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Why former Bills linebacker A.J. Tarpley decided to play football again

A.J. Tarpley was done.

A little less than three years ago, the former Buffalo Bills linebacker walked into coach Rex Ryan’s office and announced that he was retiring after just one season in the NFL, at the age of 23.

Tarpley had suffered two concussions as a rookie in 2015, at least the third and fourth of his life. The second of those, which came against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, left him without feeling in the fingers, arm and shoulder on the right side of his body.

The risk, Tarpley thought then, was no longer worth the reward that comes with being in the NFL. In an eloquent essay penned for Sports Illustrated, he wrote about why he walked away from the game he started playing in third grade.

“The decision I made to retire from football is about coming to terms with the totality of my concussion history and what is asked of me as a linebacker,” he wrote. “My position put me at an elevated risk for further injury with the likelihood that I would be exposed to hundreds of even thousands of similar situations. I understand that in order to continue playing at the level expected of me, I would have had to put myself in those exact scenarios.”

So Tarpley moved on, leaving football for a job on Wall Street. He started a career with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, primarily selling distressed bonds. The allure of football, however, never left him. Tarpley still worked out six days a week, and eventually decided to take one more shot at a professional career.

Former Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Tarpley said he suffered at least four concussions in his life, and the totality of his concussion history caused him to retire after the 2016 season. (Buffalo News file photo)

He’s doing that in the upstart Alliance of American Football, playing linebacker for the San Diego Fleet.

Here, in his own words, Tarpley explains to The Buffalo News why he walked away from the Bills, how he manages the risks associated with playing football again, and what he hopes will come from playing in the AAF.

I had been thinking about leaving football for a while, as far as weighing the pros and cons of what I thought was right for me at that time in my life. One of the hardest things I ever had to do was to walk into Rex's office and tell him. It felt like the end of a chapter. You spend your whole life trying to accomplish something, so it was definitely very hard. At the time, I was just thankful for how far along I had come, my career and what I had done on the field. I just thought it was right for me at the time.

Rex understood. He was awesome about it. You never know the reaction you're going to get, but I was always very respectful. I looked up to Rex as a coach and as a person. He was very understanding. I laid out my whole story to him, how I felt, and he just wanted what was best for me.

I was blessed with an opportunity, working for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. I was a distressed sales guy, so sales and trading – the trading floor, like you see portrayed in movies or pop culture – but a fast-paced environment. We traded mostly distressed bonds, some leverage loans and then also some equities. I had a lot of fun doing it, had some great role models, learned a ton and it's something I eventually want to come back into.

Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Tarpley, right, had two interceptions in his NFL career, including this one against the Jets on Jan. 3, 2016. (Buffalo News file photo)

First, though, Tarpley is determined to make one more run at a professional football career. In his only season with the Bills, Tarpley played in 14 games, making two starts, and finished with eight tackles, one forced fumble and two interceptions, which came in what would be the final two games of his NFL career. Before that, he started 50 games at Stanford, making second-team All-Pac 12 as a senior. He finished his college career with 307 tackles, seven sacks, four interceptions, three forced fumbles and 17 passes defensed. He signed with the Bills as a priority free agent after the 2015 NFL Draft.

When I quit, part of the reason I quit when I did, I didn't want to have to wait until somebody told me I couldn't play anymore, which happens to most, if not all, football players. So when I decided to come back, it was just something I felt. How I looked at my life mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually – whatever it may be – year after year, I felt this love for the game. I was working out every day after work, six days a week, probably two hours each time, whether it be after a client dinner at 9 p.m. – whenever it was. My actions kind of spoke for me. I still had this passion burning inside me. Eventually, I just decided it was time to go back and give it another shot.

I was a football player my whole life up until I quit. You know, now I'm back, so it's clearly something that I feel like I've just been tied to and always longed for. It was definitely tough, though, don't get me wrong. I loved the position I was in, what I was learning, and what the future may have held at Bank of America, but I knew that if I was even thinking about it, I was working out so much, if I was obsessing over going back, then I knew it was the right move.

I wish I could tell you there was kind of a "eureka" moment or some sign sent from God or whoever, but there wasn't like one day I could point out when I decided. It was late May, early June when I finally said, "Hey, I'm going to do this." I told my parents first, my brother, and then the next step was to tell my boss at Bank of America. That was tough, too. He's a guy I still talk to today. He played football at Harvard, so me and him kind of related to each other. He was shocked. But from right then, I packed up my stuff into my truck and drove out back to Stanford and started working out full time again. So it happened pretty fast, the span of a couple weeks.

