PITTSBURGH — The last thing that an athlete ever wants to think about is the end of the road, but for Mason Rudolph, it was unavoidable.
The transition from life as a professional athlete into that of a regular, working Joe can be one of the hardest things that athletes have to deal with. That’s why many put it off until they’re absolutely sure that they’re ready for their playing days to be over.
Those at the top of their game are afforded the luxury of deciding when to hang up their cleats. They can look at their bank balance, the offers they’re getting from around the league, and decide if they really want to put their bodies through it for another years.
More often, those toward the bottom of the game have the decision made for them. One day, the calls will stop coming and the opportunity will run dry. Players will only get so many shots in the NFL before they had better get ready to, as former Steelers coach Chuck Noll used to say, “move on with their life’s work.”
For Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph, now 28 years old, he had a job as the Steelers third quarterback, but he admitted that he was openly questioning whether opportunity to start would ever come.
Rudolph has had chances. He had started 10 games prior to Saturday’s spot start against the Cincinnati Bengals. The most recent one had been in 2021, a game he played on 12 hours’ notice against the Detroit Lions in a downpour.
Two years is a long time in the NFL landscape. When Rudolph was a free agent this offseason, he didn’t find work elsewhere. If he didn’t get a shot this season with the Steelers, he might not get one, and he knew it.
“You’ve got confidence in yourself as a player, but you’re kind of thinking, am I going to jump into commercial real estate realm next year or be playing quarterback?” Rudolph said. “Those thoughts come into your head.”
The stakes were high for the Pittsburgh Steelers entering Saturday’s game against the Bengals. A loss would have nearly ended their playoff hopes, it would have been the team’s fourth in a row and could have sent a locker room already showing signs of strain under the losing streak into a tailspin.
That didn’t happen, in large part, because Rudolph rose to the challenge to meet both the stakes for the team and for him personally.
From the opening kick to the final whistle, Rudolph was calm under pressure, went through his progressions, took care of the football, and was everything that a team could want a backup quarterback to be.
“Just grateful to be back on this team this year and to have an opportunity to play a game,” Rudolph said. “That’s all you can ever ask for. Just thankful to God for giving me — orchestrating it the way he did and blessing me and us with a great performance. Just a special night.”
Rudolph said he didn’t know if he’ll get another opportunity to start. Kenny Pickett is close to a return, and will likely re-claim his spot as the team’s top quarterback when he does, even though Rudolph put up a better statistical day than almost any in Pickett’s career.
Rudolph is a free agent again this offseason. Could his strong start become another chance in 2024?
Just a lot of gratitude. Just so thankful to God for throwing me a bone and giving me an opportunity to play. I got my family here and celebrating Christmas, so it’ll be a fun time.