This week, in the kind of NFL transaction that no longer raises an eyebrow or turns a head, the Packers placed a rookie on the reserve/retired list before the start of his first training camp.
Parris Bennett went undrafted out of Syracuse. He was an undersized linebacker and a long shot to make the final 53. But he also was 22 years old with 15 years’ worth of scrapping and clawing his way past every hurdle and challenge the game threw before him.
But this week, Bennett took to Instagram to announce that he no longer would risk long-term health for football’s reward.
“Today I made the hardest decision of my life, to walk away from the game I love,” Bennett said. “I’ve given everything to this sport but I know my health is ultimately the most important thing.”
Meanwhile, another undrafted long shot, Vikings linebacker Brett Taylor, saw the news and wasn’t surprised. But the 23-year-old also can’t fathom making that same choice.
“Football is a rough, rough game,” Taylor said. “It wants to retire you when it wants to retire you. But if the decision is left up to me, I’m not retiring myself just for precautionary reasons. I love the game, and I’ll do whatever I can to play.”
Neither player should be judged right or wrong. It’s a personal decision that more modern players wrestle with because of the well-documented long-term cognitive risks that have been scientifically linked to playing the game.
“The science is scary, obviously,” Taylor said. “And it is sad that [Bennett] is retiring. But if you use the proper techniques and everything, I’ve been fortunate enough not to have injuries.
“I know football takes a toll on the body, and I know several guys in high school and college who had to give it up. I’ve never had a concussion, so I’m thankful that God has blessed me with a nice body so far.”
Bennett and Taylor were tackling machines in college. Both were durable.
Bennett was the first Syracuse player in nearly two decades to post back-to-back 100-tackle seasons. The last one, Keith Bullock, went on to an 11-year NFL career.
Taylor played all 48 games at Western Illinois, led the team in tackles three straight years, earned back-to-back All-America honors and was Phil Steele’s 2017 FCS Defensive Player of the Year.
Wednesday, as rookies and some of the young veterans practiced at TCO Performance Center, the 6-1, 230-pound Taylor split time between middle linebacker and the weak side. There is a wide-open competition for linebacker depth, but Taylor still faces long odds to make the team.
“If it doesn’t work out here, I’ll keep trying somewhere else,” he said. “I’ll just trust my agent, trust God and just hopefully I’ll find a spot to play.”
Since 2015, there has been a spike in younger players walking away from the game on their own terms while citing health concerns. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland made headlines when he did it at 24. A.J. Tarpley, the Plymouth native, retired from the Buffalo Bills after multiple concussions by age 23. And others to leave the game at 30 or younger include Patrick Willis, Jarod Mayo, Sidney Rice and Calvin Johnson.
Taylor isn’t just a football junkie who racked up 162 tackles a year ago. The guy earned first-team academic honors in the Missouri Valley Conference and won the MVC’s President’s Council Academic Award.
“I got my master’s degree in sports management,” he said. “My ultimate goal is to become an athletic director. Probably at the high school level. And maybe coach football, although those guys’ schedules are crazy at the college and NFL levels.”
But this is one young 20-something who won’t permit himself to even start thinking about a life outside of the game he loves so much.
“Becoming an athletic director is something I want to do,” he said. “But not anytime soon. My first goal is making this team.”