The Single Greatest Sporting EventTM I will ever attend in my life already happened, and it was the 2011 Stanford-USC triple overtime thriller in the Coliseum. This week, the player responsible for that experience walked away from the sport, and I'm glad he did.
AJ Tarpley is retiring from the NFL. After one improbable season with the Buffalo Bills, in which he forced two fumbles and snagged two picks in the last two games of the regular season, AJ had broken through to the next level. But for those of us who had the pleasure of watching AJ at Stanford, the transition from Combine snub/undrafted free agent to legitimate NFL playmaker came as no surprise. Now, he's retiring from a promising career in the NFL, as concerns for his future health overshadow his love of the game.
Tarpley has always been a bit of an enigma. On one hand, he was a true four-year starter on a perennially elite defense at Stanford. On the other hand, he never seemed to crack the #1 ILB spot on Stanford's depth chart. Overshadowed by his Mike linebacker counterparts Shayne Skov (at one time regarded as one of the top inside backers in the country) and Blake Martinez (with his athletic prowess and enormous frame, destined for the NFL from the moment he walked on campus), Tarpley joined the Cardinal looking more like a slightly gangly WR than a bone crushing ILB. But by the time he was called upon to play his redshirt Freshman year, he was prepared.
Mere weeks after being pushed into the rotation at ILB for Stanford, Tarpley was a huge force against our rivals in what was a truly intimidating environment. In that year, USC was still under sanctions with no hope of making a postseason game, Trojan fans treated Stanford's visit as a bowl game. In front of 90,000 jeering USC fans, Tarpley picked off Matt Barkley with an impressive diving catch in the second quarter, leading to a pivotal field goal. But it was much later in the game that Tarpley made his biggest mark on SoCal. Well, after Andrew Luck completed a trick reverse pass to then true freshman Ty Montgomery, after Stepfan Taylor charged into the end zone to force overtime, and after Coby Fleener caught the two point conversion to put Stanford up by eight (man that was a great, great team), the young up-and-comer made his mark.
On the final play of the game, with USC driving from the goal line to force a fourth OT, the ball squirted loose from RB Curtis McNeal's grip, and for a long moment the ball trickled into the end zone with both teams watching in slow motion. It was then that freshman ILB Tarpley dove headfirst on the game winning fumble recovery, beginning what can only be described as his ascendance. Never before that moment had I heard so many people go so silent. The Coliseum was one meek, barely audible exhale. It was the best.
Two years later, I was back at the Coliseum. AJ Tarpley had by then cemented himself as a versatile starter - just as capable of lining up opposite the slot receiver as he was crashing the B gap. I was performing with the Band at the ESPN GameDay stage on SC's campus, when a guy approached me and told me how much he loved the energy we brought to USC every other year. This man was wearing a Tarpley #17 cap, and I found out he was AJ's Dad. It was clear after only a minute that he was about as proud a person can be when talking about his son - he was so happy that AJ had found a program like Stanford that would enable him to thrive. We talk about this every year- the 40 year decision. Yes, Mr. Tarpley was talking about how Stanford football was competing for conference titles every year, with his son at the helm - but he also meant he's glad AJ has options upon graduating.
AJ Tarpley suffered the third and fourth concussions of his career during the 2015 football season. AJ is one of a new wave of NFL players leaving the sport before the prime of their career, citing future repercussions for head injuries sustained while in the league - and he's the first Stanford alumni to do so. Maybe this is what the 40 year decision is really about?
Put yourself in AJ's shoes - as a football player at Stanford you have dorm mates that are going into computer science, investment banking, tech. You realize that there are multiple career pathways out there and a variety of options at your disposal besides football- something that I can't imagine most NFL-bound football players have exposure to. Secondly, as a football player at a research institution, you are constantly being reminded of the perils of the game.
As a student body, the awareness level of concussions is at an all time high- the first cellular markers for traumatic brain injury were published in Nature by a Stanford undergraduate in 2013, and accelerometer mouth guards are used to detect the biggest hits on Stanford football players. When a Stanford player leaves campus to play for the NFL, they know the risks of playing- they know the relationship between head trauma and neurodegenerative brain disorders. And for AJ, it was enough. Enough for him to leave months after reaching his lifelong goal of playing in the NFL and on the cusp of a 7-figure salary. I imagine Stanford alumni are more likely than most to quit the NFL early- and as the evidence linking football and CTE becomes even more undeniable, I expect more and more players will walk away.
As a fan, I'm conflicted. I love watching football- the explosive thrill the sport can achieve is greater than any other. And yet, it's harder and harder to watch players I support put their health on the line for my entertainment. How can I as a fellow student, or fan, or advocate of mental health, support the sport knowing that every game a player on the field suffered a major, life-altering injury? So when a favorite player walks away from the game, especially one responsible for The Single Greatest Sporting EventTM, I'm disappointed as a fan of the sport, but another part of me is relieved that they're getting out.
I can't help but think of that interaction with Mr. Tarpley and know that his Dad must be more proud of him than ever. That he was able to overcome being underrated at every level of his career, prove that he could be a starter at the highest level, and then have the presence of mind to decide that walking away was best for him, is truly commendable. No one is surprised that you saw the success you did, AJ, and no one doubts you'll have success at the next level. That must be a nice change of pace.