"He's leaving in his prime."
"His career hasn't followed an ideal first-rounder trajectory, but he still has value and a lot of NFL executives who believe in him."
"You cannot coach his physical skills. Those have value in this league."
"His focus on family and church are admirable, but it seems too early to walk away."
"Those who know him are not surprised by this decision at all. He's always been one to follow his heart".
The quotes noted above all paint a pretty clear picture of a football player who was coveted by the NFL coming out of college, who didn't necessarily achieve the loftiest of heights in his first few seasons but who seemingly walked away from the game before the league was ready to walk away from him. Only, they aren't attributable to the news of Washington's Jake Locker retiring.
In fact, they are reference to another former Husky.
Napoleon Kaufman came to the University of Washington the same year that I did - in 1991 - as one of the most celebrated recruits ever landed by Don James. Not unlike Jake Locker, Kaufman chose UW over USC, among other schools. He had a legendary career while at UW which included setting records for all-time yardage, touchdowns and 200+ yard football games. He put together one of the most important and notable single game performances in CFB history when, in 1994, he led the Huskies to a win over Miami in the famous "Whammy in Miami" game and thus ended Miami's 58 game home winning streak.
In 1995, Kaufman was selected, like Locker, in the first round of the NFL draft. He went #18 to the Oakland Raiders who saw him as a "home run hitter" and a somebody who could change the dynamic on the football field. Over the course of his career, Kaufman would do just that. He would eventually put up nearly 5,000 yards of career rushing and a solid 4.9 yards per rush career average.
However, Kaufman never quite achieved the superstar status that Al Davis envisioned when he drafted him. There were definitely glimpses - just like there were with Locker - but Kaufman's size was a detriment and he often played banged up. For most of his career, Kaufman was a backup or in a platoon with the bigger and more powerful Tyrone Wheatley. When the 2000 season rolled around, Kaufman did what he had been rumored to have been thinking about for a few years. He retired from the NFL after just six seasons.
As it turns out, Kaufman had married just one year after he entered the league - just as Jake Locker would. He started having his family pretty much right away and, today, he is the proud father to a daughter and three sons. When he retired, he talked about the importance of pursuing other passions that he cared about in his life - his family, his community and his ministry (Kaufman is an ordained minister). The temptation of the NFL lifestyle and the pursuit of the next contract just weren't that important to Nip. "Just show me the money" was a funny line from a movie that meant as much to Kaufman as the weather patterns on Uranus might mean to you or I. As a kid, he pursued his dreams and he excelled. When other dreams came along, he did what he had always done before. He dropped everything and ran after them. And he ran fast.
Kaufman took much criticism during that time just after his abrupt announcement. Raider fans couldn't understand how he would walk away from his team. Fair weather fans couldn't understand how he could walk away from the money.
The thing was, Kaufman wasn't walking away from anything. He was walking towards something else ... and somebody else.
Luckily, Kaufman didn't have to make his decision in the broad daylight of the social media age. Jake Locker, on the other hand, has had to endure a much higher level of scrutiny as a bitter and cynical group of fans have pretty much eviscerated him on Twitter and other sites. Even those who are closer to the game have been caught off-guard. The inimitable Peter King had this to say in his "10 Things I Think I Think" section of his special MMQB column:
10. I think I'll be processing Jake Locker retiring after four years for a long time.
But Locker did what Kaufman before him did. He stuck to his principles and he followed his heart. Locker, who just recently became the father of his second child, has a vision for the kind of man that he wants to be. He's always had it. When he passed up the chance to come out of college as a Junior - as a first overall pick candidate - in advance of the changes in the NFL collective bargaining agreement, Locker and those around him were widely criticized for the bad business decision. But, to Locker, the contract and the league were not part of the business he was conducting. It's always been about family, community and doing the right thing. Just like with Napoleon.
"I love the game, but I no longer have the burning desire necessary to play the game for a living; to continue to do so would be unfair to the next organization with whom I would eventually sign. I realize this decision is surprising to many, but I know in my heart that it is the right decision." --Jake Locker
So, now, the great members of the Ferndale and University of Washington communities can celebrate the coming home of one of their finest citizens and his beautiful young family. Jake will have time to let his battered body heal while he and his wife, former UW softball star Lauren Greer, contemplate just where they will go from here. Colbie, 2 and Cooper, 8 mos, are going to get a lot of Dad-time and will have no recollection of the days when their father as an NFL athlete or a celebrity. Collectively, they aren't walking away from the NFL. They are walking back to all of us who ever valued them for more than just what they could give us on the field.
I like to think that we all just scored one of the greatest free agent signings of our era. Let's enjoy it.