NFL COVID opt-outs like the Browns' Malcolm Pridgeon grapple with a season that wasn't

For most of his life, Malcolm Pridgeon played football for his mother. After her death in March from COVID-19, he had to reckon with a difficult decision. Jackie Molloy for ESPN

THE CLEVELAND BROWNS were in the middle of their best season in decades, and Malcolm Pridgeon was sitting alone in his Dodge Durango outside the Berkshire Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in West Babylon, New York, thinking about better times.

When there was no pandemic, and the doors to the nursing home were open, Pridgeon would visit his mom during his breaks from football. He'd bring plain buttered bagels and chocolate milk for breakfast, and she always knew he was coming before he even walked into the room, possibly because 6-foot-6, 330-pound offensive linemen do not walk softly. Her face would light up when she saw him, and she would almost always say the same thing. "Look, my football player's home!"

Pridgeon didn't play football this season. According to the NFL Players Association, he was one of 69 NFL athletes to opt out because of COVID-19 concerns. He never thought he'd do something like this, voluntarily sit out a football season. He believed that this was going to be his year. Maybe all players on the NFL margins think this way, that they're one break away from making the 53-man roster. Throughout the spring and summer, Pridgeon was intent on playing. If he kept his mind occupied, he could block just about everything else out and forget how much he missed her.

Peggy Jean White died of COVID-19 on March 31 at the age of 60. She had a hard life. Her last conversation with her four children took place over the phone, except no one knew it would be the last time they would talk. Pridgeon and his siblings repeated, "We love you, Ma," but they weren't sure whether Peggy, who had tubes snaking out of her, had even heard what they'd said. She was laid to rest in front of a handful of mourners after a scramble to find a funeral home that would take her because the East Coast was being overrun by the coronavirus.

For most of his life, Pridgeon played football for his mother. He wanted to memorize the new playbook, and be the most improved lineman on the team, because he figured that's what his mom would've wanted him to do. He worked with two trainers on Long Island who said he was down to about 25% body fat by midsummer. He participated in the Browns' virtual offseason workouts and trained with a purpose. "I wanted to play so bad," Pridgeon said.

In early July, Pridgeon drove to Cleveland to get a jump on training camp. But something didn't feel right. His blood pressure soared, and his mind wandered to worst-case scenarios involving his family and his health.

Pridgeon wasn't the only one grappling with the risks of playing football during a pandemic. Three of the Browns' offensive linemen opted out by Aug. 5, and two of them were guards like Pridgeon. Those developments, along with the possibility of in-season outbreaks and quarantines, increased the chances of Pridgeon possibly suiting up for a game. But on Aug. 6, the last day to opt out, Pridgeon decided he couldn't do it. He informed Kevin Stefanski of his decision, and the first-year coach walked outside the facility to talk to him. Stefanski acknowledged that it had been a difficult year for him, and said he understood. He told Pridgeon to stay safe.

Pridgeon drove back to Central Islip, New York, where he lives with his older sister and his 10-year-old niece -- isolated from his team and watching games on a living room couch.

"Of course I wish I was out there," he said. "I can't look back on it. That causes stress that I don't need.

"I feel like if someone was in my shoes, they would've made the same decision I made."

ON JULY 24, with training camp looming and the United States' COVID-19 death toll surpassing 144,000, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to an opt-out amendment for the 2020 season. Players at high risk of COVID-19 complications such as those with diabetes, cancer or heart issues could sit out the year and receive $350,000 and accrue a season toward free agency, and players not deemed high risk could obtain a $150,000 stipend toward their 2021 salary (with no accrued season). All of their contracts would push forward to the 2021 season, when the pandemic would presumably be under control.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a starting guard on the Kansas City Chiefs' Super Bowl championship team, was the first one to opt out. Duvernay-Tardif spent months as an orderly in a long-term care facility in Canada during the early throes of the pandemic, and it gave him a different perspective of how COVID-19 stresses not only the infected but also the people and the health care system around them. "I cannot allow myself to potentially transmit the virus in our communities to simply play the sport I love," he said in an announcement. "If I am to take risks, I will do it caring for patients."

