Rashard Mendenhall follows his own path

That Rashard Mendenhall is walking away from football when he is only slightly north of the age usually required to rent a car is anything but surprising.

To say Mendenhall was different, even when he was at the pinnacle of a short-lived career, one that saw him rush for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns in helping the Pittsburgh Steelers make the Super Bowl in 2010, is an understatement.

Mendenhall had a wide array of interests outside of football, from reading and writing and delving into the kind of deep philosophical subjects and debates that made him seem better suited for a college lecture hall or a coffee shop than an NFL locker room.

His decision to retire at age 26 offers confirmation that Mendenhall didn’t love football -- or love it enough once it became his full-time job after the Steelers took the former Illinois star with the 23rd overall pick in the 2008 draft.

What has surprised me is some of the backlash I have seen since news broke about Mendenhall’s decision to pursue a career as an author after just six NFL seasons.

I expected the tweets that took a dig at Mendenhall’s infamous and widely unpopular tweets in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, which even drew a public reproach from Steelers president Art Rooney II.

Of course there were the shots at Mendenhall’s fumbling issues as some Steelers’ fans never got over the one he lost against the Green Bay Packers at a critical juncture of Super Bowl XLV, as well as the spin moves that he relied too much on at times.

The kind of reaction I take issue with when it comes to Mendenhall is the misguided notion that he is somehow throwing something away by opting to leave the game while he is still in his prime.

First of all, the average NFL career is between three and four seasons, so Mendenhall exceeded that, and he took a fair pounding along the way. Mendenhall overcame a broken shoulder blade and a torn ACL among other injuries in the five seasons he spent with the Steelers. Turf toe hampered Mendenhall the one season he played for the Cardinals.

He knows his body better than anyone, and maybe Mendenhall is walking away from football while he is still physically able to do so.

He doesn't owe it to anybody to continue playing football, and if writing fulfills Mendenhall more than football does, more power to him for the decision that he has made.

Maybe Mendenhall got out of the game what he wanted all along -- a free education and the financial security that now allows him to pursue what has long been his true passion.

If that is the case, he should be cheered rather than jeered.

It is, after all, his life.