Why an NFL lineman walked away at age 27 to pursue medical school

Emmett Cleary could have kept playing. He felt healthy enough. He had a shot to be on the Detroit Lions' roster this season, and he loved playing football.

Yet last month, at age 27, Cleary walked away. Injuries or a lack of interest from teams didn’t retire Cleary; trading one childhood dream for another did.

Cleary had applied to the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in 2014 and was accepted in spring 2015 after his second NFL season. He deferred enrollment three times for football.

This offseason, he deliberated his future. Becoming a physician is not a quick post-football path. It takes years of study and residency, something Cleary needed to begin. At some point, he figured, the NFL would be finished with him.

“It’s good to have some agency,” Cleary said. “It’s a tough league, and most guys don’t get to [walk away on their own] for whatever reason. But let’s not ... I’m not Jason Witten here. I’ve been a fringe player for years and years and years. I’ve been cut plenty of times. Yeah, the league was going to be done with me at some point, so I’m not too hung up on the way it ended.

“I hope Joe Thomas got a little more press than me this offseason. That’s truly walking away on your own terms. I’m on the minimum.”

Had Cleary made the Lions this season, he would have been paid $705,000. In his career, a combination of Indianapolis, Cincinnati, the New York Giants, Dallas and Detroit paid him $1,370,788, according to Spotrac.

He could have kept going. It would have paid well. But medicine has always been on his mind, and the length of time he would need to become a doctor wouldn’t become shorter just because he played football longer.

Add his knowledge of what football can do to a player, and retirement made sense. He insisted that his decision was not the same as Chris Borland's in 2015 (Borland retired because of concerns about the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma). Cleary’s decision was an all-encompassing life move.

“A combination of a couple things,” Cleary said. “One, long-term health, with some of the data that keeps coming out, it’s, you know, becoming apparent that in some way, shape or form, playing football is not great for you. If I’m not going to be a 10-year guy, it was going to happen sooner or later.

“And then, beyond that, I just wanted to do something else. You know, it’s a hard road, and I loved it, but it’s a hard road. It’s just time.”

After Detroit’s season ended in January, Cleary reached out to team doctors he once shadowed and Chris Nowinski, the co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Last year, Cleary agreed to donate his brain postmortem to Nowinski’s foundation for CTE research.

Nowinski reached out to a colleague, Dr. Cynthia LaBella, the medical director of the Institute for Sports Medicine at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, and told her he had a player possibly retiring and looking to get into medical research before he rejoins academia in August.

That’s how Cleary ended up this offseason working at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern three days a week and at one of LaBella’s pediatric sports medicine clinics in Northbrook, Illinois, once or twice a week as a research assistant and data analyst studying physical therapy and brain function.

“Started working those muscles again,” Cleary said. “It’s been a while. I tried to keep up with it while I was playing ball, but the football stuff is so encompassing that I’ve been away from it. So it’s been exciting to kind of learn and shift gears.”

Soon after Nowinski and LaBella spoke, LaBella met Cleary and welcomed him to her group. She also suggested that another colleague, Dr. Nina Kraus at Northwestern, bring him on.

Cleary was intriguing to Kraus’ team because of his interest in medicine and his past. He has experiences that the rest of her colleagues don’t have. Her team studies auditory learning in people ranging from infants to nonagenarians, including athletes, and looks at how brain injuries affect responses and sound processing.

Kraus said one of the first things to be affected by a brain injury can be hearing.

“They hear complex sounds like speech and music, and we measure the response to sound from a single brain response,” Kraus said. “We’re able to learn a lot about how the brain is functioning because processing sound is one of the hardest jobs we ask our brain to do.”

Cleary made suggestions for different data points, including analyzing based on the number of snaps for which a player was on the field. Kraus said her team had never thought about examining the data based on plays before.

While the lab works with athletes and non-athletes, it has been testing Northwestern’s football players for two years. Kraus recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to work with all Wildcats athletes over five years examining concussive and sub-concussive injuries.

“Getting something that’s accessible to me as coming from sports and as interesting as studying the brain for different markers of brain health for athletes is really fascinating for me,” Cleary said. “And super helpful getting me reacclimated to that arena of life.”

In weekly meetings, he’ll speak up “exactly just the perfect amount,” Kraus said, particularly when he has something to add. Usually, Cleary is asking questions to understand the decisions that come naturally to LaBella and Kraus. For him, it’s all new, so he tries “not to be too bashful” in asking for clarification.

Lab students asked him to speak to the undergraduate Northwestern Neuroscience Club on March 5 about his NFL experiences and brain health relating to football. The speaking engagement brought possibly more anxiety than he faced playing in front of a stadium full of fans. He also narrated a three-minute, 19-second video on the “biological approach to auditory processing,” explaining how responses to sound work in the human brain.

“It suits somebody who is still trying to get used to what is going on in the lab,” Cleary said. “It’s a good learning experience for me to kind of see if I could explain to a layman what we do that forces you to understand it more thoroughly.”

When Cleary isn’t at Northwestern, he has been working with LaBella at Lurie, where he has been shadowing her team and starting to work on a study looking at 500 children ages 6 to 18 who experienced sports-related or non-sports-related concussions. In that study, like the Northwestern one, Cleary will be analyzing collected data.

The data he has been analyzing, which is still being collected, could lead him to be a published medical journal author -- somewhat of a rarity among med students. Kraus said the opportunity would be there if he wants, and he could work remotely with the lab’s data once he enrolls at USC.

At Boston College, Cleary majored in biology. As an NFL player, he kept an eye on what was going on in his other, future world, especially after acceptance to USC. This was always the post-football plan.

“Having a career that allows you to immerse yourself in the sciences and have the autonomy to make important choices with patients and really going to work and helping people every day was really attractive to me,” Cleary said. “I wouldn’t be doing it -- there’s easier ways to make money -- if I didn’t really care about it. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a really long time.”

In addition to working with LaBella at Lurie -- she has been impressed by how he handles difficult conversations and the questions he asks -- he has been shadowing an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Craig Finlayson, on some Tuesday afternoons to pick up clinical experience as he begins to explore what type of doctor he’d like to be.

“I’m going to approach it with an open mind. I don’t know enough,” Cleary said. “I’m going to go in and try and learn as much as I can, and maybe something different will grab my attention. Yeah, the neuroscience stuff is interesting to me, and then obviously coming from a sports background, orthopedics is very attractive.”

LaBella saw the potential for a smooth transition when Cleary asked specific questions about how to break bad news to a child based off what was found on an MRI. LaBella said Cleary asked questions as if he put himself in the position of the child. She was impressed.

Despite all of this, walking away from the NFL was hard. Cleary, who turned 28 two weeks after retiring, kept himself in good enough shape the past two months that continuing to play would be an option. When he told Lions general manager Bob Quinn that he was retiring, Cleary said Quinn was surprised but understood. Cleary said, “There definitely is a part of me that will miss it and probably always will,” as his now-former teammates report to Allen Park, Michigan, for work.

While they were in Michigan, Cleary was working at the labs in Chicago. He took a break to travel to Iceland and England before returning to the States to continue the research.

He always thought he would be more comfortable walking away earlier, instead of a couple years too late, with his body broken down.

He figures he’ll miss football again in August, except he’ll be busy then. Instead of meeting new teammates and getting ready for the NFL season, he’ll be having his first meetings with his medical school team at USC.