Leistikow: Sean Welsh could've made millions in the NFL. This is why he chose a different path
If you had just signed your first NFL contract and knew that by doing what you were trained to do that you could be paid handsomely to play football for years to come … what would it take for you to walk away?
For Sean Welsh, it took a gut feeling.
One year ago this week, the former Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman retired from football before putting on his first pair of shoulder pads with the Washington Redskins.
“I just decided it would be great if I got out there in the real world and tried to be a little more well-rounded,” Welsh explained in a recent interview with the Des Moines Register. “Just learn something other than football.”
As you might imagine, there were building personal circumstances that turned Welsh's gut feeling into a life-changing decision.
For the first time publicly, Welsh opened up about the days leading up to his abrupt retirement — and his new life 1,500 miles away from Iowa City.
And, judging by his recurring smile and upbeat tone of the hour-long conversation over flapjacks and eggs on Easter weekend, Welsh couldn’t be more pleased with his decision.
There’s no doubt, Welsh had all the physical tools to stick in the NFL.
Welsh was a 48-game starter at Iowa, a second-team all-American by USA TODAY in 2016, a first-team all-Big Ten Conference pick in 2017. Though Welsh predominantly played guard in college, he was a trained center and an admirable stopgap tackle for the Hawkeyes.
That kind of versatility is coveted in the NFL, where game-day rosters are limited to a precious 46 spots. Welsh measured a sturdy 6-foot-3, 306 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz on more than one occasion compared him to Marshal Yanda, perhaps the premier guard in the NFL.
“He could have made it,” Welsh's agent, Jack Bechta, said. “Smart, hard-working. A little undersized. But crafty.”
Technically sound, high-character guys like Welsh can enjoy long NFL careers, at least as backups. A year ago, Welsh was considered the undrafted free agent most likely to make the Redskins roster.
The minimum annual salary in the NFL for the 2018 season was $480,000. Proven backup offensive linemen can eventually top $1 million a year. But Welsh realized that there were more important things than money.
“It was something that I knew I could have done. It just wasn’t for me,” Welsh said. “It wasn’t the path I wanted to take. And that’s all right.”
You can still hear it in Welsh's voice.
He loves what football meant to him, from third grade until his final game — Iowa's 2017 Pinstripe Bowl win against Boston College on the frozen Yankee Stadium ground.
He fondly recalled the relationships he made throughout the years and some unforgettable Iowa experiences.
An appearance in the 2016 Rose Bowl. A 55-24 shellacking of then-No. 3 Ohio State, his home-state team, on Nov. 4, 2017. Yet Welsh counts a loss as his favorite Hawkeye football memory.
“The Big Ten Championship Game, 2015. Which sounds surprising to a lot of people,” Welsh said of that 16-13 loss in the final minute to Michigan State after Iowa’s 12-0 regular season. “But you know, more so for the team. When we were a part of that, we left it all on the field.”
Those were the high points. But there were a lot of personal lows for Welsh. The months that preceded that Big Ten title game became a well-told story — and became the central theme of Welsh’s. And it became an important backdrop to why he wasn't passionate about an NFL career.
In the spring before the 2015 football season, Welsh left the Hawkeyes and went back to Ohio, where he was diagnosed with depression. Two years later, he courageously went public with his struggles in an effort to encourage others who might be depressed to talk about it. And get help.
Welsh spoke of not being able to leave his room for days. His willingness to discuss his disease turned him into a national inspiration. He received e-mail and messages from all corners of the country from those inspired (and helped) by his story.
At the same time, keeping it all together — while juggling the full-time rigors and pressure of being a high-level Division I football player — was becoming understandably exhausting.
On April 28, 2018, Welsh signed with the Redskins.
On May 11, he posted a retirement message to his Facebook account.
What happened in two short weeks?
On May 1, Welsh's mind was racing. He sent a text message to Bechta, his agent, to express serious trepidation about pursuing an NFL career.
The two talked. And by the next day, Welsh was ready to give it a shot.
“Maybe try it out, maybe stick with it,” Welsh said. “See what happens.”
A week later, he arrived in Washington a few days ahead of rookie mini-camp. And … he wasn’t feeling it. Welsh gathered final advice from his agent and loved ones — parents, Matt and Deb, and longtime girlfriend Carissa Siddell of Solon.
"I had plenty of people tell me different things,” Welsh said. “In the end, I kind of went with my gut and decided that it was the right time.”
Bechta recalled Welsh, on the morning he informed head coach Jay Gruden of his plans, being “adamant” about retiring.
Welsh knew it was the right thing to do for him. And he’s rarely looked back. He hoped by granting this interview, his story might offer encouragement to others — that it can be OK to choose a road that the rest of the world might not understand.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Welsh said. “More than anything, I look back and am grateful for the time I had. Incredibly grateful.”
Welsh's road less traveled took him to ... the desert.
In August, Welsh took a job as a pharmaceutical sales representative in the Phoenix area for a company called Eli Lilly; his girlfriend of four years works in digital marketing. Welsh likes the work. It means being a self-starter, but he gets to be around people a lot. He embraces the concept of achieving results by attacking each day, a lesson learned through Iowa football.
Outside of work, he and Siddell enjoy the vastly different scenery and a new chapter in their lives. They walk for miles at a time, often hiking through the Arizona mountains. Welsh has gotten into hot yoga, too.
But his daily battle with depression is always tagging along.
He wants everyone to know depression is treatable. But it requires seeking help. And diligent work.
What works for Welsh: Waking up at the same time every morning. Going to bed at the same time every night. Eating at pre-determined times.
"Remembering to eat — you have to make it a priority,” he said.
He calls these things “anchors” for his day.
“Routine’s important. Exercise, diet. Staying away from sugar as much as possible, for me,” he said. “… I journal. It helps gets your thoughts out on paper. It brings them out.”
Welsh, a Catholic, also leans on his faith and his loved ones. He considers himself blessed to have Siddell by his side. Isolation, he said, is never good for a person who suffers from depression.
“It’s hard to put into words how great she is; her patience with me,” Welsh said. “She’s just really great."
And that's the word Welsh uses to describe his life after football.
"I’m happy where I’m at today," Welsh said. "There are some guys that it can be make or break; that football is everything. It’s not everything."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.