By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
This past August, Andrew Buie, a talented West Virginia University running back who had been the team’s leading rusher the previous season, left the team and returned home, saying he needed to take the season off.
Why he departed was left unsaid, and while there were promises that he would return, there was no guarantee.
It was looked upon oddly by most until he returned to school in January and was back out for football at the beginning of spring practice, explaining that he had left the team and returned to Florida “for Andrew Buie – to make Andrew Buie a better person.”
It seemed quite strange until a week or so later when Rashard Mendenhall, a first-round pick of the Steelers out of Illinois in 2008, a 1,000-yard rusher in the NFL, revealed that at age 26 he was walking away for football.
The money, the glory, none of it mattered to him any longer, as he explained in a blog in the Huffington Post.
“I decided not to hold a press conference because I didn’t want to have to say things that were cliché,” he wrote on Sunday. “I’ve done enough of that since I’ve been playing football. I actually didn’t really plan on saying anything about my retirement at all. I just kind of wanted to disappear. The fact that I was done playing would’ve been clear once some time had passed, and I hadn’t signed back with the Cardinals or any other team. Maybe people would’ve thought I couldn’t get another job. Either way, I was OK with the idea of fading to black, and my legacy becoming ‘What ever happened to that dude Rashard Mendenhall? He was pretty good for a few years, then he just vanished.’”
He then explained that football was fine, but the life of being a football hero wasn’t.
“... Imagine having a job where you’re always on duty and can never fully relax or you just may drown. Having to fight through waves and currents of praise and criticism, but mostly hate. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been called a ‘dumb nigger.’ There is a bold coarseness you receive from non-supporters that seems to only exist on the Internet. However, even if you try to avoid these things completely — because I’ve tried — somehow they still reach you. If not first-hand, then through friends and loved ones who take to heart all that they read and hear. I’m not a terribly sensitive person, so this stuff never really bothered me. That was until I realized that it actually had an impact my career. Over my career, I would learn that everything people say behind these computer and smartphones actually shape the perception of you — the brand, the athlete and the person. Go figure!”
He was different, not the stereotype football player, and craved – much you suspect as Buie did – to be himself.
“Over my career, because of my interests in dance, art and literature, my very calm demeanor, and my apparent lack of interest in sporting events on my Twitter page, people in the sporting world have sometimes questioned whether or not I love the game of football,” he wrote. “I do. I always have. I am an athlete and a competitor. The only people who question that are the people who do not see how hard I work and how diligently I prepare to be great — week after week, season after season. I take those things very seriously. I’ve always been a professional.
“But I am not an entertainer. I never have been. Playing that role was never easy for me. The box deemed for professional athletes is a very small box. My wings spread a lot further than the acceptable athletic stereotypes, and conformity was never a strong point of mine. My focus has always been on becoming a better me, not a second-rate somebody else. Sometimes I would suffer because of it, but every time I learned a lesson from it. And I’ll carry those lessons with me for the rest of my life.”
You tend to think this is a rare happening, this crying out from within for a football player to escape the life his profession demands, but if you think about it, it is not.
As far back as in the early 1960s, Jim Brown, the greatest running back ever to play the game, walked out at the height of his career to become an actor.
A decade later, Mike Reid, an All-America defensive tackle at Penn State who had been a first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals and become an All-Pro, walked out on football to write songs. A couple of years ago, when Joe Paterno died, I touched base with Reid, with whom I had become friendly when working in Cincinnati.
We talked of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and of how Reid, after he became a Grammy-winning song writer out of Nashville turning out hits for Ronny Millsap, had lost touch with Paterno and Penn State.
He explained why.
“When I was there it was 46,000 we got into the stadium,” he said. “My sophomore year was Joe’s first year as head coach. We were the beginning, me and Jack Ham and a number of other really good players and people. We were the beginning of what he called at that time ‘The Grand Experiment.’
“In those days, it was true. It did feel like it was important to him to do things properly.”
Reid, however, saw things change.
“I think I lost touch when the thing grew to a dimension that it was hard for me to relate to. Joe went from being Joe Paterno, the man I played under, to becoming a cultural icon – JoePa,” he said.
He isn’t resentful about it. He even believes he understands how it happens.
“It happens for good reasons. People have it in their heart that they want to revere what they think are good people. They want to identify the best among us. That’s why we do that,” he said, but at the same time Mike Reid offered a warning.
“We also have to beware, and I hate to use a cliché as a cautionary tale, but I lost touch because the thing just got so … he became such an icon and the university became so massive that I went from feelings of warmth about the school to it seeming to be an economic monolith. It was hard for me to relate to having been there.”
And that is what is happening today.
“The whole culture is buckling under economic weight. My God, money just changes everything. There’s a certain cynicism that has crept into us. We know the cost of everything and the value of nothing,” he said.
Need any more be said about the culture that had Buie and Mendenhall questioning themselves?
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.