WHEN I READ the story, I was taken aback.

Chris Conte, a fourth-year free safety with the Chicago Bears, told a radio station that if he knew today that playing in the NFL would take at least a decade off his normal life span, he'd still do it all over again.

"As far as after football, who knows?" Conte, who had suffered two concussions this season, told WBBM Newsradio in Chicago. "My life will revolve around football to some point, but I'd rather have the experience of playing and, who knows, die 10, 15 years earlier than not be able to play in the NFL and live a long life.

"[Playing in the NFL is] something I've wanted to do with my life and I wanted to accomplish. And I pretty much set my whole life up to accomplish that goal. So I don't really look toward my life after football because I'll figure things out when I get there and see how I am."

I've worked around professional athletes for nearly 3 decades - the last 20 years at the Daily News.

Just by being on the periphery of the pro athletes' lifestyle, I do understand how a 25-year-old NFL player might not think beyond the moment.

As brutally harsh as Conte's words sound, his thought process is not exclusive.

"I understand it," said Eagles tight end Brent Celek, who turns 30 next month. "You're living now. The experience and the things you get to do while playing in the NFL is living a dream.

"If you ask kids when they were younger, 'If you could live to 80 but you probably won't be able to do what you want or you can live to 65 and live your dream out,' what would you say as a kid?

"I'd say I'd go to 65 and live my dream."

But in those terms, I'd agree with Celek. Now, however, I just celebrated my 49th birthday. My daughter is 10.

My thought today is that 15 more years is not enough. I want to see my daughter grow into a woman and experience the joys as she lives out her dreams.

Unfortunately, 65 might be well beyond the average life expectancy for NFL players.

Last year, alarmed by statistics that said its players on average die almost 20 years earlier than the average American male, the NFL Players Association selected Harvard to oversee a $100 million research initiative aimed at treating and preventing the numerous health issues that plague former athletes.

Harvard's initial study said the average life expectancy for NFL and Canadian Football League players is somewhere in the mid-to-late-50s.

"Ah, 10 to 15 years is a little extreme," said 26-year-old Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, "but I think everybody is different. You've got a lot of people who are motivated by different things.

"Some guys play because you make a lot of money. Some guys play for the love of the game. I know that if we weren't making as much as we do, I would still take this job over everything else because this is what I grew up loving.

"We all understand the risk involved and we know it's probably taking some years off the back end of our lives, but hopefully not 10 to 15."

Garry Cobb played a decade as a NFL linebacker for the Cowboys, Lions and Eagles. He felt the seductive attraction of the NFL life.

Cobb is 57 now. His post-NFL life includes a career in sports broadcasting, a popular sports website and a recent run for Congress.

He also has been married for more than 3 decades and raised three children.

"I can see how a young guy might feel [like Conte]," Cobb said. "When you are playing, you feel invincible and you'll always be young and strong.

"But really, I hope he doesn't sincerely mean it. The allure of the NFL game is definitely there, though. Growing up, I would have done just about anything to play in the NFL, and then once you get a taste of it . . .

"From where young guys stand, they see it as being that valuable. But it's not worth dying a lot younger than you should. I enjoyed it. It was part of my life. It was a great thrill. But there is no way I'm saying I'm giving up 10 or 15 years to do it again. If you look the big picture, I've got a wife and kids. My family is more important to me. I played football to take care of my family not to leave it early.

"I can't look at it like [Conte], but I know plenty of guys who did."

Ultimately, I guess it comes down to what you value most.

Just walking around the battered and bruised bodies in a NFL locker room, you understand how brutal the trade-off is for what these guys gain from being NFL players.

Much is asked for what is to be gained. Most NFL players accept that a life of injuries and lingering pain is almost certainly a cost.

I'm not sure how many can or will contemplate the possibility of a considerably shorter life while they are actively living the NFL life.

The only thing the Eagles players are focusing on is Saturday's vital game at Washington.

Future-quality-of-life issues won't come up until the glamorous lights on the marquee have stopped shining.

There is no right or wrong answer, only what each individual determines is most important.

"It all depends on how you look at it," Eagles safety Nate Allen said. "I'd have to say 10 to 15 fewer years is pretty tough.

"You do this and you love it, but when you are talking about taking years off your life, that's a different ballgame. I love this game, but football is something I do. It is not who I am.

"Someday when I have a family, I'm going to want to be around to enjoy spending time with them. There are bigger things in life than this."

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