Just as he had since his high school days in Minnesota, his five years at Notre Dame and the last seven seasons in the NFL, John Carlson did what he did every winter and spring. He prepared for the next football season.
He’d gone through the requisite off-season conditioning/training. He was halfway through a two-year, $4.65 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals – his third pro team after his second-round selection by the Seattle Seahawks in ’08, which led to a lucrative deal with the Minnesota Vikings, and now another one with the Cardinals.
But as he and his wife – former Notre Dame volleyball player Danielle (Herndon) – continued a conversation that had begun a few months earlier, Carlson considered his options this spring, taking into account his three children under the age of five.
After seven seasons, a concussion or three, but an otherwise clean bill of health, Carlson, 31, decided his life as a football player had come to a close.
“It wasn’t a snap judgment thing,” said Carlson Thursday night in Notre Dame Stadium after spending time with several other former Irish greats, discussing life after Notre Dame/football with the current Irish squad.
“It was a decision that my wife and I had been processing for a while. I went through the off-season and trained and was physically ready to go, so I went back for the off-season program with the Cardinals in April.
“After a couple weeks of that, it solidified the fact that I no longer had the same passion and same love for the game anymore. I felt it was time for me to move on and transition away from the game.”
Not every football player is so fortunate to be able to make the decision after seven years in the NFL. In fact, seven years is much longer than the norm for a vast majority of those who make it to the top of the football world. More often, it’s the franchises in the NFL making the decision for the player who wants to hold on to the life – and the money – a little bit longer.
Those who were around Carlson during his playing days at Notre Dame (2003-07) are not surprised that he exited on his own terms. A thoughtful, introspective, reserved young man born in St. Cloud, Minn., Carlson and his family of educators moved to Litchfield shortly after his birth, which is where he made a name for himself as one of the nation’s top tight end prospects.
After biding his time behind Anthony Fasano at Notre Dame, Carlson emerged in 2006-07, catching 47 passes with four scores as a senior before leading the team in receptions with 40 and three scores in his fifth and final season while serving as a captain.
Carlson burst onto the NFL scene with the Seahawks, grabbing 55 passes with five scores in his rookie season, and then adding another 51 receptions and seven scores in ’09.
After four years in Seattle, Carlson signed a five-year, $25 million contract with Minnesota, where he caught 32 passes and a touchdown in 2013 before moving on to Arizona, where he added another 33 grabs and a touchdown in ’14.
But as he and Danielle thought about season No. 8, the perspective changed.
“I feel confident in my decision, but it’s still a difficult decision,” Carlson said. “Five years here at Notre Dame and seven years in the NFL…football has dominated my life.
“The whole time I’ve been with my wife, I’ve been a football player. That’s part of who we are as a couple. So it’s a difficult decision, but it’s the right one for me at this time.”
Although Carlson had three documented concussions as a professional – including a season-ending blow to the head last season – he says previous injuries were not the deciding factor.
“Honestly, no, not at all. I feel fantastic,” Carlson said. “I trained all off-season. I still have a passion for training for football, which is ironic because that’s not the main job. But I still love to work out and train and do the things that are required for football players to be ready to go physically.”
Like a few other players who decided to retire this year – including San Francisco 49er linebacker Chris Borland after one season in the NFL – Carlson wasn’t willing to tempt fate any longer.
“Everyone now knows about the risks that are involved in playing the game, and that’s part of it,” Carlson said. “That wasn’t the only reason for the decision. My wife and I have three kids and I’m a different husband and father during the season than I am in the off-season.
“So there are a lot of factors involved. The concussion thing is in the back of my mind. I’ve had a couple of those. I had a great time playing football. There wasn’t one moment; it was a combination of factors.”
Now comes the tricky part for the Notre Dame history major whose parents are in education. In fact, his father, John, Sr., was Carlson’s basketball and tennis coach in high school. Finding a “next” career is the new challenge.
Carlson does not have to jump into a new line of work right away. The contracts with Minnesota and Arizona have given him that luxury. But he does have to forge a new career path, which is one of the reasons he accepted the invitation to speak to the Notre Dame team.
“Part of the reason I was excited to come back was because I got to hear Steve Beuerlein and Tim Brown and Marc Edwards,” Carlson laughed. “As a guy that’s transitioning away from the game, it’s valuable for me to pick their brains.
“I don’t know just yet what I will be doing, and that’s one of the scary things about making the decision to transition away from the game because for the last 12, there was always a logical next step, and that’s not necessarily the case right now.
“It’s nice to have options and flexibility in what I choose to do with the different career paths that are available. I’ll find something I’m passionate about where I feel like I’m making a difference. That could go in a lot of directions.”
Teaching and coaching, in the footsteps of his father, are options. Carlson made some business connections during his time in the NFL, which has him considering graduate programs. He also was involved in the NFL charities, which appeals to him as well.
“It’s kind of like a dart board,” Carlson said. “There are a lot of things I’m interested in. I’d like to get some practical experience and test-drive a few different options.”
One thing Carlson is sure about is the college decision he made when Tyrone Willingham and his staff were recruiting him in the early 2000s.
“Notre Dame was the perfect combination of an institution where I could get a fantastic education and play football at a high level,” Carlson said. “It’s a school I wouldn’t have gotten into without football. I did well academically once I got here, but I needed football to get in because it’s so competitive.
“To have an opportunity to play football at such a high level and to compete for a national championship…We didn’t get there while I was here, and it’s great to see the program at that caliber, competing, in the mix.
“You combine that with the integrity and the fact that Notre Dame stands for more than just being an academic institution or just being an athletic powerhouse. It stands for more.”
So, too, does John Carlson.