For the vast majority of players, life in the NFL ends far sooner than they expected. The average career lasts under three seasons, and many find themselves without the social and financial crutch that served them for nearly their entire lives to that point.
A.J. Hawk doesn't fall into that category.
The former linebacker spent 11 seasons in the NFL after a decorated collegiate career at Ohio State. He won a Super Bowl title with the Green Bay Packers and spent time with the NFC-champion Atlanta Falcons last year. On the surface, Hawk might seem like the prototypical football player who can't let go. However, in a piece with the Players' Tribune, he expressed a very different sentiment.
Once I decided I was done, I was completely at peace with my decision. That off-season before the 2016 season, I started doing what I had always done: Saying yes to everything and filling up my schedule. I was making appearances, doing a radio show with Sirius and looking into broadcasting opportunities, something I had prepared for during my last few years in the league. I went back out to Tahoe for the golf tournament, which I still do every year because it’s one of my favorite events. OTAs, training camp and the preseason came and went, and for the first time in a decade, I wasn’t there. And I was fine with that.
Hawk could have walked away at that point, but the Falcons called after multiple injuries depleted their linebacking corps. While the offer provided a chance to slip back into the NFL, Hawk didn't mind when the opportunity proved short-lived.
I was only on the team for three weeks, and in that time, one by one, the injured guys started to come back healthy. I saw the writing on the wall. When they let me go — just like when the Bengals released me — I was completely O.K. with it. I wasn’t hanging on for dear life to a career that was nearing its end. I knew it was over. In fact, I was actually excited to go back to Ohio, back to my new life after football.
While Hawk had finished with football, the football world still had a surprise in store for him. After announcing his retirement officially, his wife Laura planned a surprise for him at Ohio Stadium, the site where he played most of his college football games.
So we opened the door to the recruiting room, and there were about 100 people huddled in the back. In the crowd, a few faces stood out immediately. Aaron Rodgers. Jordy Nelson. Clay Matthews. Andy Dalton. A bunch of guys I had played with in my career were there. I even spotted some of my old Ohio State teammates. My family was there, too. And was that Jim Tressel over there with Urban Meyer? What’s Mike McCarthy doing here? What’s going on?
That was about all my brain could process before the whole room erupted.
I’m standing there, confused and kind of in shock, thinking, That’s weird … it’s not my birthday or anything.
Then I saw that there was a table full of memorabilia and my highlights were playing up on the projection screen — and then it hit me….
As Hawk puts it, the party made his retirement "officially official."
While Hawk expresses some regrets regarding his playing career -- namely, winning only one Super Bowl with "the greatest quarterback of all time" -- he seems happy to cheer on his former team and teammates from his home in Ohio.