Why Canadian offensive lineman Ben Heenan retired

Ben Heenan’s retirement on Thursday from football at the age of 26 isn’t about injury. It’s not about concussions. And it has nothing to do with wanting a career in the NFL instead of the CFL.

Instead, Ben Heenan’s departure is all about farming.

Heenan is from Grand Coulee, Saskatchewan – population 571 – not just from that rural community but part of its fabric. Heenan grew up on a cash crop farm, driving tractors by the time he was 10 years old. He wouldn’t play his first game of football until he was in Grade 10 after being convinced by friends to try it.

He played his university football at the University of Saskatchewan instead of pursuing junior college options in the United States. Even after he was drafted first overall by the Roughriders in 2012, his mother Deb said one of the benefits was her son could continue with both his passions.

“He and his brother have farmed here for a number of years together and it’s always been one of his other dreams,” she told radio station CKOM. “It’s wonderful that he is so close and able to possibly do both.”

The Riders knew it, too.

“He’s from Grand Coulee (just outside Regina), and from my understanding, he’s going to become part of the family farm operation,” said team-president Jim Hopson after Heenan was drafted. “You probably don’t have to worry about him wanting to sign with somebody else down the road, and that can happen. Long-term, it’s a good football decision.”

After starting 46 games as a ratio-breaking tackle for the Riders over three seasons – he won a Grey Cup in 2013 – Heenan garnered NFL interest and signed a three-year $1.575 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts in February, 2015.  He was injured during training camp but joined the Colts practice squad in November, then signed a futures contract with the club after the season.

Given his NFL prospects and the fact that he could have returned to the CFL at any time as a big ticket Canadian, news of Heenan’s retirement came as a surprise. Dan Vertlieb, Heenan’s agent, issued a press release Thursday afternoon announcing the news.

“I would like to thank all the coaches, teammates, and fans that have supported me throughout my career. I would like to especially thank my family for everything they have done for me, in football and in life,” Heenan said in a statement.

“My achievements in football simply would not have happened without the outstanding people I have had in my corner, and I will be forever grateful to everyone who helped me play the game for as long as I did. I look forward to seeing what life has to offer after football. I’ve always been told that when it’s over all you have left are friends and memories — I’m happy to be able to leave the game with plenty of both.”

Those close to Heenan say farming has always been his first love and he feels it is time to return home to the farm and his family.

While not officially property of the Riders, the general consensus was that Heenan would probably return to Saskatchewan if the NFL didn’t work out. But sources say Heenan had indicated that coming back to the CFL was not likely.

Heenan’s retirement may influence how many CFL teams view the upcoming draft, as it places a further premium on Canadian offensive line talent.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.