Back in February, a key member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense sent shockwaves through the NFL when he announced his retirement after a storied career.
Unlike Tom Brady, guard Ali Marpet would not unretire 40 days later. And unlike Brady, Marpet opted to end his NFL career just as it had started to soar. A year removed from earning a Super Bowl ring, fresh off his first Pro Bowl, Marpet was done. At the age of 28.
“The biggest reason for me was the physical toll: I didn’t want any more of that. There were some things I wanted to accomplish in my career that I had done,” Marpet tells the Guardian. “I loved playing football. But one of my strongest values is health and if I’m really going to live out what’s important to me it doesn’t make sense to keep playing. There are also the unknowns of the head trauma of the NFL and how that plays out. Plus, your joints, the aches and pains that come with surgeries and all that stuff.”
Marpet missed three games after a concussion in November 2020, and suffered mild symptoms afterwards. However, he says repeated subconcussive blows – which have been linked to brain trauma – are perhaps more significant.
Bearing the literal burden of an elite offensive lineman also took its toll. Marpet, who played at 300lb (136kg), developed sleep apnea and hypertension. “I was eating as clean as possible for a 300-pounder but having all the weight on your body is bad,” he says.
Still, despite all the risks, NFL players rarely retire voluntarily at such a tender age. Marpet had already earned over $37m in career salary and roster bonuses but he was due to earn another $20m in the final two years of his contract with the Bucs. Plus, Brady was coming back, an instant boost to the team’s Super Bowl chances. Most players would at least be tempted to continue. But Marpet is far from the typical NFL player.
Marpet hails from Hastings-on-Hudson in New York’s Westchester county: a town of artists rather than athletes. His father, Bill, is a renowned Emmy-winning director of photography and fashion producer, who still found time to coach his kids in Little League and wake up at 4.30am every day to work out.
Marpet’s mother, Joy Rose, is a musician and a leading advocate for increasing the value of motherhood in society. She holds a master’s degree in mothers’ studies and helped establish the Museum of Motherhood in New York City in 2011. While in middle school Marpet was “embarrassed” that his mom was in a band called Housewives on Prozac, but today he has an appreciation for her mission.
“She is supporting what motherhood looks like now, changing our values associated with it, and education about the history of motherhood,” he says.
Marpet is another oxymoron: a Jewish NFL player. He calls his connection to Judaism “laid back” and like many non-Orthodox Jews, his family were more focused on the cultural aspects of the religion. They celebrated holidays and the Marpet kids were given the option to have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. His sister, Zena, now a nurse who has been on the frontline during the Covid pandemic, had hers at 13. Marpet considered it too much work. “The beauty is we can still do it any time,” he says.
But perhaps the most atypical part of Marpet’s path to the NFL is that he didn’t start playing football regularly until he was a junior in high school.
“Football wasn’t a strong passion of mine. It wasn’t like I had this burning desire to get a scholarship and play [Division I college football] and in the NFL. That was never really on the table,” he says.
Part of the reason Marpet’s passion for football was ignited much later than most was that Hastings was not exactly a hotbed for football. It’s a small miracle that Hastings High even had a football team while Marpet was a student: New York state has one of the lowest youth football participation rates per capita in the United States. While states like Florida and Texas will keep the pipeline strong in the immediate future, the socio-economic split in youth football participation is more pronounced every year. Put bluntly, people with other options are sometimes less inclined to plunge into what can be a dangerous career.
Aside from the lack of accessibility of football in his town, Marpet thrived as a multi-sport athlete, playing soccer, baseball and basketball. Like Roger Federer, Marpet believes playing multiple sports helped his career.
“I tell young athletes all the time. Play as many sports as you can because we’re in an environment where youth specialization is getting younger and younger and I think that’s problematic,” he says. “There are kids who practice a single sport six times a week but the best athletes I know were also great wrestlers, great baseball players, great basketball players. And those are the best football players.”
Marpet started getting bigger and stronger, partly thanks to cross-training, and used his football skills to gain acceptance into Hobart, a tiny liberal arts college in Geneva, New York with barely 2,000 undergraduate students. Hobart’s football team, the Statesmen, were relatively successful but play in Division III, far from the huge stadiums and multimillion-dollar budgets of the elite Power Five conferences. An NFL career did not seem like a realistic goal: when Marpet was at college, the last time a Division III player had been picked in the top 100 of the draft was 1990. “[A professional football career] wasn’t even a consideration,” he says.
Instead, the most intriguing part of Hobart for Marpet was the college’s record of helping their alumni get jobs after graduation. As an economics major, Marpet thought he’d go into finance in New York, but as time wore on it felt a little less exciting and more of a default. At the same time, he started to blossom on the field during his sophomore year.
“Gradually I got better and better and bigger and stronger and it’s because I enjoyed the process and enjoyed getting better,” he says, again debunking the notion that he missed out by not specializing at a younger age.
