The Falcons had big plans for Ryan Winterswyk.
He was big and powerful. He could run fluidly and had soft and quick hands from his days as a baseball player.
With the NFL featuring the tight end more in the passing game, the Falcons thought they had a sleeper, a diamond in the rough out of Boise State.
But like Broncos reserve guard John Moffitt, Winterswyk walked away from football because of the wear on his body. Just before reporting for minicamp in April 2012, Winterswyk, then 25, decided that the potential for riches wasn’t worth the physical and mental punishment of football.
“It came down to: ‘Do I want to get knocked out? Or do I want to go and get my own thing rolling in the business world,’” Winterswyk said Wednesday. “I had a good job offer, and now I’m rolling with that.”
Winterswyk is a sales associate for a medical equipment company in Boise. With a little polishing he had a good chance of making it with the Falcons, who signed him to a futures/reserve contract worth $390,000, and then earn up to $1.39 million in base salaries over his first three years in the NFL.
Winterswyk shined during the Falcons’ 2011 training camp before he suffered a sprained ankle. He was signed to the practice squad, but never regained his health.
“After I sprained my ankle, then I separated my shoulder and then my knee kind of (got) messed up,” Winterswyk said. “I thought I’d just have to get scoped, but things just kind of kept piling on. I had three knee surgeries and a shoulder surgery.”
As the report date for minicamp approached, Winterswyk decided he had enough. He called the Falcons to let them know he was done with football.
“I loved playing football,” Winterswyk said. “It was fun. I just got tired of beating my body up.”
That’s the same conclusion Moffitt reached. His decision gained more notice because, unlike Winterswyk and most other players who quit, Moffitt did it during the regular season.
Moffitt, 27, walked out earlier this month with Denver trying to make a Super Bowl push. His list of injuries included a knee, elbow surgery and a shoulder, and he also suffered from sleep apnea.
Falcons center Peter Konz played with Moffitt at Wisconsin. He said he hadn’t talked to Moffitt since he quit, but understands the decision. Konz said Moffitt also dealt with significant injuries at Wisconsin.
In interviews, Moffitt said most of his friends couldn’t understand why he’d leave behind the money and the chance to play on a Super Bowl team. Winterswyk said his family supported his decision, but like Moffitt, he also heard from friends who couldn’t believe he turned down the chance to play in the NFL.
“A lot of people were like, ‘man, really?’” Winterswyk said. “Yeah, it was a bunch of money, but there are other ways in the real world to make money, too. I want to be able to move around. Ice-surf, snowboard, mountain bike and do all kinds of stuff that I enjoy.”
Konz said he understands why most people can’t believe anyone would turn down the chance to play in the NFL. But he said football is “a tough business” that requires physical and mental sacrifices.
For Winterswyk and Moffitt, who was making nearly $800,000, the money no longer was worth it.
“It’s a little different when you are in it because the people on the outside tend to focus on the dollar bills,” Konz said. “We get paid very nicely, and we have a good life. But there are certain things that are required of you to earn that money. As a person you’ve got to decide what are your priorities? I think (Moffit’s) physical well-being was worth more than his contract at the end of the day.”
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is playing in his 17th, and what he said will be his final, NFL season. He’s been fortunate to avoid major injuries. He has missed two games over his career and has played the past two weeks with a toe injury.
Gonzalez remembers working alongside Winterswyk. He said he applauds him and Moffitt for their decision to give up the game.
“It was courageous,” Gonzalez said. “I applaud them. If you think this isn’t for you, get out.”
However, Gonzalez said he doesn’t believe Moffitt should have quit in the middle of the season.
“Unless it’s just something drastic, something that’s life-threatening or something that’s going to affect his life after football, his head or he’s limping or something like that, then you’ve got to do what you have to do,” Gonzalez said.
Falcons offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood said he understands why players with health issues give up the game, but said he still could never imagine quitting.
Trueblood, 30, has been released twice, most recently by the Redskins before this season. The Falcons signed Trueblood before the first game. He was on the team’s injury report before the Saints game with hip and knee ailments.
“My wife is pregnant and about ready to give birth any day,” Trueblood said. “It’s a thought process where you want to be around for your kids and you want to be healthy and things like that.”
Trueblood said he never thought about quitting for health reasons when he was released.
“I really enjoy the game,” Trueblood said. “I enjoy the guys in the locker room. I’m going to keep playing until they kick me out.”
However, he said he understands how Winterswyk and Moffitt were able to walk away from the game.
“Some guys lose a little bit of the love for the game,” Trueblood said. “You don’t want to do a job that you don’t enjoy. I understand that. I can see where they were coming from.”
Falcons tight end Chase Coffman, perhaps the indirect benefactor of Winterswyk’s decision, has been around the NFL for most of his life. His father Paul Coffman, played 11 seasons in the NFL with Green Bay (1978-85), Kansas City (1986-87) and Minnesota (1988).
Coffman said he believes the health risks from playing football are over-hyped in the digital age.
“They are just kind of making a bigger issue out of it than they did kind of back in the day when the thinking was ‘keep your head down and keep working,’” Coffman said.
The elder Coffman, who was a three-time Pro Bowler, has “a few (health) problems here and there, but nothing serious,” Coffman said.
Winterswyk decided to get out before any more serious injuries. He said he’s at peace with his decision. He said he enjoys his life in Boise with his wife, Andrea, and his career as a sales associate.
“When I went to college and played football, I was like, ‘This is cool, this is fun,” Winterswyk said. “I played in the NFL for a little bit, and that was fun, too.
“But then I was like, ‘Man, I’m beating my body to crap. I’m just going to move on to the next phase of my life.’”
There was a time when professional athletes didn’t make as much money. Back then, quitting the game for a different career didn’t necessarily mean taking an exponentially smaller salary.
But even with the potential to make millions now, there still may come a time when players decide the money is not worth the health risks.
“It comes for everybody,” Konz said. “There’s a lot of discussion about drugs in the NFL as far as painkillers and things like that. Every person has to decide how far they will go for the love of the game and what they will do for their families.
“That’s a big decision right there. Do you keep enduring the pain? Or do you say, you know what, I’ve got to (quit).”