Britain Covey returned to Utah’s football practice field last August, eager to enjoy “the greatest time in your life” after two years away from college. Yet he understands why teammates would walk away from the game.
Ute coach Kyle Whittingham is proud of the staff’s record of sending players to the NFL. But he’s aware of the commitment that’s required to stay and play at that level.
Retirement stories have become common around Utah’s program, and they’re not unique to the Utes. The latest, and most surprising, move came just before preseason camp started last week when starting linebacker Manny Bowen told coaches he was leaving for “business opportunities” rather than play one season for the Utes as a graduate student. After spring practice, projected starting kicker Chayden Johnston gave up football with three years of eligibility remaining.
In the NFL, former Ute offensive linemen Isaac Asiata and J.J. Dielman retired last week, having started training camp in their third pro seasons. In the spring of 2018, ex-Ute defensive linemen Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei walked away from NFL opportunities soon after signing as undrafted free agents.
Those moves are not easy for outsiders to understand, considering how few athletes get such chances. Society would say college players are supposed to maximize their scholarships; NFL players should pursue the game until they’re denied every last shot.
The takeaway: Football is not for everybody, and certainly not forever — even those who excelled in the game at every level, as their careers evolved.
“It is so demanding and consuming that if you're not passionate about it and all in … you can't survive,” Whittingham said.
Bowen’s case is different from the others, due to the timing and the perception that he let down his teammates by leaving a big vacancy in Utah’s defense. Whittingham was taken aback, because the football season is viewed as a reward for going through the drudgery of the summer conditioning program, as Bowen did. How much good would he have done the Utes, though, if he wasn’t committed to playing?
As for the NFL retirees, the reality is that fighting for roster spots or practice-squad positions every year and hoping to hang around the league is a difficult existence. Being drafted or signed by a team creates an opportunity, but that’s all.
Asiata, from Spanish Fork High School, was waived by the Miami Dolphins in June, receiving an injury settlement after spending two years with the team with varying status. He considered retiring then, but he signed with the Buffalo Bills to give himself another gauge of whether he really wanted or needed to play football at age 26. He left training camp last week, for good.
In a lengthy, thoughtful social media post, Asiata wrote in part, “I have lived the last two years of my NFL career waging war with myself mentally. With constant anxiety, persistent worry and fear of the unknown and what comes next if I were to be done. … The fear of failure consumed me to the point of questioning myself and my ability to play this game. I no longer played this game because I loved it. … I also placed the unnecessary burden on my shoulders of never wanting to let people down or to disappoint those around me. Afraid of being 'a draft bust' or just another guy who couldn't cut it in the league.”
That’s the part Covey understands, after being part of Utah’s 2015 team that included Asiata as an emotional leader. Utah’s junior receiver has gone through rehabilitation of a knee injury this summer, amid the anticipation of those who want to watch him play. This process followed a demanding 2018 summer of training after returning from a mission to Chile for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“It's such a brutal game, especially in the NFL,” Covey said, pointing to his repaired knee. “I just really appreciate Isaac and I feel for him, because coming back from this injury, you always want to do things for other people. Half the time, I wanted to get back for my family or the fans … but there came a point where I realized I've just go to do what's best for me.”
Covey continued, “After a while, [with] the stress of everything, you get to a point where you realize what's most important. So I totally understand Manny, Isaac, all those guys.”
Covey and his Ute teammates will keep going, persevering through practices in the August heat, with the rewards of the college football experience to come. It’s not all fun, and being a football player is not their only identity. Yet they’ve decided it is worthwhile, for now.