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Achilles in Dallas

 John Moffitt

John Moffitt

What kind of man walks away from $1 million?

Maybe the kind who knows that some things are more important than money.

Such a man is John Moffitt, a third-year guard with the Denver Broncos who recently retired from the NFL.

Moffitt had a so-called dream job protecting the glamorous, commanding Peyton Manning, the Broncos’ already legendary quarterback. But protecting quarterbacks is one aspect of football that has led an increasing number of players to develop CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a form of dementia resulting from the concussions and sub-concussive events that are part of the sport. 

CTE also helps explain the violence that seems to dog football players in their retirement, including suicide. Indeed, the average life expectancy for an NFL player is now 20 years less than that of the average American. Much of this is chronicled in the can’t-put-it-down “League of Denial” by ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.

Let’s be honest here: It’s never easy to walk away from money, particularly when it’s attached to a profession that inspires an almost religious reverence in this country. In my novel “In This Place You Hold Me” – the second in my series, “The Games Men Play” – quarterback Quinn Novak recalls how the high school football field was the center of life in the town he grew up in – not the town hall or any house of worship. Baseball, his coach tells him, is part of America’s pastoral past whereas football is part of its glorious present and future. And football, more than any other sport in this country, is big money.

But what is the purpose of money? That question is at the heart of why Moffitt left more than $1 million on the table of a four-year contract in which he made $1.8 million before taxes. Any financial planner will tell you that in today’s economy that’s not really a windfall – not when you are 27 like Moffitt. But as he told The Associated Press:

"I've saved enough. It's not like I'm sitting here and I'm a millionaire. That's what I kind of realized. I'm sitting here and I got to this point and I was like, what is the number that you need? How much do you really need? What do you want in life? And I decided that I don't really need to be a millionaire.

"I just want to be happy. And I find that people that have the least in life are sometimes the happiest. And I don't have the least in life. I have enough in life. And I won't sacrifice my health for that."

Others have. Recently, the great Dallas Cowboys’ running back, Tony Dorsett, who is from my generation, was diagnosed with CTE. He told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that if he had his career to do over, he’d make the same choices. In a sense, Dorsett made the same kind of Faustian bargain that Achilles does. The Greek antihero of Homer’s “The Iliad” is given a choice between a long, uneventful life and a short, glorious one. He chooses to die young with an everlasting fame – as did the man who lived the Homeric ideal in real life, Alexander the Great.

It’s one thing, however, to die young and leave a beautiful corpse, as they say, in the pages of fiction or long-ago history. It’s quite another in contemporary culture to endure the trickling death-in-middle-aged-life that is this form of dementia.

I think John Moffitt has chosen the better part.