Off the depth chart

We are here because Moffitt -- financially stable for now -- made a decision so outlandish, so heretical, so anti-American that it simply can't escape further scrutiny. It bears repeating: John Moffitt, 27 years old, with a contract that would have paid him $312,500 for the rest of this season and $752,500 the next, quit the Super Bowl favorite in midseason. To boil it down to the essence of Moffitt -- a Moffitt reduction sauce, as it were -- he just wasn't feeling it anymore. Instead, he felt objectified, a pawn in a soulless enterprise. Practice had become drudgery. "It got to the point where I didn't want to step out onto the practice field another day," he says. "When you're stretching and you're like, 'This is the worst,' I think it's time to change something."

Within a week of his leaving, the game started to look different from the outside too. Moffitt's coach, John Fox, required heart surgery for a pre-existing condition. Texans coach Gary Kubiak suffered a ministroke on the field. In Dallas, Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett announced that doctors told him he was showing signs of CTE. In Miami, a bullied Jonathan Martin left the Dolphins, and his teammate, a hypertrophic thug named Richie Incognito, was the new national warden of football culture.

The thinking class noticed and recoiled, and suddenly a big, thoughtful guy who had been inactive for six of the first eight games of the season was greeted as if he were auditioning for NFL ombudsman. Opportunist or product of circumstance? "I had no idea anyone would care about me," Moffitt says. "I thought I was a backup who would slip out of the league."

Moffitt had worked most of his life to reach the league, and now he was walking away? How many fans would give limbs to trade places? How many would love to just once run out onto the field to the seductive wash of all those cheers? "How dare you -- right?" Moffitt asks, palms upraised. The decision was so outside the paradigm that friends and family asked just one question: Are you okay? "I was really okay," he says. "I was great. I was walking away from their dream, not mine."

On the television, Moffitt watches huge armored men protect Manning at the expense of their own bodies. Two weeks ago, they were teammates, buddies, yet nothing on-screen causes him to change his expression, nothing causes him to so much as lean forward with expectancy. He is right. He is done. His body bears the toll: a shredded knee, elbow surgery, countless blows to the head. Though he has no history of concussions, he is disturbed by studies linking cognitive difficulties to repeated small collisions, the raison d'ĂȘtre of the offensive lineman. He says he looked at the pageantry -- the military flyovers, the crazed passion of fans and what he views as the sacrifice of humanity for a television show -- and felt a growing unease. His faith was shaken. He turned to books by Noam Chomsky, the Dalai Lama and Deepak Chopra, which led him to question the intellectual capital being expended on sports.

"I offered a service, and I no longer wanted to offer the service and I no longer request money for it," he says. "You can change a passion. You can change a dream. I had the NFL dream, and it was no longer what I envisioned. I don't expect people to understand."

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