Why are these NFLers retiring early?

From left, San Francisco's Patrick Willis, Pittsburgh's Jason Worilds, Tennessee's Jake Locker,   Oakland's Maurice Jones-Drew, and 49er's linebacker Chris Borland surprised football fans recently with their early retirements.

Story highlights

  • Roxanne Jones: Several NFL players just beginning their careers, including Chris Borland, are walking away
  • Some say they're leaving for new opportunities, Jones says
  • But maybe the news about football's serious injuries is getting through, she says

Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer and as a reporter at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She was named a 2010 Woman of the Year by Women in Sports and Events. Jones is a co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete" and CEO of the Push Marketing Group. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Four years ago I was laughed out of the room when I said to a group of friends: "Pretty soon guys are going to decide their lives are more important than playing in the NFL. And they are going to stop playing." My friends accused me of going soft, being an elitist, being overly PC.

Roxanne Jones
Today, I'm certain they are not saying those things about the talented 49er linebacker Chris Borland, the latest NFLer to quit. He's 24 years old and the first player to retire directly because he wanted to avoid the traumatic brain injuries that have been linked to playing football. Borland played just one NFL season.
"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," he told ESPN's "Outside the Lines." "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."
    He added: "I just thought to myself, 'What am I doing? Is this how I'm going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I've learned and knew about the dangers?' "
    His teammate, Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis, made the decision to walk away last week, and you can't help but think his decision might have influenced Borland. Willis says he isn't really sure what he'll do next, but he knows he won't play another game in the National Football League. Although fans around the globe are begging the 30-year-old, seven-time Pro Bowler to "unretire," Willis said his nagging foot and ankle injuries, and a desire for a happy life are why he walked away.
    "I have no regrets," said a tearful Willis in his press conference last week. "I gave this game everything I had and I am truly blessed. ... Honestly, I pay attention to guys when they're finished playing, walking around like they've got no hips and they can't play with their kids. They can barely walk.
    "People see that and they feel sorry," Willis said. "But they don't realize it's because he played a few extra years."
    Willis, who has a degree in criminology from Ole Miss, is a wise man. And while many sports fans are in shock that any guy lucky enough to play in the NFL would just walk away from fame and wealth, it sounds to me like Willis has his priorities right. It's refreshing.
    And Willis is not alone. At a time of year when most football fans are consumed by trade rumors and free agency moves, several other high-profile players have decided to hang up their cleats. And what's surprising is how young they are:
    At 27, Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds was soon to step into the crazy world of free agency, where he was sure to be in demand by many teams. It looked like he was just about to get his huge payday. But instead, he's leaving the game.
    Unlike Willis, Worilds hadn't been plagued by injuries, at least not yet. And he'd only missed one game in the past three seasons. So why did he leave? He wants to do other things, he said.