Why Rashard Mendenhall's NFL Retirement is Inspirational

Rashard Mendenhall was a Super Bowl winning running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was a hero, achieving the holy grail of any American football player and earning millions of dollars.

He walked away from his sport aged just 26.

People think he’s nuts.

I find him inspirational.

Mendenhall became a standout NFL player and was part of the squad that won the 2009 Super Bowl but was on injured reserve at the time. The team made it back to the 2011 version but lost to the Green Bay Packers, Mendenhall fumbling the ball late on. He’d had a good game up to that point, scoring a touchdown and it’s fair to say that not many players get to even appear in a Super Bowl. Perhaps he aspired to winning an MVP but that is pretty unusual for a running back to achieve.

He found that his creativity and opinions were not only not valued by the sport; they were stymied deliberately. When he spoke out or ventured opinions that were seen as unpalatable, like saying that his favourite book was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he was ‘asked’ to choose something else.

When he weighed in on more contentious topics and quotes from around the league he was met with derision. He pointed out US hypocrisy in the triumphal tone of the coverage around the killing of Osama Bin Laden when he tweeted:

‘What kind of person celebrates death? It's amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We've only heard one side…’

- Rashard Mendenhall

For his comments about 9/11, Mendenhall lost his endorsement deal with Champion and settled out of court when he proved that its parent company, Hanes, had retained Charlie Sheen after a similar incident. Clearly, there was a double standard and Mendenhall believes that this is typical for black athletes.

‘For a lot of the black athletes, are you given that same space, even if you’re not causing trouble, to be true to who you are? No matter what your experience is, or your community’s, or your family’s—there’s a weight and a burden to carry someone else’s beliefs over your own. The trade-off, they tell you, is that you’ll be great, you’ll be Hall of Fame, you’ll be remembered. But at the same time, anything outside of the box, anything outside of this playoff chase, there’s not as much space for life in that.’

He backed up Adrian Peterson by saying that ‘anyone with knowledge of the slave trade and the NFL could say that these two parallel each other.’ At the time this was seen as outrageous but with the current discourse around the league and how athletes should use their platform, Mendenhall’s comment doesn’t seem so ridiculous. He faced a ‘shut up and dribble’ before anyone knelt for an anthem or called out the President on Twitter.

‘The issue was more moral, ethical and spiritual,’ he says now. ‘The fact that we could look at someone else and say this wasn't right, but we're doing that exact same thing… We don't always take the time to be totally open throughout history. In our country, we do it with poor people or anyone we deem not like us or as important.’

He began to experiment with expressing his creativity away from the field, dancing, writing and reading, feeling happier and happier away from the arena in which everyone else saw his value.

If you’ve ever done something that makes you truly unhappy, if you’ve ever silenced yourself for the collective good or for the comfort of others then you know how debilitating that is. You know that you’re not doing yourself justice and that your values and morals are not being listened to.

"They see us as one-dimensional barbarians who hit and run through things," Mendenhall says. "But there's a lot more to these guys. I just think with the game and how people want to see the players, there's just not enough space for the person under the mask and their story."

When you play sport you are very replaceable, particularly in the NFL. There is a ‘next man up’ culture and there will always be someone else eager for an opportunity. If you get injured then you turn up every day to do your work but you can’t be a part of what’s going on and inevitably, it’s easy to feel disconnected and useless.

Mendenhall saw how coldly impermanent the game was when he got drafted into the league and was told that he was better than the incumbent running back at the Steelers, Willie Parker.

This dude is a two-time Pro Bowler and they’ve already replaced him… They rip that identity away from you, when you’re told to chase it your whole life.

Mendenhall walked away. He could have stayed quiet and unhappy, picking up more money than people ever get to see. He chose his principles over his finances. He stopped satisfying the expectations of others to forge a new path for himself. People thought that he was difficult and weird.

Early on it kind of bothered me a bit… but what I learned from that is if you don't speak up and put your truth out there, then you're subjected to whatever is being said about you.

You become what you walk past. You are complicit by remaining silent. Mendenhall chose to go against what society expected of him and stopped putting up with it.

