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San Francisco Chronicle Quotes Dr. Vernon Williams: Why a Bay Area football star gave up his NFL dream for blue-collar job


By 4:30 p.m. most days, after 10 hours of demolishing concrete, sanding railings and installing light switches, Cade Hall’s muscles ache.

It’s a pain he can live with. After spending well over a decade battering his body as he blitzed quarterbacks, Hall has found peace working construction.

His hourly wage is a fraction of what he could be making as a professional football player. A standout defensive end at San Jose State, Hall was widely expected to go in the later rounds of April’s NFL draft or sign as a high-priority undrafted free agent.

Then he retired from football before the predraft process.

“I really like finishing a workday in construction and being physically tired,” said Hall, the 2020 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. “It’s a rewarding feeling, like you really accomplished something. It kind of mirrors football a little bit in that way.”

Several factors kept Hall, 23, from chasing his NFL dream: concerns over the sport’s long-term health risks, a spiritual awakening that shifted his priorities, a desire to begin the next stage of his life. At a time when rookies are fashioning the start of their NFL careers, Hall is remodeling houses in Orange County, where he lives with his wife, Abby.

Because he wasn’t a top prospect from a Power Five conference school, his decision to step away from football received little media attention. But in spurning NFL opportunities in favor of installing drywall, Hall joined a growing list of players who’ve prioritized their health over money and fame.

Pro Bowlers such as Luke Kuechly, Calvin Johnson, Andrew Luck, Patrick Willis and D’Brickashaw Ferguson retired in recent years while still in their prime. In 2015, after a highly productive rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers, linebacker Chris Borland quit football because he no longer thought it warranted the health risks.

Before returning 75% of his $617,436 signing bonus and forgoing the eight-figure contracts that seemed inevitable, Borland had studied research on how football-related head trauma can cause the brain to degenerate. Many wondered at the time whether Borland’s decision could prompt other big-name prospects to either retire during their rookie contracts or not enter the NFL at all.

Such a trend would have forced league officials to take long-term brain injuries more seriously. But in the eight and a half years since Borland’s stunning exit, no prospects close to his caliber have made similar announcements. Research suggests that most men tend not to worry about long-term consequences in their early 20s, preferring to concentrate on the present until they approach age 30.

For many young football players who’ve spent much of their life striving for the NFL, it can be hard to consider anything else. Their sport is integral to their identity. A premature end would feel devastating.

“Cade’s probably the first and only player I’ve ever had who had a real shot at making the NFL, then decided to walk away,” SJSU head coach Brent Brennan said. “Quite frankly, you usually see the opposite: Guys doing everything they can to reach that dream, even when all the signs are telling them that their football careers are over.”

Added Hall: “I think a lot of guys go for the NFL because no one ever told them they had other options. It’s like, ‘Why wouldn’t you do that if you can? It’s the NFL.’ ”

It’s difficult to know how many later-round NFL prospects have opted not to declare for the draft. But even though anecdotal evidence indicates that decisions like Hall’s are rare, some experts expect more players to bypass pro football opportunities in coming years.

The sport’s growing link to brain damage could be its biggest deterrent. In 2017, two years after Borland’s retirement brought more national attention to the issue, a Boston University study found chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 110 of 111 former NFL players whose brains were donated for analysis.

CTE leads to the loss of nerve cells in the brain. Mood problems such as impulsivity and anxiety have been linked to the disease’s early stages; 27% of ex-NFL players in the Boston University study with early-stage CTE died by suicide. Nearly 50% of the study’s players with more severe CTE died from a neurodegenerative-related issue like dementia or Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Vernon Williams, a sports neurologist at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute who has worked with the Los Angeles Rams and the NFL Players Association, believes pro football is beginning to lose some allure. Though many players still view the NFL as what Williams called the “holy grail” of sports, he has noticed fewer athletes tying their identity to their success at the highest levels of competition.

“We’re seeing more people who identify less as athletes only,” Williams said. “They identify as someone who may have a future in business, entertainment, law or something else. And in a lot of ways, I think that’s a good thing. If you identify solely as an athlete, the end of your career — whether that’s in high school, college or later — is going to be very tough on you from an emotional standpoint.”

That might help explain why national youth and high school football participation numbers steadily declined for years before a slight uptick last season. Outside of football-mad areas like the South, interest in playing the sport is not nearly what it was a decade ago.

Hall hopes his decision helps fellow pro prospects realize that they don’t have to keep playing just because they’re good at it. When he decided last winter not to play beyond college, he fretted about what his coaches would think.

