Robert Smith is trading in his football uniform, perhaps for a lab coat.
Smith hasn't said what he will do next, only that it won't be playing running back for the Minnesota Vikings or anyone else in the NFL.
The agent for the 28-year-old running back, Neil Cornrich, confirmed Wednesday that Smith is retiring after eight seasons with the Vikings. Smith is leaving the NFL at the top of his game, much like 31-year-old Barry Sanders before the 1999 season, and at the height of his earning power as an unrestricted free agent.
Career in Medicine?
Cornrich dismissed the idea that the oft-injured back, who recently underwent a third knee operation, was tired of the pounding.
"He could easily play five more years without jeopardizing his health," Cornrich said. "He just decided to go in another direction."
That direction is uncertain, although Smith has said he might consider a career as a medical researcher. He pursued a history degree with a strong emphasis on science at Ohio State and is interested in a variety of topics such as calculus, molecular genetics and classical music.
Last season, he said he thought he would be in medical school by now.
"I enjoy football more than I thought I would," Smith told the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. "I honestly didn't think I would play as long as I have. But once you're out there and enjoying it, it's completely different."
In a brief statement Tuesday to The Plain Dealer, Smith let his reasons for leaving remain a mystery. In the statement, Smith thanked his family and friends, fans and the Vikings organization.
"I also wanted to thank my teammates and coaches for believing in me throughout my career," he said.
The retirement leaves a large hole in the Vikings' offense.
Smith, the Vikings' first-round pick in 1993, led the NFC by rushing last season with 1,521 yards in his first complete 16-game season. He broke the organization's career rushing record, held by Chuck Foreman, with 6,818 yards.
"Robert has always been a guy that the National Football League has been able to count on as a shining example of quality character off the field and 100 percent effort on the field," coach Dennis Green said.
"Robert's decision to retire, as everyone knows, comes off his best season ever as a running back for the Minnesota Vikings. He leaves the game on top and is looking forward to his next challenge."
Smith rushed for 32 touchdowns and averaged 4.8 yards per carry during his career despite injuries and health problems. He hurt both knees and ankles and had a serious case of chicken pox.
Along with Cincinnati's Corey Dillon, he was considered the NFL's most desired free-agent running back and was expected to sign a contract that would have exceeded his last five-year, $25 million deal.
Cornrich said he was optimistic that Smith, who had a good relationship with Green, would re-sign with the Vikings despite the organization's salary cap limitations and the lure of the open market. Cornrich said Smith wasn't concerned about walking away from a big free-agent payday.
"He would've had unlimited financial opportunities," Cornrich said. "But this was not a financial decision."
Smith was deeply disappointed, however, by the Vikings' 41-0 loss to the New York Giants in the NFC championship game and by the final two months of his season, in which he rushed for only 248 yards in five games.
He was selected to the Pro Bowl, but did not play because of knee surgery.
The Vikings had made re-signing Smith a top priority, though they are expected to have to cut about $20 million to meet the 2001 salary cap limit.
Smith's backup, Moe Williams, rushed for only 67 yards last season. The Vikings could use the money they planned to spend on Smith on another top free-agent back such as Dillon or the San Francisco 49ers' Charlie Garner. Dillon rushed for 1,453 yards last season, and Garner rushed for 1,142.