Now Mendenhall works as a writer on the hit HBO show Ballers starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson. Mendenhall was first hired to provide accuracy and colour for the football related scenes and lines, outlining how the players would speak in a strip club, what they would say to each other in the gym or how they would dress.

‘Rashard is the one who brings the integrity to Ballers. Whenever we have football questions or scenes that are sensitive to the sport, we first reference back to Rashard.’

- Tiffany Hasbourne - Ballers Wardrobe Stylist

As is his aim, Mendenhall has learned on the job and moved beyond his original brief, making a cameo in the latest series but also becoming a more integral part of the creative team.

Rashard was initially hired to validate and vet the football elements in our show, but quickly demonstrated that he had a nose for all things story and a grasp on what makes people tick. He became invaluable to the process, not solely to the nitty gritty of football.

- Zach Robbins - fellow Ballers writer

Athletes tend to have a desire to improve. This doesn’t always manifest day to day but those that make it to a professional level spend a lot of time reviewing and addressing problems. Mendenhall applied his work ethic to writing, learning every day in the writers room and getting valuable practical experience on the job. It’s helped him to begin to express himself more fully and, more carefully.

The other part of Mendenhall’s experience that has endeared him to the Ballers staff is his ability to understand people. Athletes live in a cocooned environment, on top of each other, in close quarters. You spend hours travelling, eating and sharing hotel rooms together. You see each other at your best and at your worst, at your most powerful and athletic and at your weakest, most fatigued and most humble. Athletes have a lot of material when it comes to what pushes buttons in other people.

The ability to couch a message in a fictitious setting has enabled Mendenhall to temper some of his messaging. Some opinions are received critically if they are presented straight up. Mendenhall has learned from the reception to his Twitter comments and has begun to package things that he wants to say within the framework of the show. He’s become a storyteller.

‘From the beginning of time, as far as writers and storytellers, they know what it is to try and express different things about society, which may not be able to be said outwardly and overtly, but can be expressed in a story or in a point of view.’

He’s also got some pertinent comments on life after sport and the necessity of vulnerability when creating art.

‘As an athlete, as a warrior, and even as a black man, being vulnerable is one of the hardest things you can do. Society doesn’t leave much room for the expression of your personal truths if they differ much from the way we all would like to see things. As a black man in America, you scrap vulnerability early, learning that you must do anything to bring some form of respect to yourself, which means value to your life.’

I can’t and will never be able to relate to his experience as a black man but I can understand that appearing vulnerable in a team environment, in front of your peers and colleagues seems antithetical to team progress and comfort. You don't burden your team with how you’re feeling.

What athletes are becoming more aware or and comfortable with is that retirement is going to make you vulnerable and that expressing that will only strengthen you in the long run. It’s normal to feel a loss of purpose and drive. You don't know what you’re driving at because everyone else has always dictated your targets. It’s easy to feel depressed.

‘Depression, after playing football, was feeling like you don’t have a fight, you don’t have a cause. Who you are, what your purpose is . . . everything can feel like nothing.’

This is something that I can certainly vouch for, having spent my whole life playing rugby, I’m now finding out what I do and don't value in life. Rugby began to take more from me than it gave back and the ratio crept further and further in the wrong direction. Having spent a year without playing full time I’m happy with my decision. Even the times I’ve played games this past year have convinced me further that it’s the right thing to do.

Again something that Mendenhall said about giving something up resonates with me.

‘If you are holding on to something that you no longer need to hold on to, I encourage you to let go. It may be that very thing that is keeping you from what you really want deep down inside.’

I certainly felt that what I was doing was holding me back and preventing me from growing. The team I was playing for in France had acted dishonestly before and throughout the season and I didn't want to participate in that any longer. Now I’m forging my own way ahead which is terrifying but also enlightening.

I’ll finish with some quotes from Mendenhall. His bravery and vulnerability inspires me and I hope that I can emulate some of his positive forward motion and to give myself the opportunity to live as a fuller, more expressive life.

‘I plan to live in a way that I never have before, and that is freely, able to fully be me, without the expectation of representing any league, club, shield or city… Be true to who you are. Create a life worth walking in. One that’s in your passion, your person, your voice, your being. Whatever happens and comes from that will be worthwhile and be fulfilling.’

Ben Mercer