Since the end of the season, three of the best running backs in football have already gone adrift. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch hung up his cleats during the Super Bowl at just 29 years old. Chicago's Matt Forte, a pending free agent at 30, revealed that the Bears would not be re-signing him. Arian Foster, the most productive rusher in Houston's history, was released at 29 years old after seven solid seasons pockmarked with injuries.
When the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers played in Super Bowl 50, all the things that put them in that position -- their talent, their coaching, their chemistry -- were shown to be rare commodities. Simply existing in the NFL is difficult. Landing in a championship-inducing environment, one where all three of those qualities are present, is near impossible.
Former Bears, Bengals and Packers running back Cedric Benson says he was raised through football, and almost within the same breath calls it a "bad business." He was one of the good ones, having rushed for more than 6,000 yards in an eight-year career. And if he could have done it all over again, he would have played baseball. Benson was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 12th round in 2001 and played in their minor league system for two years before quitting to focus on football ahead of his senior season at Texas.
"Football is not a bad thing, I'm not trying to say it is," Benson said. "I'm just saying it pulls you into a place that only that place agrees with. You can't be a football player outside of football. Society doesn't understand a football player."
To actually make it to the NFL requires a singular focus from an early age. Because the rosters are so big, the competition is particularly fierce. It's a collision sport, so players make peace with pain and injuries at a young age. After a player proves he's good enough to play at a major college program, maintaining personal and family relationships can be difficult. The reward for a job well done is a chance at an NFL career that has shrunk to an average length of 2.66 years, according to the Wall Street Journal. And once the sport leaves you behind, adjusting to real life is daunting.
"You're an animal," Benson said. "You're constantly pushing your very existence to the very edge. If you go out into society and push yourself to the very edge, people will say, 'That guy's fucking crazy.'"
Many players don't need to think about regular society just yet. Others are dreading the offseason, however, now confronted with the prospect that their time in the NFL might be up. They're good players, often just past their primes at an age when their bodies are supposedly breaking down. They will enter free agency and never hear their phone ring.
The 30-year threshold is especially cruel towards running backs, something Benson experienced, along with former Packers running back Ryan Grant.
"It's more than just a sport to us," Grant says. "There's no, 'Just get over it.' It doesn't work like that."
For players whose time is done, their new reality can be especially jarring.
"I woke up for a few days, and I didn't want to work out," Grant said. "And that was kind of like one of the first tests that I told myself, 'Oh man, I've lost the motivation.'"
Grant never averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry since his second season in the league. He had a significant ankle injury that cost him the 2010 season, but otherwise was a durable player. He had relatively low mileage on his legs and performed well late in the 2012 season for the Packers.
Yet, the Packers didn't invite him back to training camp in 2013, forcing him onto the free agent market where he received just a smattering of interest.
Grant moved on and opened a cafe in Brooklyn. Then his agent called with what seemed like good news: "The team wants you. They want to bring you in." The starter had gotten hurt, and Grant fit the scheme.
"My first reaction was kind of like ... 'okay,'" Grant said. "I said to him, 'Well, when would this happen?' And he was like, 'What do you mean, you fly tomorrow morning.' I was like, 'Oh okay, all right.' And he could tell that there was some hesitation in my voice. And he was like, 'You good?' And I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah -- I'm just thinking about stuff.'"
Grant's agent assumed his client would be jump at the opportunity to play that season. Grant might have assumed the same, but he felt differently. He was unsure, so he did something he'd never done before and asked his girlfriend for advice.
"It was the first time in my life that I actually asked my family what they thought," Grant laughed. "I asked her, 'Hey, I got a call, and I know that you've been transitioning, potentially with me not playing anymore and all this stuff, and you just moved in and our life is in a different direction, I want to know how you feel.'
"And she was like, 'Wow, I know you're in a different space just because you asked me.'"
The new job was a long distance from New York, and it was likely a temporary gig with the season halfway over. The logistics of relocating get taken for granted by fans and media because athletes do it so often. Grant would be disrupting the new life he had started. Then again, playing in the NFL is considered a privilege. So he slept on it.
