Balance

Photo by the AP's Jim Mahoney

Photo by the AP’s Jim Mahoney

He was always eating. Always.

Usually some kind of salad. Maybe every once in a while a sandwich. Jason Worilds did not miss a meal. He couldn’t afford to. You come into the NFL at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds _ undersized in the irrational way that only football players are considered undersized _ and being tethered to the training table is a necessary job requirement that becomes ingrained long after it outlives its usefulness.

Manners counted too. At least to Worilds. Whenever you’d make your way over to his stall in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room, he’d finish chewing whatever he was working on, bashfully wipe his mouth and apologize before giving you a few minutes to chat. He wouldn’t say much, it just wasn’t his way. Or maybe it’s because he just didn’t want to talk about football.

It didn’t matter anyway. Whatever polite and politically correct statement came out of Worilds mouth were largely unnecessary. Starting last summer, the narrative was in place. Journalism by watercolors. Worilds was entering his fifth season with the Steelers. He’d signed a one-year contract that paid him $9.75 million. Only four months of steady play separated the self-effacing kid that grew up in northern New Jersey from financial security for life _ his and the generations to follow.

It’s always about the money right? That’s what we’re taught. That’s what we’re obsessed with, who is spending what in a never-ending arms race to evaluate self-worth. Worilds just happened to do it in a job that made him a multimillionaire.

He did what every employee is instructed to do whether your employer is the local bakery, the high school down the street or the ATMs disguised as NFL franchises: he maximized his earning potential.

It made him richer than he ever imagined. This is the same kid who eschewed a limo to his senior prom _ he took his mom, by the way _ just because it wasn’t his style. He took it because it was offered. It’s not that he asked for it, necessarily, but that’s what the rules _ rules he didn’t come up with _ determined the going rate was for linebackers with his unique skill set. The deal raised his profile and raised the stakes too. Worilds entered training camp last summer on the cusp of the kind of small ‘s’ stardom (at least locally) reserved for those who wear black and gold and make a habit of burrowing opposing quarterbacks into the green sandbox disguised as the turf at Heinz Field.

James Harrison. Greg Lloyd. Joey Porter. Kevin Greene. Worilds was on the brink of joining them. He and linebackers coach Keith Butler talked at length during training camp last summer about how pivotal 2014 would be in not just shaping Worilds’ football career, but his entire world.

“I think for him, he said ‘Well, Coach money’s not important,” Butler said last summer.

It sounded like the right thing to say, even if players _ check that, employees _ in every walk of life say the same thing every day, unsuccessfully trying to squeeze a little sincerity into their triteness. We are programmed to make it about the zeroes on our paychecks. It’s how we keep score, the running tally always at the ready just in case you thought about stepping out of your place in line.

Only Worilds was not kidding. Not by a longshot. A season came and went. He played well if not spectacularly. His 7.5 sacks led the Steelers even though his coaches asked him to drop back more and attack the quarterback less to help a defense that played without its once considerable sense of menace.

Worilds said repeatedly _ politely of course _ throughout the year he’d proven he was a productive NFL player worthy of a long-term deal somewhere, be it Pittsburgh or some place else. The Steelers declined to hit him with a franchise tag _ which would have made him one of the highest-paid players at his position in the league _ but it hardly made a difference.

When you’re talking about making $11 million or “only” the reported $7-8 million a year Worilds figured to get as a free agent, either way you’re still just talking about an awful lot of damn cash for a guy whose mother worked multiple nursing jobs just to help the family get by.

Worilds’ teammates kept an eye on him. He sat a couple of spots over from Troy Polamalu and James Harrison in the Steelers locker room, franchise icons who won multiple championships but entered the twilight of their careers dealing with their own diminishing skills and murky medical future as the miles and the hits and the grind of 20-plus years treating their bodies a 3% body fat projectile missiles piled up.

As 2014 wore on, Worilds grew only more introverted. His answers blander. His sentences shorter. There is little doubt he cared about the season, cared about the guys next to him. Outside of that, who really knows?

“He’s always been a quiet guy,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “And when you’re a quiet guy, people can’t figure you out. That’s when people just get to writing.”

