After concussions led to retirement, A.J. Tarpley returns to football

A.J. Tarpley knows there are questions. Why are you coming back? Are you sure you want to do this? What makes you think this is a good idea?

He has heard them, in some form or variety, from his agent, his family, football teams he’s trying to join and the general public. At one point or another, they all tried to understand why the former Buffalo Bills linebacker is playing for the San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football.

Three years ago, Tarpley walked away from football concerned about head trauma and his future following four career concussions, including two in one year. He addressed his decision in a Sports Illustrated first-person account saying goodbye to the game.

He didn’t think he’d return. But the truth nagged him. He missed football. Wanted it. That’s why he’s on the field trying to get back to the place he left of his own accord after the 2015 season: the NFL.

“If you didn’t realize why I quit, you would almost expect me to come back,” Tarpley said. “If you realized why I quit, then you might be confused why I’m coming back.

“I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody else.”

Tarpley isn’t returning because of money, fame or lack of something better to do. This is something else. This is a passion. It’s the fear everyone has at some point — if they don’t do something now, if they don’t take advantage of an opportunity while it’s still plausibly there, it’ll be gone forever.

To fully grasp why Tarpley returned to professional football at age 26 and why he left the game after his rookie season at 23, one must understand the mindset he had then and now, the longing he felt and his reasoning — flawed or not — that led him to take a pay cut to return to the game he loved.

From Wall Street to the gym

Every day, Tarpley left the apartment he shared with his brother, Matthew, in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan and went to his job as a distressed bonds salesman at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

He worked on the trading floor, dealing in leveraged loans, distressed bonds and reorganization equity — a gig he started less than six months after walking away from the NFL. For the most part, he was happy.

Except for one thing: He already missed football.

“You could kind of tell within the first couple months,” Matthew said. “He always wanted to stay in shape, but I think when the season rolled around and he started watching a game or two and was kind of like, ‘Yeah, I should be out there.’ That was kind of his thought and I think he liked watching the games, but there was a point where he kind of stopped watching.

“I don’t know if it was out of frustration or just missing the game, but then it kind of dwindled off and I kind of think he got to the point where he was like, ‘I’ve been at this job enough, it’s been a year, year and a half and I have to turn my focus to what I’d really like to do.'”

In some ways, Tarpley knew all along this was a possibility. His agent, Ryan Downey, told him when he retired it would be difficult for him to come back if he wanted to, especially with concussions being part of his departure.

“You walk out this way, football’s over,” Downey remembers telling him. “Football’s done.”

Yet Tarpley stayed in shape, even before returning became reality. On days he didn’t have to attend a post-work client happy hour or dinner, he would go to the Equinox across the street from Bank of America Tower and work out for two hours, walk home in his gym clothes and go to sleep.

Every year, much as he did just before leaving the NFL, he took mental inventory of his life: Was he doing everything he wanted? Where was he in his life, and where did he want to get to?

As 2016 turned into 2017, and then 2018 began, his answers changed. The desire to play football remained. He loved the game. He missed it. He just wanted to play. His training intensified. He started weighing possibilities with friends from Stanford.

Tarpley called Downey in early 2018. They had stayed in touch after Tarpley’s retirement, playing golf at Stanford, but Downey hadn’t heard from him in a few months.

“Just that I was thinking about it,” Tarpley said. “Before I quit my job, if he were to ask somebody, ‘Hey, this guy quit, if he played extremely well, if he was in the best shape of his life, would he be able to get a shot or is that done because he quit?’

“You never know what stigma is out there. We didn’t get that dominant no, there’s no chance. So OK, there’s still a possibility and I can do whatever I’m trying to do.”

They walked through the mechanics of “unretirement” over a round of golf at Stanford. First, Downey said he reached out to Buffalo to see if they wanted him back. The Bills had released him weeks after his retirement. They didn’t sign him.

Tarpley tried to get into Stanford’s pro day — he couldn’t — and Downey made inquiries with teams. No workouts came, but Tarpley continued on. He also had to do something else — quit his job Merrill Lynch. His bosses instead gave him a leave of absence lasting months. Tarpley returned to Palo Alto, California, to train all summer. No NFL teams had called, but Tarpley was all-in. In September, he officially left Merrill Lynch. Even then, his bosses told him to stay in touch.

