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The Week In Sports: Young Running Back Retires

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All good things come to an end, which is exactly what NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew tweeted out to the world this past week. At the ripe old age of 29, Drew is leaving the Oakland Raiders and a successful professional football career behind, which has got Mike Pesca thinking about longevity in the NFL. Good morning, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello.

MARTIN: So I don't know about you, but when I was 29, I was kind of still figuring out what the heck to do in my life and with my career. But this guy, not even 30 years old, and he's saying it's done. Is that...

PESCA: Right.

MARTIN: ...The norm?

PESCA: He's figuring it out, too. And he's amassed 8,000 running yards, so that's I guess something that's a resume.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PESCA: You know, so NFL stands for not for long. And the average career is something like four years. But for a running back, the shelf life - and I don't want to be glib about it, the pounding these guys take is extremely, extremely limited, more so than any other position. I mean, there's general accepted wisdom that when a running back hits 30, you should pretty much worry that he's done. And a lot of studies have born this out, and that there are very, very few running backs - Frank Gore at the age of 30, Tiki Barber had a good career at the age of 30, 31. But the fact that we can pick and choose these guys so selectively, you know, if professional sports is a game for men in their 20s, I mean, the position of running back barely ever allows a player to play past 30. And it's kind of shame.

MARTIN: So is this problem, or is this just, you know, whatever, it's the nature of the game?

PESCA: Well, no. I do think it's a problem. I feel sorry for the running backs. They take such a pounding. I mean, Maurice Jones-Drew, who's this 5'8" tough, strong guy, but small, ran for - let's look at his, one of his seasons - 343 rushing attempts, OK? Now every time that attempt - how does an attempt end? Well, eight times it ended in the end zone, so maybe he didn't get hit then. And, you know, another 12 times he got pushed out of bounds. But 300 times he got drilled to the ground by a giant player, plus the fact that he caught the ball 43 times and got drilled then, plus on passing plays where he stayed to block. I mean, he was just acquiring and accumulating so many hits.

And everyone in the NFL knows this is the nature of their job, but I do think it's a little bit of a problem for those in that position. And I do think it's unfair because when you look at the rules, a young excellent running back who had a great year in college as a freshman can't go pro even as a sophomore - if he's a true sophomore - can't go pro the next year. So, you know, a lot of these guys are just spending their careers not getting what could be productive years of their careers not getting paid for it because of the rules.

MARTIN: Why don't you care about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning? They're old and they take a lot of hits.

PESCA: It's true, I do care about them. But there's a couple reasons I think that these guys in their - you know, towards their late 30s, now quarterbacks, are allowed to play longer. And they take vicious hits, they may take - by the way, when a quarterback gets older, he learns how to control the game, so Peyton tries not to take that many hits. But he might get hit, you know, nine, 10 times a game, not 30 times a game.

MARTIN: OK.

PESCA: But also I believe that savvy - the role of savvy is prized in a quarterback. A running back is more of a physical skill. There's only so much a running back can do. So again, it is a shame for a running back. MJD had a great career. Compare him to another guy who could be a linebacker, similar body type, that guy could play for twice as long.

MARTIN: OK. MJD, we wish you well. Do you have a curveball for us?

PESCA: I do. It's also about football and photography and aviation. So you saw that story about the Delta Airlines flight that kind of skidded off the runway in LaGuardia?

MARTIN: Yes. LaGuardia, yeah.

PESCA: Yeah, so I learned about that - well, I won't lie, I learned on social. But the next day, since I'm an old guy, I get the paper delivered to my door. And there on the front page of The New York Post, front page of The New York Times, above the fold, as we say in the newspaper game, was a gripping photo. And who was the photo credit? I saw - I don't know why I always look to the photo credit - Larry Donnell. I'm like, oh, that's funny, this photographer has the same name as the tight end on the New York Giants. No, it was the tight end on the New York Giants.

MARTIN: (Laughter). He was on the plane, right?

PESCA: He was on the plane. And as such, he got this great angle of the people streaming off the plane, and he put it on Instagram, and Reuters has a contract with Instagram. And so photographers will spend their whole careers and not get that placement, and here's Larry Donnell who once had, like, three or four touchdowns in an NFL game snapping photos that are being used in the New York press.

MARTIN: Who knows? He could be reinventing himself, new career ahead of him?

PESCA: Yeah. He's - you know, he's good at the aerial game, or, unlike the Giants offense, this one didn't off the ground.

MARTIN: Oh, man. Mike Pesca, host of "The Gist" podcast from slate.com. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.