"And when I woke up, it wasn't the first thing that I thought about. It wasn't the first thing on my mind, which let me know it wasn't for me."
* * *
Benson spent his first season out of football training for a return, recording and sending his own tapes to teams who never responded. The second year, he was still confused why an opportunity never came. In his third year, he's become a loan originator in Austin -- "And I'm going to be damn good at it, too" -- but the intervening years between then and now were a struggle.
"I wasn't thinking about retiring. I was healthy. I was in my prime. I was 30 years old at that time. They just closed the door on my face, point blank."
Because NFL jobs disappear so quickly, and because competition is so fierce, Benson felt he never developed supportive relationships, nor did he learn how to subsist in the real world.
"You're lost. You don't know what you're going to do," Benson said.
Benson had to change his routine for the first time in years. Like Grant, he rediscovered family. It was "the best thing ever," but initially there were complications. He doesn't elaborate on his family issues, just that there was no avoiding them when he was finally forced to sit for an extended period.
"I don't think I necessarily put it to the side, I just don't think I ever saw it," Benson said. "You get to high school, and then boom, you're gone. You're off to college, then you're off to the NFL, all of sudden you're not home as much, seeing family and hearing stories. When you're not having that open communication with each other on a daily basis, things kind of get off track."
Football had been an identity, but an insulating one. Benson was often in trouble off the field. He was arrested twice during the 2008 offseason -- once for operating a boat while intoxicated and resisting arrest, and again for driving while intoxicated -- and released by the Bears before the season began. He faced misdemeanor assault charges in 2010 and 2011, for which he was suspended a total of one game by the NFL.
As such, Benson didn't endear himself well to team leadership, people who were also fighting for their jobs. He says that baseball culture would've been a better fit.
"It's a professional sport," Benson said. "Everybody's treated generally equal. Great food, great locker room, great travel, calm, respectable. They treat you like a man the moment you show up. Even if you're 16 years old, they treat you like a man." The sport, he says, lets players grow without hand-holding. "They don't need to stand over you."
"You've got so many egos in the NFL, and even a coach might have an ego," he added. "You need a supporter, and the egos are so large in that business that they'll beat you down. They're not going to lend you that confidence, give you that confidence you need to be successful."
Benson's feelings are not ubiquitous. A lot of former players can point to teammates and coaches who actively looked out for them. Grant, though he was also phased out of the league, had plenty of influences. Players like Tiki Barber and Michael Strahan mentored him while he sat his first two seasons with the Giants. When Grant moved to Green Bay, wide receiver Donald Driver helped him adjust.
"I didn't even have my car out there, so he was dropping me off at the hotel, just doing big brother stuff," Grant said. "And he didn't have to do it but he was looking out for me. I know that he didn't have to do with a lot of other guys, but he did it for me, so I really appreciate it. And I always tell him that, that I really appreciate it, from my heart."
Grant's locker room reputation was vastly different from Benson's. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy called him an essential part of the locker room dichotomy. Running back James Starks, who is still on the team, said he "basically learned how to be a pro" from Grant.
But Grant echoes Benson's views on locker room egos. Grant realizes he was "spoiled" to land with the Packers. When he was considering the offer presented by his agent, he thought about the culture he would have been entering. He decided against the job because, in part, of the potentially toxic locker room.
"Sometimes guys do tank it," Grant said. "I wanted to know that I was going to trust guys. My body of work, I wasn't willing to put my body on the line with that unknown, especially to be an insurance policy. That basically just told me that my heart wasn't in it, and it was the first time in a long time that my heart wasn't in it."
Not all players are that discerning.
"I remember one of the visits I was on, [former Washington running back] Rock Cartwright was on a visit with me, and I remember talking to him -- Rock's been around for years -- and I was like, 'Dude, how many visits have you been on?'" Grant said.
"I love football. I love the teamwork, I love the camaraderie, but like -- and you have family? What's the deal? ... Fortunately at the time I didn't have a family. I have a daughter now and it's the best thing in my life, and I'm glad I didn't have her while I played because I definitely would have sacrificed time with her for football and I'm not willing to do that now."
