Jake Locker in 2014 (Wikimedia Commons)

Jake Locker in 2014 (Wikimedia Commons)

No one quite understood why Titans quarterback Jake Locker walked away from a multimillion-dollar contract in the NFL in 2015.

There was speculation about injuries, fear of concussions, not having the stomach for football, money. But leave he did after playing 30 games, passing for 4,967 yards and completing 27 touchdown passes. He vanished from the public view without giving any interviews.

At 26, he left the game before most quarterbacks reach their prime. And there were plenty of offers from other teams – some looking for a starter, others a solid backup.

Three years later, bared his soul to a Sports Illustrated reporter whose story appears this week, explaining why what Locker did was such an unusual thing: “In this century, no other healthy and reasonably effective NFL quarterback has chosen to step away as quickly as Locker.”

Long story short – it’s all about Jesus and family.

Locker said he never felt compelled to explain his decision in detail.

“I didn’t need to,” he says, “’cause it was my decision, my life. That was good enough for me.”

Today, Locker is back home where he grew up near Ferndale, Washington, now with his own young family of three children on a refurbished farm, with cattle purchased with his NFL fortune.

He’s coaching his old high-school football team – or at least working with the quarterbacks.

He still loves football. It’s just the NFL life he left behind.

Locker also turned down an offer from the Los Angeles Angels to play baseball. That just wasn’t in his heart, he explained to his father. Locker would have been the first-round draft pick in the NFL at the age of 21, but he decided to start in school for another year – probably losing at least $18 million through that choice. He loved school and wanted to finish his history degree.

The turning point for Locker came in his first year in the NFL when he was invited to Jake to fly to Orlando a Pro Athletes Outreach conference that looked at God’s design for your life.

There he heard hip-hop artist Lecrae and felt an immediate connection. After becoming successful, Lecrae explained, the pressure to “keep it real” overwhelmed him, until finally he chose to end the double life. He’d prioritize Jesus and his family above all else.

“I was pretending with everybody,” Locker said, “because I wasn’t authentic with anybody.”

As the conference wound down, Locker and his wife Lauren decided to be baptized, and they dedicated their lives to Jesus. That moment, Locker says, is why “I can sit here today and say that I’m an extremely happy man.” It marked the first day of Locker’s new life – and the first time he asked himself, “Do I want to play football anymore?”

Locker said he began to pray daily about his future. The more he prayed, the less significant the game seemed compared to his family and his relationship with Jesus.

But he gave football another chance in 2014. He got off to a great start in the first game in Kansas City, throwing for 266 yards and two touchdowns in a 26–10 victory.

“Awesome,” he said. That afternoon “everything I loved about football.” But it didn’t last. He was benched later that month without explanation. By December, he was on the injured-reserve list after separating a shoulder against the Jets. The decision made itself.

Sure, he loved football. But he loved his family and Jesus more.

He called his agent, told him of the decision and asked not to hear about any other offers from NFL teams. He issued a 128-word statement, explaining that “to continue [playing] would be unfair” to any team that signed him. He says he would have made the same decision even if he’d been winning Super Bowls.

“Fame and fortune equal success for most people,” Locker explained. “But those aren’t things that last.”

Since then, Locker has done some volunteer work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, ministering to local players, coaches and businessmen. Beside the farm, he is a leadership consultant at a local lumber company and co-owns the town gym, which he named the Locker Room. On weekends he hunts birds, deer and turkey, and spends time with his kids. He still works out every morning, still throws the football around occasionally. He also writes about theology.

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