The tipoff came about two weeks ago.
Jonathan Jones tweeted about the absurd effort to play football this year while simultaneously pretending social distancing was achievable.
Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung replied in short order. Right then, you had a feeling that, for certain players, trying to play in 2020 was not a logical option.
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Ones like Marcus Cannon who, as first reported by Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald, is opting out of the 2020 NFL season. Cannon is 32, has a wife and three kids, three Super Bowl rings, has made more than $30M dollars and survived non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2011. Really, what’s to debate?
Or Hightower, also opting out. He has a newborn, a mom who suffers from diabetes, three rings, $43M in career earnings and the sense to assess his personal situation and ask, “What for?”
For the money? For the success? For the fame? He’s got all that.
For the team and his teammates? I mean, I guess.
But this is a guy who — since the age of 18 — has worked in football for either Nick Saban or Bill Belichick. You don’t play football for them. You live it. And, for a born leader and talent like Hightower, the commitment is even greater. Your ability and intelligence elevates you in the team hierarchy so that you live in the rare space between player and coach. The greatest football coaches of their generations have anointed you.
Hightower’s spent a dozen years giving pretty much everything to them.
And yeah, he got a great return financially and on the field. But that’s putting football first every day for about a dozen years.
Now, at 30, he’s got to get his nose swabbed three times this week and test negative every time before he can enter the facility? Then get tested every day for two more weeks? Then deal with the logistics of mask on, mask off. Too many in the locker room. Too many in the training room. Wait in your car when you get to the stadium as the line of players having their temps taken proceeds. Take on blocks, rip ballcarriers to the ground but don’t shake hands with the opponents after the game for fear of spreading germs?
All that to prepare to beat the ever-loving pus out of his body between now and January — unless his body gives out before then. While hoping that the other 79 players he’s on the field with during camp are taking no risks when they leave the facility that will put him and — by extension — his family at risk.
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Football stands apart from baseball, basketball and even hockey as a sport in which players have to force their minds to convince their bodies to do things that go against every instinct.
Everyone who plays the sport convinces himself every time he takes the field that the pain and collisions and punishment are worth it.
They reconcile themselves to all the possibilities. Dislocated fingers, torn pecs, ripped up knees, concussions, separated shoulders, painkiller addictions, the knowledge that they may need a new hip before 60 and run a much higher risk than the general populace of being absolutely brain-addled somewhere down the line.
They do it, though. Because they love it. Or hate it, but are good at it and the pay is good. Or because they’ve always done it. There are as many reasons as there are players.
Selfishly, I keep my fingers crossed that thousands of these men will do it again this year and it all comes off semi-cleanly because — frankly — it’s good for me and my family and I love the sport. Tough to be a football writer with no football.
But seeing it this morning through the eyes of a Cannon or a Hightower, the decisions they’ve made are the logical ones. Obvious ones, even.
And there are plenty of other Patriots in similar situations weighing the same decision.
The McCourty twins are 32, married and each has multiple kids. As much as both men will be wary of contracting the virus at the stadium and bringing it home, the entire family unit has to be super-vigilant about its contacts so the player isn’t compromised.
For the Patriots, an older roster that’s been ridiculously successful means there are more players with less to prove and achieve.
They’ve given to Bill Belichick, the Krafts, the NFL, the game itself. Yes, they’ve benefited tangibly and intangibly. But the people they owe the most to are the ones they go home to.
Maybe you’re a younger player, no kids, not married, trying to get a professional foothold. You’re willing to deal with it. Or an older player who can’t envision NOT playing. Especially now.
We thank you for your service and — while that sounds like me being a smart ass — I mean it.
And for players that opt out, I can’t say I blame them.
Sports Uncovered Podcast: The Bill Belichick You Don't Know | Listen and subscribe | Watch on YouTube