What if Earl Thomas or Rob Gronkowski just decided to up and retire?

How many retired star football players is one too many? How many more injuries will it take before something changes?

You probably remember the collision above from Sunday Night Football a few weeks back on November 13th in a great game between the Seahawks and Patriots. New England tight end Rob Gronkowski went over the middle one too many times and got absolutely lit up on a perfectly legal hit by Seattle safety Earl Thomas.

Gronk was sidelined for a bit with the wind knocked out of him — quite literally, as it was revealed after the game he’d punctured a lung (ouch!!) — but he came back in and finished the game anyway. In the final moments, Tom Brady threw a fade toward Gronk on 4th and goal but could not complete it and the Seahawks held on to win.

After the game, Gronkowski only respect for Earl Thomas and the big hit he had delivered. The two exchanged tweets that week appreciating each other:

It was a classy moment between two of the NFL’s best players, a revolutionary safety and maybe the best tight end in history. Game recognize game.

Not even one month later, both players are sidelined for the year due to injuries unrelated to that play, Gronkowski with chronic back issues and Thomas with a broken leg.

It’s cruel, but that’s the NFL — life comes at you fast. And it has left us without two of the most entertaining and special players in the league for the rest of this season.

Injuries are difficult and will always be part of any sport, a risk you take whenever you step on the field. But it’s hard to deny that the risk increases exponentially on a football field, particularly in the NFL, where 250-pound superhuman freak athletes are colliding at warp speed 100+ plays a game 20+ games a year.

Injuries are common — every week you sit down to watch a game there’s at least a moment or two when the sad music plays and the TV cuts quickly to commercial while another player gets carted off, just the newest victim to an increasingly violent and dangerous game.

We’ve always known that football was a tough guy sport and that it left retired players banged up and bruised for the rest of their lives, but we are learning more and more each year now about the effects of CTE and concussions. But as serious as those problems are, the rest of the injuries pile up too. Gronkowski had back issues already in college — that’s why he slipped in the draft and was available for the Patriots at the 42nd pick — and broken-leg injuries like Thomas’s can be debilitating or recurring. These guys are young, both just 27 years old, but they’re experiencing injuries that are going to stay with them for the rest of their lives.

That used to just be part of the equation. You played football, you got banged up for 15 years, and you retired to a life of chronic pain mitigated vaguely by trophies and glory. The drinks were free, but the painkillers were not.

In today’s NFL, the equation isn’t so simple. More and more often, some players are just saying that enough is enough. The pain, and the future pain, isn’t worth it anymore. They’re choosing to retire from professional football in their 20s — their prime — to pursue other areas of life. To form a family and to find work that doesn’t cause them to wake up in pain in the middle of night.

On Sunday night after Earl Thomas’s injury — a freak play when he ran into fellow safety and teammate Kam Chancellor — the Twitterverse erupted when Thomas took to social media with his thoughts:

Whoa!! It seems pretty natural to think that a lot might run through someone’s mind after a devastating season-ending injury — but retirement? For one of the NFL’s premier defensive players still entering his prime on the best defense in football? A shocker.

It would be easy to write off a statement like that as a heat of the moment type thing, but Thomas hasn’t exactly backed down from it. He hasn’t deleted the tweet, hasn’t sent out a follow up tweet assuring fans and teammates that he’s committed to the game he loves or some other cliche. Just the one tweet to his teammate Chancellor sent minutes later:

A few years ago, we would have forgotten this injury and moved on. Many fans probably already have. Ah man, bummer for the Seahawks, thinkpiece on how the defense will perform without their star safety (spoiler: not nearly as well), everything’s coming up Cowboys (at least today), and on we go. Another day in the life of the NFL’s version of As the World Turns.

In 2016, we know it might be different.

It might not … but it might be. And that has changed everything.

Last year, wide receiver Calvin Johnson shocked (fantasy) football fans everywhere by choosing to retire early, still at the tail end of his prime and in dominating form. Before that it was star linebackers Patrick Willis and Jerod Mayo and mammoth defensive tackle B.J. Raji. One of the most shocking early retirements was San Francisco linebacker Chris Borland, who left the NFL at age 24 after just one (really good) season. These players played the game and may have loved the game but decided enough was enough. The injury risk was no longer worth it. Another life awaited.

Earl Thomas has a prominent teammate of his own who retired early, running back Marshawn Lynch, who was at the game Sunday night — maybe not coincidental to Thomas’s tweetconcerning retirement. Thomas has seen what it looks like for a star teammate to walk away. He’s seen how difficult it has been on the team, with the Seahawks rotating through a cadre of running backs that haven’t stuck well yet. But he’s also seen Lynch move forward with his life. Rob Gronkowski saw fellow Boston star David Ortiz go through a final retirement tour this year while still right in MVP contention and top form. Thomas has also seen teammates Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin retire early (Harvin recently un-retired only to be placed on injured reserve mere weeks later), and he’s often spoken about his mother’s retirement with clear appreciation as well.

Retirement is a real thing for these guys — not from work but from football as work, from the daily grind and the constant injuries.

There’s been a lot of talk this year about how the NFL is going downhill and just isn’t the same product anymore. Maybe it’s the long schedule or there’s too many teams, maybe it’s the poor reffing and the terrible rules maybe there’s just not enough good quarterbacks or kickers anymore.

But maybe it’s because, for the first time ever, handfuls of marquee players are retiring with plenty left to give to the game. Maybe the NFL product doesn’t seem as good as it used to be because, well, it isn’t.

Gronkowski has not hinted at retirement to my knowledge, and we only really have the Thomas tweet to show that it might be on his mind, so maybe these are just two awesome football players with unfortunate injuries who will rehab hard and be back to dominate again in 2017. But in 2016, with the way football is going, what if it wasn’t?

It’s easy to shrug off the latest injury when it’s the right tackle or the special teams player or the third-string linebacker. But what if it’s another star NFL player? What if it’s your star NFL player?

If it’s not Gronk or Thomas choosing to walk away from the game this offseason, it could be Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, another of the game’s best defenders, or teammate Cam Newton, the defending MVP. Both are among the best at their position and still in their prime, but both have struggled with frequent concussions and have to know the dangerous futures they are facing.

What if Kuechly and Newton retired this summer?

What if Gronk and Thomas did too?

How long will we as NFL fans just turn the channel to the next game, look up the depth chart to see who’s filling in, and await the next 22-year-old to get drafted to put their future at risk for a few years of our enjoyment?

I used to be able to just sit down and watch a good hard-hitting game of football on Sundays, but these are the things I think about now.

What star has to retire for all of us to suddenly decide enough is enough? How many marquee guys have to go before the domino effect starts sending others to early retirement too? Where’s Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point on this national scale of sport? How many parents will stop letting their children play a game that has life-altering affects in the first quarter of their lives, and what will that mean for the future of the game?

I don’t have all the answers, or any of them.

But I do have more and more questions….

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