Tight end Jordan Cameron could keep playing in the NFL if he wanted. But after four concussions and countless hours thinking about the future for himself and his son, Cameron realized it was time to retire.
"I started thinking about concussions too much," Cameron, 28, told ESPN on Friday from his home in California. "You can't play football like that."
Cameron spent six seasons in the NFL: four with the Cleveland Browns and two with the Miami Dolphins. His final concussion came in a Dolphins win over the Browns in September; his last play was when he tried to make a tackle after an interception.
"If I didn't get concussions, I'd probably keep playing," Cameron said. "It's one of those things. I can't risk my mental health in the future. I don't have any symptoms now. I'm perfectly fine. But they can't tell me with 100 percent certainty that if I keep playing and I get more concussions, that I'm going to be OK.
"I'm not risking that at all. There's nothing more important than your health. It's just not worth it to me."
A driving force behind his thinking is his son, Tristan, who will turn 8 on Saturday. Cameron has been devoted to him; when he played, he would count down the days until his mother or sister would bring Tristan to the city where he was playing.
"I want to be there for him," Cameron said. "And I want more kids, and I want to be present with them. I don't want them dealing with things that we've seen some other guys are dealing with."
He said a neurologist has cleared him and he could continue to play. But he also knows the risks.
"Do I want to risk even the slightest chance of having a mental disorder or depression, all these things, for a game that has already given me what I wanted to get out of it? The answer is no," he said.
Cameron joined the NFL when he was drafted out of USC in the fourth round by the Browns in 2011. He had his first concussion in December 2012 and his second against the Bears in December 2013 -- the same year he went to the Pro Bowl and had 80 catches and seven touchdown receptions.
In a loss to Pittsburgh in 2014, he had his third concussion after being hit violently as he dove for a pass. That injury caused him to miss five games. He signed with Miami after that season and, in a September loss to the Browns, had his fourth concussion.
"It wasn't the worst one I've had," Cameron said. "It was just in my head. I keep getting these things. I'm constantly in concussion protocol. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of being asked questions about my brain. I'm tired of worrying about, Is it going to affect me in the future?
"It's a hard thing because people see you and say, 'Oh, he's fine. He's talking. He's normal. He's good.' But you don't wear a Band-Aid on your head when you have a concussion. There's things going on that people can't see.
"That's the hardest part of having a concussion, especially when we're raised and bred to be tough guys and get out there and play and we all have that attitude of, 'I can play. I can play.' I'm physically able to play, but mentally it's one of those things. You're more timid. You're reluctant to go after a ball. You can't play football like that."
His hope as he leaves: that the NFL continues to do all it can to educate players about the risks of brain injury.
"It's such an issue in the NFL, and it should be," Cameron said. "I think the biggest issue is guys were not informed how serious these things can be if unattended. And how serious it is to drink alcohol and take narcotics on these things. You can't live an unhealthy lifestyle if you have a history of concussions. It's proven that alcohol and pills and the things that guys get on because of pain and whatnot, these things mess you up, and it's detrimental to long-term health. You tag along concussions, it's a whole mess."
"It's a hard thing because people see you and say, 'Oh, he's fine. He's talking. He's normal. He's good.' But you don't wear a Band-Aid on your head when you have a concussion."Jordan Cameron
Did the NFL properly educate him when he started?
"They didn't know," Cameron said. "I want to say I hope they didn't know the serious implications of these things. I feel like it was just starting, just on the brink of this coming to light and all the seriousness of these things. Now I feel like seven years later people know how serious this can be. Unfortunately it takes people dying to figure that out. That's the saddest thing in the world to me."
Cameron credited his family for the support he received while playing and dealing with brain injuries, calling that support vital. He also said he regularly visited and talked with Dr. Michael "Micky" Collins at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program. He feels good, he has no symptoms and he said he's in the best shape of his life.
"The main things they would say is they're treatable," Cameron said. "That what people don't realize."
Cameron has no immediate plans for his future. He did well enough in the NFL that he can take time off and ponder the best path. He feeds his competitiveness by playing a lot of basketball near his home in Newbury Park, California. He might start coaching high school players or perhaps go back to school to become a teacher. He also knows that Tristan has approached him about playing football.
"Let's be real here," he said. "Football is the greatest sport. I really believe that. It's the most difficult. You learn the most about yourself in football. It's a hard sport. You have to be very comfortable with being uncomfortable.
"All that being said, I really do not want him playing. If he's playing the right way and he's playing in pee wee and high school, that's fine. But I know what goes on and the hits you take. Everything past the high school level gets more serious, and it's not as much, I would say, fun anymore after high school."