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Warner Takes the Lonely Man Walk…

(Ed. Note: This post is best read if you first open a second browser, click here, press play, and read with the music in the background)

I was never a fan of Kurt Warner. There’s no obvious reason why, I just didn’t like him. It might have been how he and his wife Brenda wore their religion on their sleeve, or it might have been that I resented that he was a former grocery store clerk who was suddenly making an argument as the best quarterback in football. Or it might have been that he could pull off a goatee, while facial hair makes me look like a pug. But whatever it was, Warner just wasn’t a favorite of mine. I cheered against him during his St. Louis days, I felt some small vindication when he bottomed out with the Giants, and I shrugged indifferently when he was chosen to “tutor” Matt Leinart.

Yet, somehow over the last two years, I’ve come to respect Warner. Not enough to cheer for the Cardinals, but enough to be pleased for him when they succeed. So, yesterday’s news that he has decided to retire brought me some mixed feelings. In sports, football especially, too often it is a guy’s body or depreciating skills that tell him he’s done, whatever his heart might feel. So, Warner being able to listen to his heart, or God if you will, and decide it’s time to take the lonely man walk leaves me sorry to see him leave, but happy to see him go on his terms.

Of course, this assumes that he’s actually gone. For Warner, like that other greybeard who might be retiring this off-season, has long done the off-season “will I or wont I retire” dance. He hasn’t been as outward as Farve, and as far as I know Rachel Nichols hasn’t spent her summers camped out on his lawn, but he’s still flipped more times than NBC’s late night schedule.

I’ve long maintained that professional athletes have every right to retire, un-retire, and retire again. Actually, I have no earthly idea why people get so up in arms about this. Is it jealously? Is it because most of us don’t have the option of leaving our jobs at forty? Is it because we want them to leave while they’re still great, so we don’t have to remember them floundering like Willie Mays with the Mets? I don’t know.

All I know is that if I were able to play a sport well enough to be paid, I would want to play that game for as long as someone was willing to pay me. But, I also understand that at some point the strange hours and perpetual travel, the season long absence from your family, the lack of privacy, the general wear and tear, and pounding on your body, would be enough to make you question whether you still wanted to play. So, I can see how when you are 38 years old and you take a hit like the one Bobby McCray laid on Warner two weeks ago, well, I can understand how that makes you want to walk away…

… I can also understand how four months later, when the muscle memory of your body has forgotten the ferocity of that hit, when the travel seems like only a mild annoyance, when your family is encouraging you to return (no doubt tired of you mopping around the house), well, I can understand how over time the desire to play returns.

For most of his career Brett Farve was beloved by everyone for how much he loved football. Journalists gushed over his childlike enthusiasm on the field; that he looked like a boy out there made him real, made him like one of us. He epitomized the child in our hearts still dreaming of one day playing in the bigs. And yet, it is that same love that makes these guys want to come back, to play again. It’s what they know, it’s what they are passionate about, it’s what they’ve always done. It’s a love of the game itself, but it’s also a love of the locker room.

Tony Kornheiser was recently talking with Phil Jackson about when the Lakers’ coach plans on walking away. Phil spoke of how he’d already walked away and how it was the locker room that brought him back. The cocoon of knowing a place where you belong, where you’ve spent most of your life, where you’re comfortable. This, more than anything, might be the hardest part for guys to walk away from. So why do we crucify older players for changing their minds about whether or not they want to play?

Doesn’t every one of us miss the known when we leave it? Don’t we all have moments, often prolonged, of doubt? Don’t we have the right to make a decision, change our mind and un-make said decision? So, why can’t athletes?

Warner has decided to retire. He is, like Bruce Banner leaving town, taking the lonely man walk towards the unknown, and to him I say: congratulations on an incredible career, enjoy the rest of your life. But, if he were to change his mind in August, if he were to decide that now just wasn’t quite the right time to walk along that unknown path, well… I’d be just as quick to say, welcome back.

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