My mom, my dad, my brother, they're the best things that's happened to me and I couldn't ask for a better group. They were very supportive. Their first question was, "How can I help?" What can they do to make it easier for me? I'm very lucky to call my parents my parents and have my brother be who he is. Obviously they were surprised. I couldn't tell if maybe deep down, they wanted to see me out there playing again, but they were very supportive.

A.J. Tarpley made his debut with the San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football last weekend against San Antonio. (Getty Images)

Talking with my agent, we were trying to get an NFL workout, anything to get myself in front of NFL eyes. It didn't happen, unfortunately. The season had started, and my agent mentioned to me, "Have you checked out this new league, the AAF?" I had heard about it, read a couple things, but didn't really dig down deep. So I started to check it out with him, heard about the league, heard some of the names, and it sounded like a credible, good start. Ex-players talk to each other, whether it be from Stanford or guys I played with at the Bills, more and more guys started to hear about it. My agent was like, "This is the next logical step. If you want to get back to the NFL, you've got to play in this league – show whoever that you can play."

I can't remember exactly if Dave Boller, our GM here now, reached out to my agent, or if my agent reached out to him to let him know "A.J.'s trying to play again." These teams were allocated by colleges. So Stanford, we were allocated to the San Diego team. So that's what led to my agent connecting with Dave. From there, I explained my background and what I wanted to do. I got the opportunity to come to minicamp, then later training camp and tried to make the team.

We had a preseason scrimmage, and that was the first tackle I made in a game situation (since playing for the Bills). When I made my first one there, I was definitely amped up, pumped. It was like, "Hey, I broke the ice. I made the tackle. We're back, you can relax now." I'm not the nervous type, but I was getting a little anxious. We just played our first game last weekend, we lost to the San Antonio Commanders, so we're trying to get back on track this week, trying to get better in practice – had a good one (Wednesday) – and we have our home opener this weekend, so just looking forward to that.

Of course, every time Tarpley steps on the field, the risk of another concussion presents itself. The first one he suffered with the Bills came during training camp, when he was struck on the left side of the head meeting a fullback in the gap. The collision left Tarpley with a headache that persisted for days, but he didn’t report the symptoms to the Bills’ training staff, worried that doing so would cost him practice time and a chance to make the team.

The next one, which came against the Jaguars, occurred when Tarpley lowered himself to make a tackle, and the crown of the Jacksonville running back’s helmet crashed into his temple. The blow left Tarpley with blurry vision. On the next play, he blew a coverage assignment and was taken off the field. Tarpley, though, convinced coaches to let him re-enter the game. He admits that he has no memory of the following four plays, a goal-line stand by the Bills’ defense.

During the eight-hour flight home, the same symptoms Tarpley experienced in August 2015 presented themselves again. “It was too real to ignore,” he wrote in SI. At least one doctor told Tarpley it was time to think about his concussion history and his future in professional football. “No educated person seems to be denying the relationship between brain injuries and football, yet there are no definitive measures,” he wrote. “We still can’t answer the question of how much is too much.” Tarpley’s opinion has not changed in the last three years.

Obviously, concussions happen in games. No one likes them, but they do happen. I wouldn't say my opinion has necessarily changed. I try to stay up to date as far as if there are any new studies or research, opinions – whatever it may be – that come out. I try and keep myself informed as much as I can, but I also admitted it in my piece for Sports Illustrated, there isn't really a definitive what if? If X happens, what will Y be? I continually evaluate what do I want to do with my life? Who do I want to be?

There's a lot of tough guys that play the game of football. A lot of tough people that have played, names you'd recognize and names you wouldn't. I can guarantee every one of them has that feeling that football takes a toll on your body. As tough as it is to face those facts, whether it's a head injury, a knee injury, it's a brutal reality. No one wants injuries to happen.

I'd say 100 percent of the NFL players, in order for them to get to that level, at some point they kind of "toughed" it out, whether it be a leg, knee, arm, shoulder, head, whatever it is, so I don't feel alone in feeling like there are those brutal parts of the game. ... At the end of the day, these are all men that are playing the game. It's part of what makes the game great, also, is that physical aspect of it.

I don’t regret (my decision to retire) at all. It was the right decision for me at that time. It took a lot to make that decision. Now that I'm able to come back and try and play again – I'm a guy who thinks everything happens for a reason. I try to do my best job on and off the field, and I'm just trying to make the most of my opportunity right now.

I'm very honest with myself and my goals, and my goals are to get back to the NFL. So this is an awesome opportunity for me to prove what I still can do. At the same time, I am here. It's not like I kept my job or didn't take a leap of faith, because I certainly did. ... I'm not here for money or fame or some other reason. The bottom line was I wanted to play football. I don't know what the future will hold for me if I don't get another shot to play in the NFL, or how that goes, but until then, I just try to take advantage of the moments I get on the field.

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