Four years earlier, after a decorated career at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, Hall didn’t have a single college scholarship offer. Just as he was about to sign with a local community college, he received an offer from Brennan, who pitched him on becoming a key part of SJSU’s rebuild.

Undersized at Bellarmine, Hall added 20 pounds of muscle between his final high school game and his first college practice. That extra heft helped him start eight games — the most among SJSU freshmen — during a 1-11 season.

Playing through nagging injuries, Hall helped the Spartans orchestrate one of the most shocking turnarounds in college football. His three tackles for loss, including two sacks, in SJSU’s win over Boise State in the 2020 Mountain West championship game cemented his place in program lore.

By the time the Spartans reached their second bowl game in three years last December, Hall was receiving interest from NFL scouts. One mock draft graded him a fifth-round talent. Though the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Hall lacked prototypical NFL size and athleticism, his relentless effort seemed to give him a shot at making a team.

“He’s the type of guy who will succeed at anything he puts his mind to,” SJSU safety Tre Jenkins said of Hall, who finished his Spartans career tied for first in program history in games played (55), third in tackles for loss (42) and fourth in sacks (25½). “Even if he didn’t get drafted, I have no doubt he would’ve impressed a team in training camp and made the roster.”

There was just one problem: Days before SJSU traveled to Boise for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Hall sat in Brennan’s office and told him he was about to play his final game. It was a conversation Hall had dreaded for weeks. Coaches take pride in sending players to the NFL, and he worried that his decision would disappoint Brennan.

But as he detailed why he was about to give up the only dream he’d had since age 9, Hall noticed Brennan smiling, and his nerves subsided.

“You’ve always been a deep thinker,” Brennan told him. “I’m proud of you for making such a mature decision.”

A couple of weeks earlier, in the regular-season finale against Hawaii at CEFCU Stadium, Hawaii Rainbow Warriors quarterback Brayden Schager had dropped back on fourth-and-goal at SJSU’s 8-yard line. Down 13 with less than two and a half minutes left, Schager needed a touchdown to keep Hawaii’s hopes alive.

Hall and the Spartans’ other all-conference defensive end, Viliami “Junior” Fehoko, burst into the backfield and sacked Schager. As Hall stood up and saw his father, Rhett Hall, in the stands, he broke down in tears.

A conversation weeks before with Rhett, a former NFL player who won Super Bowl XXIX with the 49ers, solidified Hall’s decision to step away from football.

For months, he had questioned whether he should pursue a pro career. His then-fiancee’s father, Kyu Ho Lee, was helping him discover Christianity. In getting closer to God, Hall said, he came to understand that he didn’t need to let football define him.

Finally, he felt he could see things more clearly. His dad had dealt with knee and shoulder pain throughout his adult life. After enduring several serious injuries of his own, Hall knew he needed to consider his long-term health.

There was also the possibility that he’d spend years bouncing around NFL practice squads and cities, often a reality for fringe prospects like Hall. He was about to marry his college sweetheart. Did he really want to ask his new wife to put her goals on hold while he chased his?

“Cade really wrestled with this decision for a long time,” said Abby, a former SJSU water polo player who now works as an executive assistant. “I could see it weighing on him.”

When Rhett finally heard his son’s dilemma, he reflected on his own journey. Like Cade, he had been an undersized, athletically limited defensive lineman with a nonstop motor. A sixth-round pick in 1991 out of Cal, Rhett totaled 34 starts and 141 tackles over an NFL career that spanned eight seasons and three teams.

In doing so, he sacrificed plenty: time with family; a predictable routine; and, to an extent, his health. It made perfect sense to Rhett, then, that Hall would be reluctant to enter the NFL draft. As he explained to his second oldest of four boys, pro football is a gnarly lifestyle. No one should be faulted for going a different route.

“I know how hard of a decision this was for Cade,” said Rhett, who has worked as a financial adviser for over 20 years. “But he did what was right for him, and I’m really happy for him. It’s not easy to walk away from something you’ve been thinking about your whole life.”

After graduating from SJSU in December with a bachelor’s degree in communications, Hall began working for a family friend’s stone company. It didn’t take him long to realize that construction suited him. In addition to learning something new each workday, he gets the satisfaction of building things by hand.

Now that he and Abby have their own apartment near her family in Irvine, Hall said he rarely thinks about what could have been. Only once has his football career really crossed his mind: Four and a half months ago, when he watched his former teammate Fehoko get drafted in the fourth round by the Dallas Cowboys.

“There was a moment when Junior first got drafted where I was like, ‘Wait, did I make a mistake?’ ” Hall said. “But after a couple days, any doubts I had passed. I’m living my dream. It just looks a bit different than it used to.”