“There was nobody waving a flag saying, ‘Hey, A.J., come this way,'” Downey said. “So we’ve had to kind of create our own opportunities and I think that’s why the timing of the AAF was so great because it’s been an audience and it’s been an opportunity.”

‘That fire still burned inside me’

Tarpley walked into Buffalo’s locker room for the final time at the start of offseason workouts in 2016. He had mulled the decision for months. He’d ended his rookie season in 2015 with two starts and two interceptions in his last two games. He had shown progress.

But the realities of head trauma lingered. He suffered two concussions during his rookie season — the third and fourth of his career. In his letter to Sports Illustrated, he wrote that he doesn’t know how many concussions he’s actually had.

He was told if he had another concussion, he would potentially miss a year or more. He wrote at least one doctor “advised me to think about my concussion history and make an educated decision about my future in the profession.”

So he did. When he returned to Buffalo, he hoped the excitement of being there would override his concerns. It didn’t. He went to coach Rex Ryan and retired. At the time, Tarpley wrote, “I have no current residual effects that I am aware of, cognitively or physically. The decision I made to retire from football is about coming to terms with the totality of my concussion history and what is asked of me as a linebacker.”

The combination of his position and history left him vulnerable to further brain injury. He knew that then. And he knows that now.

Yet now he’s back. This is how he explains it.

“I told myself that OK, I’m going to try and do something else with my life. I had a deemed risk, whatever it was, playing that next year and at that time I was like, ‘This is not for me,'” Tarpley said. “But you get out in the real world, you worked at a real job and that fire still burned inside me. So I constantly evaluated, ‘Hey, am I thinking about playing this next season’ or whatever it was.

“It came down to it and it was time. So I just said, ‘Screw it.’ Quit my job and started full-time training.”

He says now he didn’t retire because he was scared of another concussion. More that he was being pragmatic. Now? He hasn’t had a concussion in years, in part because hasn’t been playing football.

“If people can conceptualize that why I quit was as much about timing and as much about my position and as much about my entire life,” Tarpley said. “You’re 23, out of college, football your whole life. You have these injuries and you’re like, ‘OK, wait a minute, I don’t want to just keep going down that path until somebody tells you to stop, right?’

“That’s what happens with most guys is they are playing football, that’s it, that’s all they care about until someone tells them they can’t. For me, I took it into my own hands. I said I’m done now. I’m going to see if I can fall in love, whether it be in finance or whatever, and if I still have this urge inside of me that I want to go play, then I’ll go back.”

‘We support him 110 percent’

When he told his family in a group text message of his plans to quit his job and train full-time, he said they were supportive. Matthew had an idea what was coming because he’d overheard conversations his brother had with friends and noticed an uptick in the protein powder around the apartment.

Matthew had concerns. But he recognized his brother’s sincerity. And ultimately, he supported the decision.

“His love of football and passion for the game kind of outweighs a lot of things, but on the parental side and my side, it’s more like, you know, we understand the reason you retired and it’s probably in our best interest to say that the safer thing here is to continue the path, you have the degree from Stanford and all this opportunity in front of you,” Matthew said. “But at the same time, you walk a fine line between you want to support them 100 percent and also not mitigate their dream, right?

“So my parents and I, we do a pretty good job of that, being a sounding board and let him make his own decisions and whatever he decides upon, support him 110 percent.”

When the NFL didn’t sign Tarpley, he and Downey figured the AAF was the best way to show that Tarpley could still play. That he still wanted to play. In three games, he has 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, two passes defended and an interception that he returned for a touchdown before missing Weeks 4 and 5 with a back injury.

San Diego coach Mike Martz called Tarpley “the centerpiece of our defense” and said he doesn’t have an answer for why he’s not in the NFL.

The answer, of course, is he walked away. It’s also why Tarpley returned. Like almost everyone else in the AAF, he wants another shot at the NFL. His path is unique, but the goal isn’t.

“It’s a simpler decision than it seems,” Tarpley said. “There’s a lot of complexities, like I said I talked about how I evaluate my whole life, but at the end of the day it came down to do I think the risk, risk-reward of me wanting to play football right now, do I think the reward is better? For me, it is right now.

“There’s a lot of complexities that go into that, but there’s no secret formula, secret wisdom. It’s just I wanted to play, and if I want to play I’m going to try and play.”

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