He has led his team to a Super Bowl title, gone to multiple Pro Bowls, earned MVP honors and set multiple passing records. His critical importance to his team was highlighted in his absence this past season as the Colts lost 14 games.
He has earned enough money in his player contracts and endorsements to last multiple lifetimes. He has a wife and kids and a loving extended family. He is a sure first-ballot inductee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He can write his own ticket in respect to post-career broadcast and business possibilities.
He has a severely damaged neck which puts him at risk for long-term health. Why is he contemplating playing more seasons instead of simply retiring?
An ideal scenario for leaving sports has been painted. A professional athlete plays for one team in his career and walks away from the sport on his own terms. He gracefully retires with his health and welfare intact. In reality this idealized scenario virtually never occurs.
In 40 years of athletic representation I have rarely seen an athlete voluntarily retire from his career. They may be injured to the point that teams don't want to risk employing them. Their talent may have degraded to the level that finds no employer. Or their conduct and rules violations may have excluded them from competition. They almost never leave sports willingly.
Most pro athletes have been playing sports since early childhood. Their whole life has been structured around practicing and playing in games. It is all they have ever experienced. The concept of leaving the familiar to embark in a new career is daunting.
Pro athletes are the most competitive humans on the face of the planet. They would put intensity into beating you at Tiddlywinks. I learned early on to never compete athletically with clients. I happened to be a fairly talented ping-pong player. In the first visit to Atlanta following his signing, my first client Steve Bartkowski challenged me to a game of ping pong. With little understanding of athletic mentality I played my hardest and beat him. He refused to speak with me for the rest of the day and I feared he would be my last client. Athletes love the challenge of competition and don't want to give it up.
Team sport athletes come to treasure the camaraderie of the locker room. It is hard to replicate the intense friendships forged out of the shared experience of team sports. Pro football is not dissimilar from the military (except in the risk) with players facing danger, trusting each other to watch their backs, and working for a shared goal.
They love the teasing banter, ridiculous nicknames, and hilarious stories they share every day. They love the profile and intensity that playing before thousands of spectators and millions of viewers provides. It is hard to find another activity that infuses them with an adrenaline rush on every play. Our society venerates successful pro athletes and adulation, endorsements and staggering income follow.
It is not by chance that Willie Mays finished his legendary baseball career not with the Giants but with the Mets. Or that Joe Namath was unwanted by the New York Jets and ended up playing for the Rams. History is replete with glorious athletes who left their original team after illustrious careers and kept playing in less prestigious circumstances. They loved to play the game and were not ready to give it up.
Athletes are in denial about their physical health. They are taught from Pop Warner and Little League to ignore pain and play with injury. They don't want to be a "training room" player isolated from their peers. They don't want to lose their positions. So they conciously blot injury off their radar.
I've had a player play a game with a collapsed lung, broken ribs, even a broken leg. Most people value long-term health as their first priority — followed by the ability to play a pro career, play a given season, play a given game, and play a given play — in descending order.
The athlete turns the list on its head and focuses on the current all-important play as the priority. The fact that they are young athletes makes long-term health an abstraction. Since their peers follow the same thinking, it seems normal. And that is why athletes warned by doctors that a proclivity toward concussions or a knee that is disintegrating threaten their health after sports, simply ignore the advice.
And what about the John Elway example, the quarterback who walks into the sunset? Only someone who represents athletes could tell you how many times the athlete who retires with "everything" is like a sick child with his nose pressed up against the window, yearning to be out playing with his friends. So many of my retired clients constantly phoned during their early years of retirement asking about potential opportunities to play some more.
It's their nature.
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.