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In the NFL, It’s a Negative to Care About Anything Other Than Football

A conversation with retired running back Rashard Mendenhall, who went from the NFL to the writers’ room of ‘Ballers’

By the time he was 26, Rashard Mendenhall had already accomplished what many American men only ever dream of. He was a top high school football recruit who went to play in the Big Ten and set school rushing records at the University of Illinois. From there, he was selected in the first round of the NFL draft in 2008 and scored a touchdown in Super Bowl XLV. And then, at 26 and still healthy enough to play, he walked away from it all, retiring from football to pursue writing. Now, he writes for the HBO series Ballers starring The Rock.

In the second episode of The MEL Interview podcast, Mendenhall discusses his decision to leave the NFL and the derision he received from fans and scouts alike for having interests outside of football. A written excerpt is included below.

You’ve always been open about your interests outside of football. I have to imagine that really upset some football fans, because there’s a certain subset of NFL fans who thinks NFL players shouldn’t have any thoughts, feelings or intellectual takes on anything outside of sports.
Yeah, definitely. When I was going through the NFL Combine there was a team that asked me, “If you have all these other interests—like reading, dancing or art—what makes you a football player?” There is this idea of what a football player is and what he looks like. Especially playing in a place like Pittsburgh, where the Steelers are such a part of the history of the town; the fans live, die and breathe it.

While I respected that culture totally and knew that I was a part of it, it was tough for me personally. I would tweet a picture of a book that I was reading and there would be people who would write, like, “Why are you reading books? You should be reading a playbook.” I was like, “Dang, this is the offseason.” It’s just crazy that like— it was a bit much for me. I felt hemmed in; I wasn’t able to fully be me and express myself, because if I did, people questioned my love of the game. That was always a tough thing for me.

NFL front offices are usually worried about drafting guys who are out at the club all night. It’s crazy that the guy who’s spending his nights at home reading a book is also considered a dangerous draft pick.
As much as they say, “We don’t want a guy who’s in trouble, blah, blah, blah,” that guy is familiar to them. He is comfortable to them because they understand him better than a football player who has different interests. A guy with an expanded worldview, now that’s fearful.

How much do you think this has to do with race and them being uncomfortable with the idea of a guy who is both an excellent football player and an intellectual black man?
Race has a lot more to do with it than people would want to say or imagine. Even players of other nationalities or cultures—take, for instance, a guy like Troy Polamalu, who is Samoan—are accepted in a different way for their spirituality or reserved demeanor than black players would be. If you’re young and black, there’s this idea of what you’re supposed to be.

And you going outside that mold was uncomfortable, threatening or just odd to some people?
Probably a combination of all those things. It was something I felt and understood more as I got older. I also was a guy who never enjoyed the spotlight. I never wanted my face out there. So I was a little bit behind when it came to the media. Which ran the risk of the media seeing me as being uncooperative—or not understanding me. And that could be a problem because these people who didn’t understand me or could misinterpret me were the very people who told my story to the fans. I didn’t realize that when I was younger because at that time, it was all about competing, training and playing the game. But as I got older, I realized how much my brand mattered, how much these relationships mattered and how much how people viewed you mattered.

Is that why you took to Twitter? Because it allowed you more control over how you represented yourself and how you were represented?Twitter was definitely a place where I could express myself. Though I didn’t realize how plugged in it was—into culture, into sports, into just the airwaves. It feels like a personal space, but it’s plugged into the airwaves. So I started tweeting a bunch, which is what led me to the Huffington Post. I felt like if someone was going to tell my story and convey my message, I’d like it to be me because I can do it clearly and not have it misinterpreted by someone who doesn’t understand me.

Check out the rest of our interview with Mendenhall on the second episode of the MEL Interview podcast below. And follow us on Spotify for all of our podcasts, which come out every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

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