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KRAVITZ: Call him crazy, but retiring McAfee is pursuing his passion, and that’s a great thing

Who walks away from the last two years of a five-year, $14.5 million contract to join an upstart sport-content producer, Barstool Sports? Who walks away at the ridiculously young age of 29, especially when he’s in relatively good health, although he’s facing his third knee surgery in four years?
Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee (1) takes the field before an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Indianapolis, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

He must be nuts.

Be honest: That’s what you're thinking after having heard the news that Colts Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfee is retiring. Seriously, who walks away from the last two years of a five-year, $14.5 million contract to join an upstart sport-content producer, Barstool Sports? Who walks away at the ridiculously young age of 29, especially when he's in relatively good health, although he's facing his third knee surgery in four years?

Punting? Making millions? Where do we sign up?

And then you talk to McAfee, as I did Monday night, and it starts to make sense: "All these people who I really look up to who've passed away, like Steve Jobs, when they're dying they all say follow your heart or your intuition. For some time, this is what I've wanted to do. I'm very comfortable with my decision."

That, in the end, is what McAfee is doing: He's following his passion. And his passion is making people laugh, whether that's while doing podcasts, TV shows, comedy routines, whatever. He has been thinking about performing all his life; in fact, before he became well-known in Indianapolis for being far more than a punter, his Twitter handle was @patmcafeeshow. He grew up watching the late-night talk shows, and always dreamed of one day doing something along those lines.

Now he's getting that opportunity, working for Barstool, an upstart sports-content producer that is growing by leaps and bounds.

"It was a hard decision, very, very hard because I absolutely love the Colts," McAfee said. "I think that's why I was so upset with how the (Ryan) Grigson era was going because Jim Irsay has just been a godsend for me and my family. He's the reason the American dream has come true not only for me but for my dad, who I had a chance to give a business to. I love Irsay and I love my teammates and all the young guys we have, so it's very difficult. But whenever you're a creative person, whenever you can make somebody laugh, that's real fulfillment. You're making somebody's day better and this is giving me that (opportunity)."

McAfee has always been interested in the media side of things, having become a connoisseur of the late-night TV talk shows as a child, but he truly began to find his calling when talking to Bob Kevoian and Tom Griswold (on WFBQ) every Tuesday.

"That's when I really fell in love with the thought of making people laugh," McAfee said. "The NFL is really cool, and if I was a quarterback or played a position where I could have more of a grip on the game, I'd really love it. But I didn't feel fulfillment out of punting. I didn't feel fulfillment the way I did once I started making people laugh. Like 'cool, I'm really impacting people.' Now I'll have the freedom to do that full time."

"Whenever you find out what you're supposed to be, that's a cool thing. To be in the NFL, you have to focus on punting, on being great. There are only 32 jobs and it takes total focus. People think I was always out doing stuff but really, I never went out anymore, I was a homebody. It takes a lot of attention to be an NFL player, but now I want to turn that focus to something I feel like I should be doing."

McAfee's decision is not entirely unique. More and more, young NFL players are retiring out of fear that repeated head trauma will leave them mentally and emotionally diminished late in life, may even leave them with CTE. Obviously, that's not the case with McAfee. He's had knee problems – he's looking at his third surgery in four years and will need more later in life – but the rest of his body is fine.

It just came down to this: Kicking footballs was fun and it paid extraordinarily well but…it's not what made him happy. He loved the team, the teammates, the locker room atmosphere, especially after a victory, but it still felt somehow hollow. This is a person whose mind is always racing, who is always writing down ideas. Barstool won't pay him $3 million a year, but it's never been about the money; it's about happiness.

"I made this decision some time ago, and as you know, I've been thinking about it the last few years," he said. "I'm getting paid a lot of money to kick a ball and if I'm not fully focusing on that, then I'm letting my team down and I'm really going to hate myself for it. And I started thinking, 'Do I want to take a different path?' Then, between the knee issues and this opportunity coming along, it was perfect timing to do this."

The hardest part of all of this? Telling Irsay Monday night.

"He told me he wasn't expecting it," McAfee said. "Then he told me how much he appreciated how much I've done for the Colts. It was such a cool thing because I was most nervous to talk to him. I didn't want him to think I was leaving him because that wasn't the case at all. He told me I have his complete support, that whenever or what I need, I can call him."

"He asked me a couple of times, 'Do you want another year?' And I told him, this team wouldn't deserve that if I had mixed focus. He said that if I ever want to kick a ball again, it's going to be in a Colts uniform."

That, he said, won't happen. He said he won't do the Brett Favre routine and come out of retirement.

Although he said he would be lying if he said he didn't think about the pay cut.

"The intelligence of this decision will be determined by my financial success from here on out, and I completely understand that," he said. "I feel really good and comfortable with what I've done with my money. I've got everybody I know out of debt, and then some, so everybody's really good. My dad has a business in Indy. So I feel really good about where I'm at but I do know if I end up on a 30-for-30 broke, it will be looked at as a poor decision."

It's difficult to think of another athlete who has resurrected his career and his public persona more than McAfee. When he was arrested for public intoxication, he was properly viewed as a party guy, a loose cannon, and he admitted several times that he was out of control as a young, single male who had money for the first time in his life. But in many ways, the arrest changed him. From that point on, he dove headfirst into civic philanthropy and comedy and several other ventures. It's not often you go to a football game and see scores of fans wearing the punter's jersey number. His popularity had no bounds, and it was still growing.

So call him crazy, call him misguided, call him nuts. He doesn't care. His heart is pushing him in an exciting and somewhat scary new direction. Understand this: We have not heard the last of Pat McAfee. Not even close.

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