The issue is, Benson and Grant agree, that players don't know anything else besides football, and football is regimented. "We grow very linear in this sport," Grant said. "We become phenomenal and elite at one thing, and we're basically told to kind of push everything else to the side, and then when it's all done then we're ridiculed and scrutinized because, 'Well, how come you didn't prep?'"
"Can you imagine if a football player in college told his coach, 'Hey man, I want to go study abroad?'" Grant laughed. "Can you imagine how that would go over?"
The tunnel vision required to get to the NFL has to expand once a player exits the league. That wide new world can be disorienting.
"There are scary moments, like, 'What am I going to do? My god.' All these responsibilities, and then all of sudden out of nowhere basically it's gone, I ain't getting paid no more," Benson said. "Having a good grounding and self understanding, and then to recognize the feelings that you're going through and being able to talk to yourself, I think that helps. It helped me big time, because there were times when I'd feel like, 'What the fuck am I going to do?'"
* * *
Circumstances change as players get older, get hurt or otherwise give management reason to reconsider their position on the team. The collective bargaining agreement between players and owners, revamped in 2011, is tough on veterans. Rookie pay was scaled back while minimum pay for free agents steadily increases as players age. As a result, veteran players seem to be cast off more frequently in favor of younger, more affordable talent.
Running back is a particularly cutthroat position. Players like Grant and Benson may be right when they say they were better than some of the young running backs regularly getting snaps in the NFL. General managers assume that older running backs are more likely to break down, however, and it can be difficult to tell how much better a player is than his replacement when the offensive line and the passing game determines so much of a runner's success.
And even if Grant and Benson were demonstrably better than replacement-level players, they would need to prove their worth beyond the difference in salary. In 2016, a player who has spent four to six seasons in the NFL will earn a minimum $760,000. After seven seasons of experience, that salary jumps up to $885,000, nearly twice the rookie minimum of $450,000. With fewer touches going to running backs in an increasingly pass-happy league, teams are more willing to soldier through their seasons with a moribund running game to save money that can be spent elsewhere.
Grant is blunt: "Running backs, they're expendable. Plain and simple."
"Knowing myself when I was kid, if I'd known the business side of it, seeing what college teams are doing what NFL teams are doing, I wouldn't want to be a running back either," he said. "I'd be someone who's getting the ball. When I was growing up, running backs were getting the ball. "
The age of the veteran workhorse running back is dying, and the end of that era may be a harbinger for veterans as a whole.
"That's what we agreed to because we didn't recognize our own value as players," Grant said. "Hopefully they find out their value. I apologize to the young guys who are going to feel the ramifications of that CBA, because we didn't -- we didn't hold strong."
* * *
Both players say they're finally happy. Benson got his license to do loan origination and, so far, business has been good, especially around Austin, where tech startups are sprouting. Grant owns a few businesses and wants to get an MBA and a masters in psychology.
Unfortunately, not all players land on their feet, as well as Benson and Grant seemingly have.
"A friend of mine who got his career cut short, he struggled, man," Grant said. "And it got cut short because of injuries, and I think he's just come to grips with it all. But still, he was struggling with the whole aspect, because identity-wise he didn't know, which is hard for us. Like, 'Okay, who am I now? I'm not this guy, that's who I believed I was going to be always ... and now I'm not him, so what value do I have to myself and in life?'"
Grant's goal is to help players transition into and out of the league. The NFL has a few programs. Part of the 2011 CBA was the establishment of a trust with a steadily increasing annual contribution by the league that pays for things like health assessments, career training and financial counseling for former players.
Grant wants the league to go further, however, especially in how it addresses mental health. He'd like to see mandatory programs instituted for players who have been in the league three years or more, and proactive measures to keep players from "getting in trouble, the assaults, the arrests, the depression, the mental stuff" -- issues that can arise out of the overwhelming pressure of the NFL.
"It's a psychological divorce," Grant said. "It's trauma. And I don't think it's given the right attention and the seriousness that it deserves."
* * *
Beast Mode: Marshawn Lynch is too cool for the Hall of Fame