NEW YORK — Erik Ainge wanted one more chance at football. His body insisted it's time to move on.
The New York Jets backup quarterback told The Associated Press on Thursday night that his playing career is over because of injuries to his right foot and throwing shoulder.
"This isn't the step I wanted, but it's the hand I'm dealt," Ainge said. "There's nothing I'd love more than to come back to New Jersey when the lockout's over and compete for a job and be around those guys and their families. I miss them as people, but it's just not in the cards physically right now."
The 25-year-old Ainge, nearly a year clean of drugs and alcohol, missed all last NFL season while recovering from many years of battling addictions. A return to football remained in the back of his mind as each month of sobriety passed. But, he had surgery to insert two screws in his foot in January to repair a stress fracture that plagued him for years, and he recently tweeted that he was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff.
"I don't know exactly when it happened with my shoulder because I've been battling shoulder problems for a long time, but now that I'm not in NFL-playing shape — I'm in good shape, but not NFL shape — my shoulder started really telling me how bad it was," Ainge said. "One of the things I've been working on in my recovery is acceptance, and to be honest, I need to accept that I want to be able to play baseball with my kids when I'm 35. I don't want to be limping the rest of my life.
"As much as I love football, and I really love football, I don't know if in the immediate future, I'm going to be able to do it with everything that's wrong with my body. I just think it's time."
Ainge was a star for coach Phillip Fulmer at the University of Tennessee and was drafted by New York in the fifth round in 2008. He had some terrific preseason performances with the Jets, but was buried on the depth chart behind Brett Favre and Kellen Clemens as a rookie, and then Mark Sanchez and Clemens in 2009. Ainge has not thrown a pass in a regular-season game.
Still listed on the Jets' roster as being on the reserve-did not report list, Ainge couldn't tell them of his decision personally because of the strict no-contact rules during the NFL lockout. Ainge hasn't officially filed his retirement paperwork with the league, preventing the Jets from commenting.
"I don't want to put the New York Jets at risk by calling their offices or one of their cell phones," he said. "The rules are that we're not supposed to be in contact with them, and as much as I hate for them to find out this way, I think it's the honest and mature thing to do to make sure they know what I'm thinking and where I'm headed. It's not fair to them to have them think that once the lockout's over, I'm going to show up in training camp shape."
Ainge said his decision has nothing to do with the fact the Jets currently have five quarterbacks on their roster — Sanchez, Mark Brunell, Kevin O'Connell, Drew Willy and Greg McElroy — or his focus on sobriety.
"You can't play quarterback in the NFL if you can't lift a 10-pound weight with your throwing shoulder," Ainge said.
He detailed his years of drug abuse in a first-person account with ESPNNewYork.com in March, and discussed his rehabilitation process during a daylong interview with the AP in the Boston area. Those drug issues, he insists, also did not factor into why he needs to walk away.
"I'm not big-time enough to be coming off like, 'This is my retirement,' because I think you've got to be a Pro Bowler to do that," he said. "I was a third-string quarterback and that's not something a third-string quarterback does. I'm not a Pro Bowler, but I just want to be honest with the organization and the fans out there."1 comment on this story
Ainge realizes some may have already previously closed the door on his NFL career before he did, but that doesn't bother him.
"When it comes to sobriety, which is the most important thing in my life, I don't have to come back and be a Pro Bowler to be a success story," he said. "If I stay sober and I move on with my life and I'm successful, that's the success story."
Ainge isn't sure what's ahead for him in the immediate future, other than staying sober — he still attends meetings five or six times a week — and getting completely healthy. For now, he'll walk away from football with no regrets.
"Being in the NFL was amazing, one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Playing for the Jets was so much fun, the coaches are amazing and the players, I made friendships that will last the rest of my life. Tennessee was probably the four best years of my life with all the people I met there and playing for Coach Fulmer. I've had a lot of fun playing football and was truly lucky to have the opportunity to do so."