Many of the stories of NFL or CFL players retiring from football young are about concussions, but some choose to walk away for other reasons. For former CFL star Ben Heenan, who announced his retirement from the NFL's Indianapolis Colts Thursday, the reason appears to be more agricultural in nature. Here's what Justin Dunk writes about Heenan at 3 Down Nation:
Heenan is from Grand Coulee, Saskatchewan – population 571 – not just from that rural community but part of its fabric. Heenan grew up on a cash crop farm, driving tractors by the time he was 10 years old. He wouldn’t play his first game of football until he was in Grade 10 after being convinced by friends to try it.
He played his university football at the University of Saskatchewan instead of pursuing junior college options in the United States. Even after he was drafted first overall by the Roughriders in 2012, his mother Deb said one of the benefits was her son could continue with both his passions.
“He and his brother have farmed here for a number of years together and it’s always been one of his other dreams,” she told radio station CKOM. “It’s wonderful that he is so close and able to possibly do both.”
The Riders knew it, too.
“He’s from Grand Coulee (just outside Regina), and from my understanding, he’s going to become part of the family farm operation,” said team-president Jim Hopson after Heenan was drafted. “You probably don’t have to worry about him wanting to sign with somebody else down the road, and that can happen. Long-term, it’s a good football decision.”
The Riders did eventually have to worry about him signing with someone else (the NFL's Colts, in February 2014), but it turns out that even his NFL exit didn't lead him back to the CFL. Here's what Heenan said in his statement, which makes it pretty clear he's leaving the game, and what Dunk's sources told him about why Heenan made this decision:
...“I would like to thank all the coaches, teammates, and fans that have supported me throughout my career. I would like to especially thank my family for everything they have done for me, in football and in life,” Heenan said in a statement. “My achievements in football simply would not have happened without the outstanding people I have had in my corner, and I will be forever grateful to everyone who helped me play the game for as long as I did. I look forward to seeing what life has to offer after football. I’ve always been told that when it’s over all you have left are friends and memories — I’m happy to be able to leave the game with plenty of both.”
Those close to Heenan say farming has always been his first love and he feels it is time to return home to the farm and his family.
It's not every day you see a player give up football for farming, but if that's what speaks to Heenan, good for him. It's not like the Riders got slighted here, either; yes, they chose Heenan with the first overall pick in 2012, but he played three seasons for them and did so well, starting 46 of 54 games and helping them to a Grey Cup win in 2013 as the starting right tackle. He fulfilled his entry contract, and his departure in 2015 came as a free agent; he could have gone elsewhere in the CFL if the Colts hadn't signed him, and he was under no obligation to return to Saskatchewan if the Colts had cut him and could have signed with any CFL team. Instead, he's decided to pursue a farming career. Heenan's skill on the field will be missed, but if he wants to return to doing what he loves and be with his family, it's hard to criticize that.