Commentary: Early retirement from NFL a smart idea

When the Ravens moved to Baltimore before the 1996 season and this newspaper began covering them, the sports editor here at the time advised us to talk to the offensive linemen for stories.

While some foolishly assume these humongous men must not be all that bright, he said, the opposite is actually true. That blocking schemes are complex and that good linemen are cerebral as well as powerful.

That was good advice as players from Jonathan Ogden to Matt Birk and so many in between have been among the most intelligent and insightful Ravens.

This week, I'm more convinced than ever that offensive lineman are the smartest players in football after the surprising news that former St. Louis Rams guard Jacob Bell retired.

At age 31. After only eight seasons. Despite being perfectly healthy.

With all the coverage the mental and physical deterioration suffered by ex-NFL players is receiving, this constitutes a very smart move indeed.

Bell cited former superstar linebacker Junior Seau's recent suicide as a contributing factor to his decision.

Sure, it's a little easier to make such a move when you've collected some $20 million in paychecks over the years.

But, still, it's a move few NFL players make. Most try to squeeze every ounce out of their careers despite injuries that threaten to significantly decrease their future quality of life - or even their lifespan.

But the love of the game (and the lifestyle), the money, the camaraderie of the locker room, the quest for championships and the simple fact that they've never done anything else keeps most playing until coaches decide for them that their careers are over.

Players have known forever that they risked permanent limps, mangled digits and other physical issues as they get older. Now it's widely accepted that the repeated blows to the head inevitable during a career of any length might also be causing brain damage.

All-time great Mike Webster, the center on those Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl-winning teams of the 1970s, was the first to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Many others have since, and with players getting bigger and faster each year, it's scary to think about what it will be like for so many players down the line with dementia as much a retirement reality as knee replacements.

It took no time at all for pundits, friends and amateur diagnosticians everywhere to connect the dots between Seau's suicide and multiple concussions suffered over a two-decades long NFL career, just as suicides by former players Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling were linked.

Jacob Bell made the connection. And he opted to walk away while he still could after eight years, while he could still remember all the details of those eight years.

It's not doomsday for the NFL as some are suggesting. Fans love pretty much everything about it and it's not ceding its spot as the most popular sport in America anytime soon.

(Kurt Warner and others can talk about not wanting their kids to play football, but participation in youth football has been dropping for years. If the popularity of pro sports was all about youth participation, the MLS Cup would be getting the 47.8 TV rating garnered by last season's Super Bowl rather than the paltry 0.8 it actually received).

But when fans complain about the rule changes taking the "kill shots" out or making quarterbacks untouchable in trying to better protect players (and protect itself from future litigation), remember what post-NFL life was like Webster and Seau and Duerson and Easterling and so many others.

And also remember Bell, a fairly anonymous but successful player who made a smart move that said as much about the NFL's inherent danger as any bonecrunching "SportsCenter" highlight. Or autopsy.