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A headline like this is sobering and provides a real glimpse into the sad realities of many former pro football players. All retired professional athletes must face that strange moment of realization that the game which consumed their entire lives no longer needs them. Unless they have a second passion to fall back on—maybe coaching, business ventures, or a media gig—all that’s really left is a pile of money and a bigger pile of free time. The glamorous, breakneck pace of a pro athlete undercuts the methodical treadmill of career life that most humans must accept as simply part of their existence. Being semi-retired by the age most adults are being promoted into middle management leaves a strange void of purposelessness; for football players, the burden of head injury just adds gasoline to a smoldering fire of uncertainty. Not being able to trust your own mind when all that’s left is time to think must be a scary proposition, indeed.
Cutler took a monster 322 sacks in his career (not including all of the random scrambling hits or knockdowns), and he now believes that he suffered at least 15 concussions. He told GQ magazine recently that his memory isn’t as sharp as it was just five years ago. But even as reports of CTE ravaging former players trickle in every year, players like Cutler almost unanimously declare that they would still do it all again, which is a real testament to the joy and satisfaction that football fosters in players and fans alike. As such, I’d rather spend my time celebrating the players and all that they fought for, all that they earned, and all of the excitement that they brought fans like me over the years. Otherwise, what’s the point of taking the abuse? Cutler entertained me for a decade plus and will suffer the consequences; the least I can do is appreciate the effort.
As a long-suffering Nashville-raised Vandy fan, getting to watch Cutler beat Tennessee in Neyland Stadium in 2005 was probably the most exciting experience of my adolescent sports life (the Braves’ win in ’95 was sweet, too, though I was only eight years old). I watched it with my dad right before leaving for college, and it’s a memory that still means a lot to me today. UT fans can ride their high horses as much as they please. That night, they got whipped by their little brother in their own house, and it was glorious. And they still stink fifteen years later, which is funny, too. Call it silly or pathetic to cling to a single win like that, but winning that game was just plain fun, and Cutler became a small-time local hero because of it.
I’ve always secretly wondered what the Titans’ fortunes would have looked like had they traded down from the three pick to take Cutler and maybe some other first round guy (Haloti Ngata?) in 2006. TGI Friday’s restaurants would have suffered tremendously, but the team would’ve had a hometown guy with a good head on his shoulders and a twelve-year career ahead of him. I also think playing in Nashville instead of Chicago, where he spent eight seasons, would have softened a lot of the negative media scrutiny he received for being aloof or apathetic. Major markets are always looking for a story, and though Cutler was considered a good teammate in the locker room, seeing the franchise QB mope around the sidelines with a thousand-yard stare made for easy media fodder whenever the team was losing. To be fair, he was probably just dreaming of a ‘very’ scantily-clad Kristin Cavallari, and you can’t fault the man for that.
Now fully-retired at just 38-years-old with over $120M in career earnings, Cutler must navigate life without football but with plenty of brain trauma. The things he accomplished on the field still matter to a few people like me, but he’s mostly been reduced to reality show jokes and smoking memes. By his own admission, he’ll be lucky to even make it another 38 years, at which point all that money he made won’t matter anymore. But something about football, about camaraderie and memories, still makes it all worth it to him. And it means something to me, too, even if the world mostly rolls their eyes at the thought of him.
I hope Jay finds that satisfying next chapter, if he’s still looking, and even more so I hope he gets to experience the thrill of watching some young kid on TV winning the big game with his own children. He gave me a few memories that nobody can ever take away, and I’m very fortunate to have a strong mind without the abuse of professional football that will hold onto those memories for a lifetime.