, this is part of who I am. Once I give it up, it's never going to be the same. I'm not going to be the same. It's kind of a scary thought. You know it's going to end someday, but can I push someday off a little bit longer before I have to become a real adult?"
The season is over, bodies are healing and now is a time for decisions. On Tuesday, as Birk stared out at a long stretch of interstate, one of his teammates, Ricky Williams, announced he was retiring after 11 years in the NFL. Williams said he's looking forward to the next chapter in his life. He was confident and at peace. It's the second time Williams has retired.
Birk and Williams are lucky. Many times in the NFL, the retirement decision is not left up to the athlete. Ligaments tear, discs bulge, bodies decline and teams move on. The NFL is a business, it's a fleeting and unforgiving profession on its older players, and recent studies on concussions and brain trauma have further emphasized how dangerous the sport can be for anyone, much less a man who sticks around too long. The decision to move on doesn't come down to just economics. It's also emotional and personal. It brought Brett Favre to tears, dragged Terrell Owens into the Indoor Football League and caused Tiki Barber to retire and then unretire.
Birk's 2011 season ended with a loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and a night of pounding from a Mack truck named Vince Wilfork. Birk, recently named the Walter Payton Man of the Year, wants another shot at a ring, but doesn't want to look around midseason and realize that he's lost it. But who really knows when it's time?
"Professional athletes are the only people we ask to die twice," said Dr. John F. Murray, a sports psychologist based in Palm Beach, Fla. "They have to die when they retire, and they have to die when they die.
"We call it 'athletic identity' in literature. If you lose that identity, I mean, your whole life can be over at the age of 30. It's really important to educate these athletes and to get them thinking about making that transition before they get out. The problem is, that's not what they want to do because they're trying to become great."
Larry Izzo wasn't prepared. An undrafted and undersized linebacker from Rice, Izzo did not possess the physical tools or the outward talent of many of his NFL counterparts. But just before Izzo's rookie year in 1996, coach Jimmy Johnson made a preseason announcement that only two people were guaranteed spots on the Miami Dolphins' roster: Dan Marino and Larry Izzo. That's how hard-nosed and determined Izzo was. Nobody was going to outwork him.
So when the NFL would offer professional development courses and have seminars on money management and life after football, Izzo paid little attention because he was too busy. He never really saw an end.
"I'd see guys retiring, and I'm like, hey, why the hell would you ever retire?" Izzo said. "If you still feel like you can play, max that thing out. I was going to get every ounce, every play out of my body."
Fourteen years and three Super Bowl rings later, Izzo still wasn't ready to go. Not after a neck injury, and not after doctors told him he couldn't play anymore. Upon hearing his diagnosis of multiple herniations, Izzo still worked out for roughly nine months, hoping his neck would heal.
He had a workout with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2010, and after the doctor wouldn't clear him, he knew his career was over.
Around the same time Izzo was finally saying goodbye, Favre was ending another summer of will-he-or-won't-he, and left his farm in Mississippi for Minnesota. Favre was 40 and coming off one of the best seasons ever, taking the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship Game. Why wouldn't he return? Favre did, and his window quickly closed.
He was battered and humbled in a 6-10 season. He looked as if he'd aged 10 years in five months. Murray, the sports psychologist, said people such as Favre, who are so passionate about the game, are often the last ones to see it when their play has declined.
In hindsight, Izzo knows he was in denial. "Delusional," he said.
"You love the game," Izzo said, "and it's a great life."
Izzo had no idea what he'd do after football. He compared it to being 22 again and just out of college. In the NFL, his life was so structured and regimented. He was told when to wake up, when to arrive at the facility and what to eat. He missed that structure.
Eventually, he went to work with a friend, who's a broker in the energy business.
"I went there and sat in front of a computer," Izzo said. "And it was like Chinese arithmetic and people were yelling things."
He lasted one day at the job.
But then the New York Giants called with an opportunity to coach special teams, and Izzo jumped. He was sitting at a table last week with a coffee cup, three days before the Super Bowl, knowing he'd finally found the job he wanted to do.
Like Birk, Izzo does not want to come off as having a woe-is-me attitude toward retirement. He had a long career in the NFL making a lot of money. He just desperately missed it.
So much of the NFL is about luck, Izzo said. He thinks about Chase Blackburn. Four months ago, Blackburn was a 28-year-old linebacker sitting on his couch, out of the NFL, waiting for a phone call. He knew he could still play, but would he get a chance to prove it?
Blackburn was just about to take a job as a substitute teacher when the Giants called in November. Two months later, Blackburn was playing in the Super Bowl, intercepting a Tom Brady pass to help rally the Giants to a 21-17 victory.
"A guy like Chase, he had an awful lot left in the tank, obviously," Izzo said. "He played his ass off, and there was still no job for him. That must be really frustrating. When you're on the street, there's no guarantee somebody's going to pick you up.
