I make a living out of telling people what to do, whether they want my advice or not.
But I do have limits.
Zach Miller was one of them.
Miller is the (now) former Bears tight end who spent the past 18 months trying to come back from a gruesome knee injury. He was hurt during a 2017 game in New Orleans, almost lost his left leg and needed nine surgeries. If you watched a replay of the injury, there’s a decent chance you didn’t watch it a second time. Why be reminded that the human leg was not meant to bend backward at the knee? Why let slow motion of the play add to your queasiness?
Over the past year and a half, Miller emerged periodically to talk about his rehab and always left open the possibility of playing again. And every time he did, I said to myself: Please retire. Don’t gamble your life on a sport. Don’t put your ability to walk at risk.
Some of you probably saw Miller’s effort as an example of the indomitability of the human spirit. I couldn’t shake the image of a typical NFL game, in which bodies are missiles and legs are targets. This particular knee would have been a magnet to crazed linebackers. No matter how much doctors might have told him that his leg was structurally fine while he rehabbed, that’s not what I took out from his Oct. 29, 2017, medical emergency. I saw a man who had escaped disaster once and shouldn’t tempt fate.
So why didn’t “Mr. You Didn’t Ask Me, But …” tell Miller that in print? Because it felt like telling a grieving husband to stop thinking about his dearly departed wife. To move on. It might have been easy for me to say but not for the person who had spent most of his existence doing one thing — playing football. It was too personal. It was Miller’s life, not mine, and it was at a precarious junction.
He retired Wednesday via Instagram, and after so many months of wishing he would end his comeback, I had one thought: Thank God.
He can now open a new chapter in his life. Those of us who got a dull ache in our stomachs every time he talked about playing again can worry about something else now. The Bears’ 2019 schedule, perhaps.
Too many people in our sports-enthralled culture believe that being a professional athlete is the greatest height a human can attain. If you hold to that opinion, then you can understand why Miller found it so hard to let go of his dream of playing again.
And he did find it hard.
“I would love more than anything to step on Soldier Field one last time, but I physically cannot give the game and our fans what they deserve,” he wrote in his post.
But “football player’’ is only one of the things Miller is, and the more he embraces the truth in that, the better off he’ll be. He’s also a husband and a father. Putting on the pads again might have forever affected his ability to be either. Those of you who are sure you’d do anything to be a pro athlete don’t know all that’s involved, all that’s sacrificed and all that’s risked. If it meant the possibility of losing the ability to walk normally again, would you do it? How about the possibility of losing a leg? Or a brain? Still onboard?
To argue that Miller was meant to play football is to reduce him to a cardboard cutout. It’s what we do with pro athletes in general. We’re sure they’ve been put on earth for our diversion. We care about them the way we care about the batteries in our TV remote. They serve our entertainment needs. When they run out of power, we replace them.
But Miller’s injury was too visceral to ignore. Suddenly, there was a real person behind that Bears jersey, and he was in serious trouble. This played out right in front of our eyes. You couldn’t disregard what had happened to him on your TV screen. You cared, a lot.
If you really care about Miller, you should be happy he’s moving on. And if you believe in the introspective person you’ve seen during interviews, then you know there’s more to him than football.
There’s certainly more to life than a game — a lot of really good things, if a person allows himself to be open to them. One of them is that, in the real world, you don’t get your brains pounded to mush.
Miller was a good player and seems like a good man. And now, having made the right decision, the best decision, he can get on with living the rest of a good life.