Vontae Davis knew what he was doing
People are offended that his career didn’t end the way ‘it should have.’ But the Bills cornerback is a grown man
Buffalo cornerback Vontae Davis couldn’t have chosen a worse time to retire: At halftime of the Buffalo Bills-Los Angeles Chargers game. After a play in the first half, he simply told his coaches peace, out.
But in this game, you know when it’s over. After all the jokes are told, memes are shared and judgments are passed, Davis will be left to move on from his decision.
— NFL (@NFL) September 16, 2018
While it is hard to fathom the timing of his decision, it is a reminder that football players are not superhuman. Nor are they subhuman. They are merely human and experience the same hesitancy anyone feels before doing something dangerous — that pulse-racing, fight-or-flight instinct that threatens to hijack the nervous system, it’s all right there. But to rise to the highest levels of competition and become the vaunted athletes of the NFL, players build a psychological workaround: a bridge that allows them to circumvent their natural programming. It’s the kind of thing that allows them to run at 250-pound men at top speed.
For Davis, his bridge broke suddenly and unceremoniously while a game was in progress. And rather than try to finish the game, go another 30 minutes, let alone another 14 games, he retired right then, leaving himself open to ridicule and criticism from fans, coaches and teammates. He deserves much of that criticism, especially from teammates he left hanging.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean what he did was wrong.
Davis was a playmaker drafted in 2009 out of the University of Illinois. Ten years in, he remained a solid starter, although his best years seemed behind him. Had the result of his last play been a broken bone or torn ligament, we’d think nothing of his career ending the way “it should have.” We are conditioned to expect our athletes to exit the game limping and longing for one more season — never say die!
Or had his career ended the way it does for so many great players, a shell of his best self, embarrassingly released during training camp, that would have been OK for many people, too. Once illustrious names sandwiched between unknowns on cut day, well, that’s just the business.
But somehow, for a grown man to exercise that kind of abrupt free choice sends us way into our feels. It’s especially magnified for a man with Davis’ backstory. In 2013, after being traded by the Dolphins, he sat in the general manager’s office and, with the HBO Hard Knocks camera rolling and his coach lecturing him, he kept repeating that he wanted to call his grandmother. He was ridiculed for that incident as well. But looking back on it, there were clear signs of a man trying to process. He had just been given news that he was having difficulty making sense of, so he reflexively began reaching for the things that oriented him and could help share the burden of what had just happened and how he was feeling.
I played with his older brother, Vernon, in college and got to know a skinny and inquisitive teenage Vontae. And on Sunday night, I was at dinner with his former Indianapolis Colts teammate D’Qwell Jackson, who pointed out Vontae had always been someone who sought out stabilizing forces. He knew enough about how he was wired to look for the person who could help him navigate his emotional fluctuations.
Perhaps his decision to retire at halftime had something to do with landing on a team where he might have felt that stopgap person was not present for him. Perhaps it spoke to the limitations of professional football in terms of mental well-being when the stakes are high, the lights are bright and everybody is judging.
Having played the game, part of me thought, dude, what are you doing? Don’t quit. They still owe you money. Even if you get cooked every week, just show up and get them checks. It wouldn’t be the most glorious ending. But glory is often something people who don’t have to wrap themselves in bandages week after week wrap themselves in. Glory can be a less blinding light than the explosions going off in your head after a tough game with nothing but the promise of more to come next week.
So while we encourage children to push their limits, never give up, all that other rah-rah pablum, dude is 30. He knows when it’s time to quit. And Davis knew the cost of his choice both in actual money owed to him and in respect from members of the football fraternity. He chose to walk away anyway. Had he finished the game, I’m sure the outcome for his team wouldn’t have changed. But I suspect that, given the fact that he couldn’t bring himself to go back on to the field, the stakes were much higher.