It was the kind of season that leads to long-term security. A mid-career renaissance. One year removed from injured reserve, B.J. Raji returned in 2015 to give the Green Bay Packers an enforcer on their defensive line. He looked young again. Rejuvenated.
Payday was imminent. From the outside, that was everyone’s expectation when free agency opened last week. Raji had done enough, answered the doubts in his year back from a torn biceps, to set himself up for a lucrative deal.
What few people knew was the turmoil that chased him in the past year.
When Raji reported to training camp in July, the two “most powerful” women in his life were battling serious health concerns. His mother, Mamie, is hypertensive and on dialysis as well as dealing with diabetes. His aunt, Grace Patterson, is fighting breast cancer. Their health only got worse through the fall.
“When I returned (after the season),” Raji said, “the situation escalated horribly. That got me thinking, talking to my aunt who’s literally fighting for her life with breast cancer.”
Raji, 29, tried to continue his career and be there for his family. He resumed offseason workouts, but his passion for football had waned, he said. The chip on his shoulder, the drive that pushed him from Boston College to the NFL, no longer fueled him.
In an exclusive interview Monday with USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, Raji said he is stepping away from the NFL for the 2016 season, if not permanently. His decision ends an internal tug-of-war that has raged this offseason. Raji said a recent conversation with his aunt provided clarity on what he wanted for his future.
“Talking to her,” Raji said, “I felt like that moment was a shift. Because she said something to me when I brought up the possibility of taking a break from the league, she said something to me. She said, ‘B.J., when you’re on your death bed, you’re not going to wish that you worked more. You’re not going to wish that you made more money. You’re going to wish that you followed your heart, and that you lived and experienced the things you wanted to experience.”
Raji said retirement was easy to consider. Much harder to decide. He didn’t rush into it. Raji said he consulted other family members, including younger brother Corey. A former shooting guard at Boston College, Corey pursued a basketball career through the NBA Developmental League before eventually deciding it was time to step away.
Perhaps the most important conversation came with his father, Busari Raji Sr., who worked in the medical field.
“My dad told me something that stuck with me,” Raji said. “He said, ‘Listen, do you know when I knew it was time for me to retire?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He goes, ‘When I was literally getting ready, driving on my route to work, and I really didn’t want to go. I really didn’t have the same enthusiasm for my job that I once had.’”
Raji said he connected with how his father felt. He informed agent Camron Hahn of his decision to retire Saturday night. After sleeping on it, Raji said he told Packers coach Mike McCarthy of his plans Sunday. Raji said he walked away from a “very, very nice deal” that would have kept him in Green Bay. He also had multiple offers from teams Raji described as playoff contenders.
Raji officially called his decision a “hiatus” in a carefully crafted 500-word statement his agent first released early Monday afternoon to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. He left the door open to returning after the 2016 season, whether to the Packers or elsewhere. But Raji made it clear his family’s health emergency was just one reason he decided to step away from football.
“This game is too hard, and I’ve got too much respect for myself and the Packers to come back just for the sake of money,” Raji said. “For the record, I had a very, very nice deal on the table. I had a nice, long-term deal on the table from Green Bay, and I had the interest of some other playoff-contending teams.”
Four months shy of his 30th birthday, Raji has other interests he wants to pursue.
One option is returning to school, Raji said. He graduated Boston College with a sociology degree and, Raji said, he wants to reach out and “mentor” others. Maybe he’ll do some writing, some teaching. Raji also has considered becoming a coach, though he prefers the high school or college level.
Though there was no guarantee he would play for the Packers in 2016, Raji’s departure leaves a void in Green Bay’s defensive line. General manager Ted Thompson re-signed defensive ends Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion, but the Packers will need someone to replace defensive end Mike Pennel early next season. Pennel was issued a four-game suspension to start 2016 for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
The upcoming draft is considered to have one of the deepest pools of defensive line talent in years, if not decades. At the NFL scouting combine last month, Packers coach Mike McCarthy opened the door for the Packers to target the defensive line in April’s draft.
“Everybody says, ‘There’s a lot of D linemen,’” McCarthy said. “Great, I hope we get two of them. I think you need big men. There’s only so many. We need to get bigger. We’ve been getting bigger, and we need to continue to get bigger. That’s something we’re all focused on.”
Raji understood his decision doesn’t follow “conventional” business sense. He is walking away from a lucrative career, maybe for good. He left money on the table. Raji opened the possibility to return in 2017, but he’s also content if his career never resumes.
Raji said he’s at peace with his decision to walk away from the game. Whether he returns could depend on how he feels when the 2016 season begins.
“I think about this Bill Parcells quote,” Raji said. “It keeps flowing through my mind. He said, ‘You can fool the whole world, and take pats on the back as you pass, but the final reward will be heartache and tears if you cheated the man in the glass.’ I think that speaks volumes to where I’m at in my life. I just think this is a heart and instinct decision, not so much a mental decision. Because this goes against pretty much conventional wisdom, conventional train of thought from a business perspective.
“I got a question the other day, ‘B.J., how are you going to feel in August or September?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve been playing ball 16 years, more than half of my lifespan. It’s going to be a change, but it’s something I’m looking forward to. It’s a different challenge, and I’m going to embrace it.”