His teammate Damien Williams, who ran for 104 yards in the Super Bowl, opted out a few days later. Williams' mom is battling stage 4 cancer, and he didn't want to put her at risk. Thirty-six of the players who opted out started at least one game in 2019, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Others were like Pridgeon -- young, undrafted and unknown. No quarterbacks, punters or kickers opted out. More than half of the list consisted of linemen, players who don't substitute much and are constantly grabbing, touching and breathing on one another. Linemen are also larger beings who often weigh more than 300 pounds, which in some cases could be considered a co-morbidity.

But Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, a sports medicine specialist and co-chair of medical affairs at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Santa Monica, California, said it's impossible to assume anything about health-risk concerns or motivations. In an unprecedented year, with a pernicious virus that has claimed more than 425,000 American lives, everyone has to make choices, and there's a different story behind each one of those choices.

To address players' concerns, the NFLPA held a series of Zoom calls over the summer. Carl Francis, the NFLPA's director of communications, said roughly 2,000 people were on the calls, which usually stretched past two hours. Some of the most-asked questions revolved around what happens if a player carries the virus home to his family, and the long-term impact of COVID-19 on an athlete's body. Six months later, neither question can be fully answered. Yet the season prevailed through 16 regular-season games and the playoffs, all the way to next week's Super Bowl.

"I really didn't think they'd make it this far," said Indianapolis Colts safety Rolan Milligan, who opted out to protect his young, high-risk family. "I knew they'd probably make it halfway, maybe a little past halfway through the season. Everybody did a good job of handling their business for the most part and being able to let the season play all the way through."

The New England Patriots had eight players who opted out; the Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers had none. Francis said he did not hear any stories of teams that tried to discourage their players from sitting out or threats that the decision would be held against them. Patriots receiver Marqise Lee, who opted out because of concerns over his baby daughter, said coach Bill Belichick wasn't angry when he told him the news. He said Belichick called it a "grown man's decision."

None of the six opt-outs interviewed for this story said he regretted his decision. These men found purpose in their season without football. Lee has been there for daughter Alia's first word -- Papa -- first tooth and first steps. She turns 1 next month, born just before the onset of the pandemic in the United States. Buffalo Bills cornerback E.J. Gaines, who sat out because his fiancée survived cancer and his son has breathing problems, has been dabbling in the real estate business. He put a playground in the backyard and watches his children run around. New York Giants co-captain Nate Solder is working with Compassion International on an initiative called Fill The Stadium, which aims to provide food and medicine for 70,000 economically vulnerable children during the pandemic.

On a recent January morning, Solder was talking on the phone while his infant son let out a series of small screams, indicating that he was finished with his breakfast. Taking the season off seemed like a no-brainer for Solder, who has survived cancer and whose 5-year-old son, Hudson, has been battling cancer since he was a baby.

But when you're giving up something so fleeting, something you've worked so hard for, it's never easy to stop.

"In a lot of ways, I felt like I was letting my teammates down," Solder said. "I felt like I was letting the new coaching staff down. The fact is, as a 32-year-old NFL player, it just hurts my chances of having my career trajectory take off at this point. I just have to trust in God and see where he leads me.

"Trust me, it was an internal tension. But once it became clear, the priority of my family's lives, of our children and my in-laws and parents and all the connections in our community, man, I just value people more than I value my career in the NFL."

MALCOLM PRIDGEON WAS 8 years old when his father introduced him to football. James Pridgeon would meet his son at the bus stop after school, and they'd toss a football around in the backyard. Malcolm couldn't play youth football at first. He was told he was too big. James was a large man too, standing about 6-4, and he worked nights as a street sweeper. One day, when Malcolm was 11, James died of an aneurysm. He was 46 years old.

Malcolm's mom was inconsolable. They were high school sweethearts, and she always said a piece of her went with him that day. Two years later, Peggy suffered a heart attack and a stroke that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Malcolm's sister Kalisha Garrison, who is 15 years older than he is, assumed the role of family matriarch. She tried to work while caring for her brothers and her mother, but Peggy required around-the-clock care and her insurance paid for only six hours a day. It eventually became too much, and she had to move to the nursing home. She wasn't happy about it at first, but when her children promised to visit often, and bring food, she became comfortable.