"I played for 14 years, so when that decision was made for me, when they say you can't pass a physical, you're done, I feel like I was satisfied. I'm not being greedy. I think I had a satisfying career."
It can't be reality, pulling down a million or two a year, having surgery on both your hips by the time you're 31, hearing, around that same time, that your career is done. Washed out at 31. What does a guy do after that?
"The hardest part is that you're part of something," said Chris Bober, a former offensive lineman for the Giants and Chiefs, "and then you're not and you have to go reinvent yourself."
The myth, Bober said, is that NFL players are set for life. Bober seemingly did all the right things when he was in the league. He attended Harvard Business School and Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. He invested his money. Then the recession came a few years ago, around the same time he was being cut from the Chiefs, and wiped away roughly half of his investments.
But even if that hadn't happened, Bober knew he had to start another career. He was in his early 30s and had spent his entire life pushing and building toward something. He had to find something else to do.
His first year out of football, it was hard to watch football games on TV. He thought he should still be out there playing. When he finally finished rehabbing his hips, a year of his life had passed. One day, fed up with all the sadness and sitting, he grabbed a notebook. Today's the day I move on with my life.
"You can only carry so much baggage with you," Bober said. "You have to move on and let football go."
Football, in many ways, gave him validation. He knew he was doing well by the cheers from the crowd and the Monday film reviews. In real life, those validations are often gone. He started a T-shirt business but decided he wasn't interested in that.
Bober found, in his early pursuits, that many people didn't take him seriously in the business world. It's not that they thought he was a dumb jock; they just didn't know how committed or good he'd be doing something else.
He eventually got his real estate license, and is back in his home state of Nebraska selling farm, ranch and recreational real estate. It might sound strange, coming from a professional football player, but it took a while for Bober to feel confident in what he was doing. Now, four years later, he looks at the bigger picture and knows how lucky he is.
He's in his 30s with a family and a job that challenges him. He has money, happiness and something else.
"I'm still walking," he said.
Both of the participants in this past Sunday's Super Bowl had relatively young rosters and players who hope to be around for a long time. Just a handful of players on the Patriots' roster are in their mid-30s, which is generally considered the twilight of a career.
The website nflretirementplan.com forewarns that these types of players are a bit of an anomaly. "Usually," the website says, "an NFL career is short and does not last longer than three and a half seasons."
Offensive lineman Brian Waters has beaten those odds. A late-summer acquisition for the Patriots, Waters just finished up his 12th season. He will no doubt be among the people who take a month or two this winter to ponder his future. It is believed that Waters lived in a Residence Inn in New England this fall -- he would not confirm or deny that -- and he is clearly very close to his family and wants to be closer to his home in Texas.
"You want to be able to walk away from the game," Waters said. "You don't want to roll away; you don't want to be carried away. As much as I feel like I've got left in the tank, that's great, but I still want to be able to say, 10 or 15 years from now, that I didn't damage myself further by trying to hang on to a dream.
"I've already accomplished the dream of playing in the NFL. It's just about making smart decisions with the years I have left."
Across the ballroom at the Patriots' hotel, in the final media crush before the Super Bowl, the lines died down around Patriots receiver Chad Ochocinco. He was called a non-factor this season. There were questions about whether his drop in production stemmed from the struggles of quickly learning a new playbook or whether at 34, he's lost a step.
Ochocinco scoffed at the notion he's getting old. He said he has never pondered retirement, never given it a second thought. His body feels as if it's 25. He said he doesn't drink alcohol, doesn't party and always gets up early and follows his workout routine. He plans to be in this game for a long time.
It should be noted that Ochocinco is friends with Terrell Owens, a once superhuman receiver who is no doubt pondering his football mortality at 38.
Ochocinco's answers are short. He'd rather talk about being a good teammate or playing soccer.
"He's fine," Ochocinco said of Owens. "He's fine.
"I mean, the body lets you know when it's done and when it can't take it anymore."
What would Birk miss about football? Wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt to work, and hanging out with the guys. He'd miss the locker-room banter. He'd miss the high.
It's the greatest high a person can legally get, Birk said. It builds all week, from meetings to practice to the moment he runs out of the tunnel.
There are bigger things to consider, though. Birk's home is in Minnesota, and he wants to move his family there and have a semblance of normalcy. He wants to spend more time with his kids. He'd like to wake up on Tuesday mornings in the fall without his entire body aching and popping. But here's the thing: He'd hate to stop if he can still play at a high level, if he's still there mentally and physically. But how will he really know?
Birk said Wednesday that he's split 50-50. He's hoping that during one of these days in Florida, he'll wake up and just know.
"You can try to analyze the heck out of it, but I think at the end of the day, it comes down to a feeling, an emotion," he said. "For me, I'll always have a desire to play whether I retire this next year or I retire five years from now. I'm going to miss the game, always and forever."
The decision to retire isn't always left up to an NFL player. Ligaments tear, discs bulge, bodies decline and teams move on. But when a player has that choice, what does he go through?