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The NFL’s Overtraining Disasters

Blog written by Kylie Marler


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It’s no secret that NFL players play hard and train harder. But sometimes these star athletes push themselves too far in their efforts to improve their performance on the field, and, in the blink of an eye, the whole training process turns against them. Some players even face career-threatening consequences caused by overtraining. Here’s a look at a few NFL players that have crumbled from the effects of overtraining.

WHOOP, an American wearable technology company that partners with the NFL, spoke with Matt Johnson about his journey to becoming a professional football player as well as what happened to his dream of playing in the NFL.

In his interview with WHOOP, Johnson talks about reporting to Rookie Minicamp just four days after being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. He says he’s a “grinder” like most NFL players (“someone who takes it upon himself to push his body and his physical ability to the next level,” according to WHOOP). But Johnson’s “grinding” mentality is what caused him to be unable to play at his full health for his first season in the NFL.

According to Johnson, he missed most of his rookie training camp because he tweaked his hamstring on the first day of practice. WHOOP’s article says, “During that recovery period, he spent every second trying to get back on the field.” The article continues, saying Johnson spent hours and hours in extensive rehab trying to heal his hamstring.

Johnson played one preseason game before he was back on the bench again with a tweaked hamstring, but this time for much longer. After the Dallas Cowboys’ team doctors discovered Johnson’s back was the cause of his hamstring issues, he was moved to the Injured Reserve list for the remainder of his rookie season. WHOOP’s article writes, “Matt’s only field time was that one preseason game against St. Louis.”

After his rookie season ended and the offseason rolled around, Johnson continued to push his body and train harder. He said, “I figured, I’m a football player. Everyone is sore. Everyone is in pain. So I trained and trained. I wanted to prove myself. I wanted to play.” But then it continued to get worse: Johnson broke his foot and suffered yet another hamstring injury. The Dallas Cowboys placed him back on the Injured Reserve list – but it only lasted a week.

Matt Johnson was released from the NFL with an injury settlement, ending his dream of playing professional football. Johnson says, “if I knew what I knew now, I probably wouldn’t have trained as hard as I did.” 

Drafted in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft, linebacker Patrick Willis played his entire 8-year professional football career with the San Francisco 49ers. This article by the 49ers talks about Willis’ decision to retire at just 30 years old. The pro-baller announced his retirement from football, saying, “You’ve seen me break my hand on Sunday, have surgery on Monday and play on Thursday with a cast on,” but it was his feet that could no longer keep up with the intense demands of playing in the NFL.

In his 2014 season, Willis missed a whopping 10 games because he was suffering from an injury to his big toe. The 49ers’ article writes, “Days before he underwent surgery to repair the big toe on his left foot, Willis told reporters that his feet had been bothering him for years.” The article goes on, stating that Willis felt the issues with his feet would continue to, “prevent him from playing at the elite level that he demanded from himself.”

Willis said he felt wrong, “sitting on the sideline just collecting a paycheck,” and he had concerns for his future quality of life if he continued to push himself too hard and play through his pain. He adds, “For me… it’s my health first and everything else just kind of makes sense around it.”

At just 28 years old, NFL offensive lineman Ali Marpet hung up his cleats for good. He played 7 seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before he announced his retirement. This article by USA Today outlines the reason Marpet walked away from his NFL career, quoting Marpet: “The biggest reason for me was the physical toll: I didn’t want any more of that.”

This article by CBS Sports writes, “Marpet reportedly made this [retirement] decision due to concerns for his overall health.” Back to the article by USA Today, Marpet is also quoted as saying, “I loved playing football. But one of my strongest values is health and if I’m really going to live out what’s important to me it doesn’t make sense to keep playing…. Plus, your joints, the aches and pains that come with surgeries and all that stuff.”

This article published by Sports Illustrated discusses Marpet’s shocking announcement about his retirement, saying, “[Marpet’s] body was taking more of a beating than most would have noticed”. And while Marpet may have disappointed fans with his sudden retirement, Sports Illustrated’s article writes, “it’s obvious that he will be striving to become a happier, healthier version of himself”.

An article published on dives into Calvin Johnson’s early retirement. Johnson has said many times that his nine-year NFL career began with a serious back injury in his rookie season. Johnson says, “It was so bad at the moment [that] I couldn’t feel my legs. And I thought my career would be over.”

The article talks about how Johnson played through his serious injury, but not without it taking a toll on his “rise to superstardom”. Perhaps Johnson should have listened to his body, but instead he says, “going to that second year, despite dealing with the pain and the back injury, I made up my mind that I was going to be the best”.

The article goes on, quoting what Johnson had to say about ignoring his body and continuing to train: “The pain was so severe that I would take whatever I could just to manage the pain to be able to play.” Johnson continues, “But no matter how much I dominated — as the legends here know — the pain never left.”

So what would have become of Johnson’s NFL career had he listened to his pain from pushing himself too far? Perhaps if this elite athlete hadn’t continued to train harder and harder, he might not have had to retire at the early age of 29 years old.

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There are countless NFL players with stories similar to those of Matt Johnson, Patrick Willis, Ali Malpert, and Calvin Johnson. These NFL stars have had to deal with horrible physical breakdowns as a result of their intense training efforts. But this problem is not specific to the NFL, or even professional sports for that matter. Pushing yourself past your limits is something that anyone can suffer from. Your body – particularly in athletes – will let you know when you need some downstime, so don’t be afraid to listen.

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Calvin Johnson says in Hall of Fame speech he played most of career with back injury: “The pain never left” | Sporting News. (n.d.). Sporting News – NFL | NBA | MLB | NCAA | NASCAR | UFC | Boxing. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from

Easterling, L. (2022, May 18). Ali Marpet opens up about retirement, and the next chapter of his life. Bucs Wire; Bucs Wire.

Haalboom, C. (2022, May 27). Ali Marpet Explains his Sudden Retirement from the Buccaneers – Sports Illustrated Tampa Bay Buccaneers News, Analysis and More. Sports Illustrated Tampa Bay Buccaneers News, Analysis and More; Sports Illustrated Tampa Bay Buccaneers News, Analysis and More.

Labs. (n.d.). Are NFL Players Prone to Overtraining? – WHOOP. WHOOP. Retrieved June 4, 2022, from

NFL notable players who retired early: Ali Marpet joins list of those who stepped away in their prime – (2022, February 27). CBSSports.Com.

Patrick Willis Explains Decision to Retire from NFL. (2015, March 10). 49ers Home | San Francisco 49ers – 49ers.Com.

What is Overtraining? – The National Sports Medicine Institute. (2021, February 23). The National Sports Medicine Institute.

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