It’s what we do. We ask questions, get quotes, try to provide context and perspective. We are emissaries between the players and the thousands in the stands and millions on TV who have turned a children’s game into high commerce. We try to humanize them, strip away the very real wall that exists between Them and Us and find common ground.

Yet in most cases we don’t really know them, not really. The majority of our interactions are no more intimate than having a friendly chat with somebody in an elevator or a hallway.

Close personal relationships are difficult to establish let alone maintain. There’s not enough time, not enough access and in most cases not enough give a damn on either side. The players are almost to a man professional and courteous but hardly forthcoming. We are always in search of the next nugget, the next incremental development, the next Meme-worthy moment to share on Twitter or our blogs/Facebook pages whatever.

It’s a business exchange and a good one. They get paid handsomely to play. We get paid (not nearly as handsomely in most cases) to watch. We try to wring meaning from symbolic moments on the field or small conversations off it.

In the end though, they only let us know as much as they want to let us know. If we knew them, really knew them, then maybe we wouldn’t be surprised when somebody like Worilds walks away from a something that seems impossible to resist.

Hours into free agency on Tuesday, right at the moment we assumed he’d spent years pointing toward, that precious time when a player truly controls his own destiny, Worilds grabbed hold of it in a way few imagined. He retired.

No leaking through sources. No posturing. Three tweets and then poof. Gone. Done at 27. Leaving easily $10 million in guaranteed money on the table for someone else to fight over (and there will be no shortage of candidates).

It’s the why that is tripping us up.

He didn’t do it to be a movie star, as Jim Brown did when he retired at 30 back in the 1960s. He didn’t do it because his spot in the Hall of Fame was cemented, his financial future secure and his drive ebbing, as Barry Sanders did in the 1990s. He didn’t do it rather than face a lengthy and painful rehab from foot injuries as San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis did on Tuesday just hours before Worilds’ midnight missive.

Worilds tweeted he was going to pursue other interests. For some, pursuing anything other than becoming lavishly wealthy and famous is beyond reason. People want an explanation. He has declined countless interviews in the last two days (including multiple ones from me).

Five years ago I would have been baffled. Three years ago irate. At all times I would have taken the cynic’s stance. It’s my default position, though I’m not accepting full blame on that one.

For every Jason Worilds there are countless other athletes who feign retirement only to come trudging back through the locker room door for riches, vanity, opportunity, desperation or any combination of the four you choose.

Maybe he’ll come back, helmet in hand. Outside of marriage, parenthood and probably a mortgage, there are few things you should commit to at his age that you can’t wiggle out of if you feel like it. Provided he stays healthy and in shape and there are jobs that require 260-pound guys to run at top speed after a piece of leather available, he’ll have another chance to prove himself if the spirit moves him.

Things change. Narratives change. The ones we built for Worilds was on the well-worn premise that wealthy, fame and glory were his ultimate pursuit. He never said it. Not on the record. Not off. We foisted it upon him because that how it works whether there’s truth to it _ to be fair, there almost always is _ or not.

During one of our conversations last October with the Steelers struggling at 3-3, we talked briefly about the stakes and the future.

“If I have 30 sacks and we got 8-8, what did we really do?” he said.

I joked that if he did have 30 sacks _ which would smash the NFL single-season record _ his accountants would need accountants he’d be in such high demand in 2015. He laughed then repeated something he’d said in one way or another for years.

“I don’t really look as far as that,” he said. “I just try to be the best I can be day in and day out and I think the rest will fall into place.”

It fell into place for Worilds on Tuesday, just not the way we wanted. Not the way we planned. Not the way that fits so easily into the little narrative box we had built for him.

Perspectives shift. He made more money last season than all but a precious few will make in our entire lifetimes. We always viewed the next contract as “The Big One.” The smaller truth is it had already happened. The larger truth is no answer he could ever give will sate those who can’t fathom making the choice in the first place.

He spent 20 years chasing a dream. We always assumed that dream included the trappings of the modern star athlete as we know it. We we wrong.

Perhaps one day he’ll talk about it. Politely, (as if there is another choice). Without a salad in his hands and some other place he needs to be. Without cleats on his feet. Without the expectations of others on his shoulders. Healthy. Happy.

A man _ not just a football player _ in full.

Balanced at last.

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