Bigger than football: Khaliel Rodgers retires

Bigger than football: Khaliel Rodgers retires

photo courtesy UNC Athletic Communications

Four weeks before the start of the football season, Khaliel Rodgers is putting his health first.

That’s what the North Carolina offensive lineman said in his Facebook post Saturday, when he announced he’s retiring from football four months after joining UNC as a graduate transfer from Southern California.

That key phrase — “My health comes first” — was eventually taken out of Rodgers’ post, which was initially public and was changed to private in the early afternoon. There's been no official release yet from the school.

Rodgers said he’ll continue to further his education and pursue a career in business and wealth management. He graduated with a sociology degree from USC before entering North Carolina’s graduate school in the offseason.

“There’s nothing else to it,” Rodgers said in a Facebook message to Argyle Report. “I’m 23, it’s more to life then (sic) just ball, people do have other goals in life.. simple as that.”

The football ramifications for UNC are immediate. Rodgers made 11 career starts at USC — seven at center, four at guard — and was expected to start at guard for the Tar Heels, who struggled to find any consistency at that spot last season. Instead, head coach Larry Fedora will likely rely on Tommy Hatton or R.J. Prince, who both started games at guard last season, to replace the 6-foot-3, 315-pound graduate transfer.

UNC's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Chris Kapilovic, will have to fill a hole at guard after Khaliel Rodgers' abrupt retirement. (PC Smith Hardy)

UNC's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Chris Kapilovic, will have to fill a hole at guard after Khaliel Rodgers' abrupt retirement. (PC Smith Hardy)

But as Rodgers said in his Facebook post, this is bigger than football.

“It’s a game, I chose to move on from it,” he said.

It’s hard to ignore the timing of the decision, which comes just 11 days after a Boston University study found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the donated brains of former football players. The study found CTE in 88 percent (177 of 202) of former football players, including 99 percent (110 of 111) of former NFL players, furthering the link between football and degenerative brain disorders.

Rodgers sustained a concussion in his final game of the 2016 regular season at USC, and he was still in the concussion protocol when he announced his intent to transfer last December. He didn’t comment on whether his retirement was related to the study, though his correspondence with Argyle Report seemed to suggest it wasn’t.

As surprising as Rodgers’ retirement is, he told Argyle Report his decision isn’t uncommon for football players. That’s becoming truer by the day.

In 2015, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired at 24 over safety concerns. A year later, Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Tarpley, 23, followed suit. This offseason, Baltimore Ravens center John Urschel, 26, abruptly retired from the NFL after years of wrestling with the safety of football. Urschel’s decision came two days after the CTE study, which was reported to have influenced his retirement.

Two days ago, former Clemson safety Jadar Johnson retired at 22 after signing as an undrafted free agent with the New York Giants. His agent said Johnson “values his health.”

Early exits are nothing new to football, but rarely have players walked away before serious medical issues forced their hand. Now, retirements are preceding injuries, and Rodgers is just the latest in a long list of players to abruptly call it quits well before their physical prime.

That’s what makes Rodgers’ retirement so compelling. While the aforementioned NFL players retired with a clean bill of health, college football players have typically done so only after a litany of concussions. Rodgers has an extensive injury history, but he’s only missed one game (2017 Rose Bowl) with a diagnosed concussion, and Fedora indicated Wednesday that Rodgers was a part of the team’s plan moving forward.

That changed Saturday, when Rodgers listed his health among the reasons to walk away. While his ever-changing Facebook post might be a way of walking that back, he’s not the first player to make that decision. He likely won’t be the last. And instead of revising the depth chart and advancing the news cycle, maybe it’s time we consider their health, too.

Because for players such as Rodgers, this is bigger than football.