When Malcolm was recruited by Ohio State in 2016 after two seasons at Nassau Community College, he was conflicted. He didn't want to leave, but he wanted to play for one of the best college football programs in the country and knew he had to go. So he left for Columbus, while his mother waited for him. Pridgeon started every game in 2018, his senior year, and graduated with a degree in human development and family science. When he signed a rookie free-agent contract with the Texans the next spring, Kalisha told Peggy that her baby was going to the pros. "It's not just my baby," Peggy told Kalisha. "It's our baby."

The Texans waived him in August 2019, and Pridgeon came back home, took two days off to decompress, and started working out at Xceleration Sports Training with John Furia and Steve Wilk, trainers who had become his friends over the years. Pridgeon's agent, Eugene Lee, called a few weeks later and said that the Browns were interested in bringing him in for a workout. In September 2019, he was signed to the Cleveland practice squad. He was happy to be back in Ohio. His then-girlfriend, Emma Hnat, lived there, and Pridgeon was just an eight-hour drive from his mom. And after years of futility, the Browns were on the verge of finally contending.

"It was good times," he said. "They treated me with respect. I just miss that, playing football and learning from the older dudes."

PRIDGEON WAS CONSIDERED at higher risk because he suffers from hypertension, a condition that was so worrisome that it temporarily halted his football career in junior high. He had to sit out a season because he couldn't get his blood pressure under control.

He did a lot of research on COVID-19 health risks this past summer and talked to just about everyone close to him -- his girlfriend, his siblings, his trainers and his agent -- about what he should do. "He was really conflicted," Lee said, so he connected Pridgeon with Dr. Herb Martin, a psychologist who works with Lee's agency, Vanguard Sports.

Pridgeon eventually told his sister he had a gut feeling that opting out was what he was supposed to do. She asked him how he felt. "I feel hurt," he told her. "I don't know if I'll ever get picked to play on the team after I opt out."

The decision weighed heavy for players in all stages of NFL life. Colts' safety Rolan Milligan had been playing football since he was 4 years old. It had taken him three years and three teams before he was finally promoted to Indianapolis active roster in 2019 . And now he was going to opt out?

His girlfriend is due on Jan. 30, and her pregnancy is high-risk because she only has one kidney. She told him to play. "She knew how much playing meant to me," he said. "She didn't want to be the reason why I didn't play."

He couldn't take the risk.

Chandler Brewer wanted to play so badly that he took an exit-row seat on a flight to California this past summer, slathered on the Germ-X and was intent on getting to training camp even though he was considered at higher risk. Brewer's toughness is well-documented. His senior year at Middle Tennessee State, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, underwent radiation in between games and still played the entire season.

But his agent, Buddy Baker, consulted with a number of doctors, and they decided the risk was too great for him to play. To keep himself connected, Brewer, an offensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, held onto his team-issued tablet. He watched archived team meetings and game film for games he would never play.

"I don't want to do nothing," he said. "I'm coming back, and this is going to make me better, having rest and recovery. I'm going to be ready to go and not miss an inch."

IF THERE WAS anything positive to be taken from 2020, it's that Pridgeon got engaged. It happened in late December. He took his then-girlfriend to look at Christmas lights, and then he was down on one knee, and then Hnat said yes.

Then it was back to the reality of waiting. The second weekend of January, he was sitting in his sister's living room in Central Islip on a Sunday night, watching football with his brothers. Pridgeon was wearing his Browns sweatshirt, a reminder of his life before the pandemic. Cleveland was on the verge of winning a playoff game for the first time in 26 years. A guard named Blake Hance subbed into the game, filling in for injured Michael Dunn, who was filling in for Joel Bitonio, who was on the COVID-19 list. Hance had never played in the NFL before and was acquired in Week 17 from the New York Jets' practice squad.

Pridgeon couldn't help but wonder, on another cold night in isolation, what could've been. He couldn't dwell on it anymore. He smiled and cheered and waited for better times.