John Moffitt chugged mugs of black coffee at Pike Place Market and talked almost giddily about how, the week before, he called John Elway, the head of football operations for the Denver Broncos, to tell him he was quitting the National Football League, leaving behind the money and the fame, but also the constant pain and the danger.
In parts of three seasons as a guard with the Seattle Seahawks and the Broncos, Moffitt, 27, blew out his knee, had elbow surgery and hurt his shoulders. Sleep apnea left him exhausted. Floaters cross his vision from all the hits to the head he absorbed in his nearly 20 years of playing football.
“I don’t want to risk health for money,” said Moffitt, who walked away from about $1 million in salary, various benefits for retirees who play at least three seasons and quite possibly a trip to the Super Bowl with the 9-1 Broncos. “I’m happy, and I don’t need the NFL.”
Most weeks, the departure of a player like Moffitt, who played sporadically and often anonymously on the offensive line, would have warranted barely a footnote among fans and general managers, and his spot on the roster would have been quickly filled by an eager replacement.
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But Moffitt quit the same week that the NFL was consumed by allegations of bullying on the Miami Dolphins and disturbing reports that former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett and other retired stars might have early onset degenerative brain disease.
The heightened awareness of football’s physical tolls has prompted hundreds of former players to express regret over what the sport did to their bodies.
Yet Moffitt is unique for openly discussing his injuries and the brutal reality of playing in the NFL.
“They are merchandising human beings, let’s be honest,” said Moffitt, who at a cafe
reveled in his freedom much like the Tim Robbins character in “The Shawshank Redemption,” who, after breaking out of jail, rips off his shirt in the rain and laughs at the sky.
In a far-reaching interview last week, Moffitt described how his decision to leave the NFL, a level he worked so hard to reach, was far from rash, even though he announced it on Twitter and was accused online of being impulsive and naive.
Quitting, he said, had little to do with his diminished playing time, though he suited up for only two games this season, or any dissatisfaction with the Seahawks or Broncos organizations, which he said treated him well.
Rather, it was the culmination of months of reflection that his once-promising career had been derailed by injuries, and that continuing to play for the money and to please others would very likely ruin his health further and deepen his gloom.
In the offseason, after battling for playing time and trying to stay fit, Moffitt, a free spirit who idolizes Jim Morrison, started reading the writings of the Dalai Lama and Noam Chomsky, among others. They helped him conclude that he was a pawn in a machine that controlled his life and that he no longer wanted to meet the expectations attached to that life.
“You kind of let go of that dream that you kill yourself for, to be a millionaire, and you see through it and see that it’s just a facade,” said Moffitt, who was dressed in baggy jeans, T-shirt, work boots and black peacoat. “I let go of all that stuff.”
Moffitt returned to training camp harboring doubts. In August, the Seahawks traded him to Cleveland, but the deal was reversed because the Browns said they had concerns about his health. Moffitt said the Browns voided the trade because he refused to take a pay cut, something the team denied.
So, the Seahawks traded Moffitt to the Broncos, for whom he had an opportunity to protect Peyton Manning, probably the NFL’s biggest star. To outsiders, it was a dream job with a near-certain trip to the playoffs. But the trade only confirmed to Moffitt that he did not control his destiny.
“His love of the game changed because it’s a business in the NFL,” said his father, Dave Moffitt. “The minute he signed, I told him: You’re John Moffitt Inc. The rah-rah is great for the fans, but you have to treat yourself as a business.”
During the Broncos’ bye week, Moffitt returned to Seattle, where he lives with his girlfriend and her 5-year-old daughter. On Sunday, Nov. 3, the day before he had to return to Denver, he decided he was done. When he neglected to show up that Monday, his phone buzzed with calls from the team, the players union, his agent, family and everyone else with a stake in his career.
“I was so one-dimensional, I never missed anything in college or the NFL until last Monday,” said Moffitt, who grew up in Connecticut and played football at Wisconsin, where he majored in sociology. He added, “I can’t help what I don’t care about.”
On that Monday afternoon, Moffitt called Elway, who he said was understanding. So were his ex-teammates.
“It was a little surprising, but I don’t look down on him at all for his decision,” said Zane Beadles, an offensive lineman on the Broncos. “It’s too hard of a game, too long of a season to come in here and be unhappy every single day, so I’m happy he’s following his heart and doing what he wants to do.”
Moffitt said Monday that he watched the Broncos-Chiefs game Sunday night and that he thought it was a good game. But he had no regrets about leaving the team or the NFL. “I’m very happy and excited to move on,” he said.
Hundreds of players leave football each year, sometimes through injury and often by being cut. Rarely does a player retire midseason, especially when hanging on a few more months would guarantee him a pension, health care and other benefits. Moffitt said he gave up the rest of his $625,000 salary this year and could have made $750,000 in 2014.
Moffitt is engaging and friendly, but also fidgety and easily distracted. Suspended for four games in his rookie year for taking Adderall, which is prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, he drives his sport-utility vehicle with gusto, a five-hour energy drink in the console.
He started eating less to shed some of the weight he needed to do battle on the line of scrimmage. But at 6 feet 4 inches and about 300 pounds, with a beard and shoulder-length hair, he still looks imposing.
A natural talker, he sped across Seattle to interview with a radio station about having his own show.
Moffitt is not interested in talking sports all day, but he said the station executives were thinking about how to get him a wider audience.
In his own way, Moffitt has given voice to the legion of players who drift in and out of the league and live in fear of being cut or injured, or both, yet carry on, addicted to the money and fame or at a loss for what else to do.
Nate Jackson, who wrote, “Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile,” a book about his journeyman career, said: “For me and most players, we have a dream to get to the NFL, but once you get there, you’re living someone else’s dream. People feel it’s a fairy-tale life, and you feel almost guilty when you don’t like it.”
Jackson, who last played in 2008, said the hardest part of shedding the football life was learning to be proactive, thinking independently and making money with wits, not brawn.
Moffitt insisted that he did not care about the lost income, and he was shocked that people thought he was nuts for walking away from what they think is a glamorous lifestyle.
“I’m the one being called crazy, but I think everyone else is crazy,” Moffitt said.
“It’s disturbing that people are questioning my sanity for giving up the money. What does that say about our world?”