By Marpet’s junior year, when others were doing their financial internships, making a living from football became a possibility. He still wasn’t thinking about the NFL but there are a lot of DIII players who join teams overseas as player-coaches. “That was all on the table for me. Maybe I would coach and be a gym teacher,” he says.
But by the winter of his junior season, he began to be scouted. It started with his college coach telling NFL scouts Marpet may be worth looking at. Then he was asked to submit a highlight reel, which was enough to put him on NFL teams’ radars as a priority free-agent: not someone good enough to be drafted but worth a place lower down a roster.
That scrutiny led to an invitation to the Senior Bowl and NFL combine, where top college prospects can showcase their skills to scouts and coaches. He was gradually creeping up teams’ draft boards.
This period was surreal for Marpet, who just a year prior thought he’d be another suit on Wall Street. “It just didn’t feel like real life. Every moment. Every step of the way was a surprise,” he says. “It’s like, how did I end up here?”
Marpet’s draft night was another pleasant surprise. He hung out with family and friends in Hastings and thought he might get drafted in the third round. Instead, Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith called to inform Marpet that he was being selected in the second round as the 61st overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Marpet was, at the time, the highest-drafted DIII player in NFL history and the first since Albion cornerback Chris Greenwood in 2012.
“I got a call way earlier than anticipated so it’s not like anyone was sweating,” he recalls.
Marpet takes immense pride in his rise from Hobart and the plethora of banners he brought to the Bucs locker room: a Jewish, small school guy from New York. He loved meshing his own story with the varied backgrounds of his teammates. “I relished a good locker room environment that was full of trust,” he says.
He added yet another hat after his rookie season. A teammate told him he’d have more free time in his life than he’s ever had in the offseason after his rookie year. “I didn’t believe it until I was in it. It was like: ‘Oh my god, there really is a lot of free time.’ You can only work out for so many hours in the day, so what else are you gonna do?”
Marpet thought to himself, “What’s the easiest instrument I can learn?” So he bought a ukulele and taught himself to play thanks to YouTube.
By the end of Marpet’s rookie season, he was a full-time starter. The team had given their fans few reasons to be excited on the field, but off the field the league and its image were in a tumultuous time. The locker room was abuzz: it was 2016 and Colin Kaepernick was protesting police brutality and societal inequity. Donald Trump came onto the scene and waved his wand of threats at the NFL and any dissenters.
Looking back, Marpet believes the period united players like never before, not just in the Bucs’ locker room but leaguewide.
“It’s tough because I felt it wasn’t always a place for me to speak my truth because I didn’t always see the value in that,” he says. “But when other guys did it, it was pretty special. What Kap did was truly special. Whether we realize it or not we’re seeing huge social justice pushes and real dollars behind it, real resources.”
As other NFL players followed suit and began to protest in their own way, Bucs ownership met with players to hear about their experiences of racism. A player-led social justice committee followed, which Marpet took part in. He sees the direct connection between Kaepernick’s kneeling and the $250,000 each club pledged to donate to player-led social justice initiatives.
The Bucs locker room coalesced even further in March of 2020 when the most decorated quarterback in the history of the NFL walked in.
Marpet first met Tom Brady while rehabbing at the facility. The 6ft 4in Marpet was surprised at how tall his new quarterback was. Brady complimented Marpet on his playing skills. Marpet replied: “You’re not so bad yourself.”
As an interior lineman, Marpet would go on to protect Brady, and serve as a pivotal factor in the Bucs’ Super Bowl LV win. This offseason as Brady starting plotting how to win an eighth Super Bowl, Marpet – 16 years his junior – decided he was content with one and started planning the rest of his life. After making the Pro Bowl last season, an honor Marpet considers a validation of “all of his grinding”, he was happy to leave the NFL and start his second act. Almost immediately after his retirement, he proposed to his girlfriend Meaghan on a sunset cruise off the small Hawaiian island of Lanai.
He is now keen to address issues that are important to him. In Marpet’s final years with the Bucs he became an advocate for mental health awareness. Marpet attributes his passion for the subject to growing up in a safe environment and being able to communicate in a “vulnerable, accessible way.” But he also sees societal progress in how mental health is viewed.
“If there’s one takeaway from Covid for me, it’s that people are willing to share their own stories and mental health is starting to see its day a little bit,” he says. “That feels really good and mental health is definitely something we should prioritize.”
Marpet is doing just that. He aims to get his Master’s degree in mental health counseling or marriage and family therapy.
“I’m not entirely sure yet what my actual role will be, but I want to work with people in a one-on-one setting,” he says. “I’m very eager and excited to build my skills and figure out where they can best aligned.”
While Marpet awaits admissions decisions for his Master’s, he is gaining hands-on experience, volunteering at Metropolitan Ministries, a non-profit in Tampa that serves the homeless population. He’s working with teens and elementary school children under the supervision of the counseling center.
The NFL prides itself on uniformity. Its players are rewarded with riches but not much is guaranteed, including future earnings or good health. Not all players have the wherewithal or drive to have complete control over their lives, pre-and-post NFL. But Marpet has certainly provided a blueprint.