The debt still hasn’t been paid.
Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Willie Colon knows that without football, he wouldn’t be here. He’s well aware that he easily could have been another statistic, another kid from a single-parent home in the South Bronx “doing God knows what.”
That intangible thing that keeps him tethered to football is bigger than pride or money. It’s rooted in an overwhelming obligation — a duty to give all of himself to the sport that gave so much to him.
“Football saved my life,” Colon said in a recent interview with Newsday. “So I always feel in debt to football.”
He can’t just walk away. Not even after the toll 10 seasons with the Steelers and the Jets has put on his body.
A day after former Hofstra and Jets teammate Stephen Bowen officially announced his retirement, the right guard was contemplating his own future. Over an assortment of Cuban-Chinese fusion appetizers and entrees in a midtown restaurant, the Bronx native and current NFL free agent spoke at length about the inevitable end of his own career.
A former Super Bowl champion in Pittsburgh, Colon now finds himself at a crossroad. He’s given himself a deadline. “I’m thinking the end of August,” said the imposing offensive lineman, clad in a T-shirt, basketball shorts and flip-flops.
By then, the 33-year-old will know for certain if his body — more specifically his right knee — will allow him to play a full 16-game schedule.
Either way, he will be moving on from the NFL after the 2016 season.
“If I do go back on the field, it’s going to be my last year. I just know it is,” said Colon, who already has delved into the world of broadcast TV and radio. “But the ego and the [guts] I have, if I do get back, I want to go out like Clint Eastwood — I want to go out firing and shooting. If it doesn’t happen, I’m going to move on and get a recorder just like you.”
‘Losing a parent’
During the past two months, he watched as two of his closest friends and former Jets teammates retired — Freeport native D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Bowen, his former Pride teammate more than a decade ago.
“The Hofstra bloodline is thinning out,” Colon said, smiling.
Though many assumed he would walk away too, he insisted their decisions never swayed him. Instead, Colon highlighted Ferguson’s Long Island upbringing and the fact that, unlike himself, the longtime Jets left tackle “comes from a family of professionals.’’
“If football was not in Brick’s life, I still know Brick would go on to do great things outside of football,’’ Colon said. “He’s educated, he had the support system, he had the know-how and the want-to to be a lawyer or a doctor . . . He was always going to be successful. His life was streamlined to be that.”
Colon then described his childhood growing up in the gritty, crime-ridden South Bronx. His mother, who suffers from lupus, “fought tooth and nail” to provide for him and his siblings.
“If I didn’t play football, so many coaches wouldn’t have invested in me or cared if I went to class or cared if my mom or my brother were doing well, cared if I got up every morning,” Colon said. “If I didn’t play football, in my neighborhood, to so many coaches I would have been another kid doing God knows what.”
He hesitated briefly before admitting his truth.
“I hate to say this because the older people say, ‘Don’t let football define you, you define football.’ But football very much defines me. So my love and intimate appreciation for football runs deeper than those two guys,” Colon said.
“For me, retiring from football is like losing a parent. Football kept me out of the streets, football taught me how to be a man, football allowed me to be vulnerable and be myself inside of a helmet. Football also brought me down to the darkest places of my life up to the highest places of my life. That breakup is real. And when I look at those two guys, both come from really good families and solid situations.
“I don’t compare my world to theirs. I just know where I come from and what football has done for me.”
The decision to retire is a personal one, Colon said, one that can’t be reached with the help of others. It’s a “heart-to-heart” conversation that needs to take place “in the mirror.”
“Every guy has that intimate conversation,” he said.
He’s grown accustomed to being one of the “old guys in the locker room,” but his age belies his grit and passion for the gridiron. “If I could, I would totally play football until I’m 60 and die being a football player,” Colon said between bites of his Peking-style chicken. “I’m more than happy with that. But that’s not life.”
After spraining the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the Jets’ Week 3 loss to the Eagles in 2015, he pushed his body to its limit in order to stay on the field. And on Nov. 11, after playing in only six games, Colon was placed on season-ending injured reserve.
He’d love nothing more than to play again — for the Jets, if given the chance, he said.
His knee is “doing a lot better” and right now his body could carry him “through Week 3.” Colon also doesn’t see missing OTAs and minicamp as a setback. “If I’m in a Chargers helmet to a Bears helmet, I’m still going to be doing the same blocks,” he said.
While close friends and former teammates are preparing for life after football, Colon is prepping himself for his final test against Father Time. By summer’s end, he’ll know whether his body can commit to rigors of NFL life.
His knees are not what they used to be, but his heart overflows with appreciation and pride for the game.
Only time will tell if that will be enough, however.
“I think teams perceive me as being a locker-room leader, a tough guy on the field, a guy who’s built for the fire and the trenches, a field warrior,” Colon said. “But at some point, you’ve got to bring more to the table, especially when guys like Leonard Williams and [Darrelle] Revis are gracing the field.
“So my mindset is, if I’m going to go back on the field, I’ve got to not only lead the pack but continue to run with the pack and not get pushed off to the side because my body no longer can do it anymore.”