For sports fans, the retirement of one of their heroes can be a bittersweet moment. We enjoy watching them do what they do so well, and when they decide they can no longer do it, it can be hard to take. All of us can remember a time when someone we’ve looked up to decide to hang up their boots, skates, cleats or spikes for the final time. We’re grateful for the memories… but if we’re honest, we also wish that they’d stay around to make some more memories.
Some players don’t get to choose when they’ll leave the arena; injuries can catch up with them and end a career early. Steve Young, who somehow managed to fill the enormous shoes of Joe Montana at the San Francisco 49ers, had to call time because of repeated concussions. Kirby Puckett, one of the great designated hitters in MLB history, hung up his bat when he lost the sight in his right eye. So, we have to ask, should players retire at the top of their game rather than risk their future happiness trying to keep the flame alive?
How long is too long to stick around?
Tom Brady may be the best quarterback ever to sling a pigskin around, and his admirers would have expected him to go out as he came in, making the Patriots a winning team. In March of 2020, though, he took the shock decision to sign as a free agent with Tampa Bay. In the same week that local hockey giants the Lightning won the Stanley Cup and reinforced their role as winning DFS NHL Hockey picks, Brady was reduced to looking very ordinary as the Buccaneers lost a very winnable game at Chicago. He’ll play worse and win games, but at 43 with nothing left to prove, what benefit is there to Brady playing on?
For the young quarterbacks learning at Brady’s feet in Florida, maybe his move there will be the making of them. Maybe after years of cold New England winters, he wanted to move somewhere warmer. In any case, he’s earned the right to make the decision himself.
The benefits of “going out early”
For much of the 1990s, running backs in the NFL were either dependable, between-the-tackles carriers like Emmitt Smith, or they were more exciting, flashy players; of the latter breed, the standout remains Barry Sanders. Playing for the unfashionable Detroit Lions, Sanders was an incredible player to watch – elusive, unpredictable, and somehow humble. It was a mark of how untouched by arrogance he was that, when Sanders retired at the age of 31, he did so by faxing a letter to his hometown newspaper.
Barry Sanders could have kept on playing. The Lions were going nowhere fast, but he could easily have padded his career numbers and kept getting paid. But today, at the age of 52, he can walk unimpeded and has an unsullied legacy as one of the best there was in the history of the NFL.
In truth, there is no right nor wrong way to get out of a professional sporting career. Brady may be losing a step now, but he’s still an elite quarterback. Sanders could easily have had three or four more seasons at Detroit or forced a trade somewhere he might have won a title – but that would have burned a lot of bridges. As fans, the best thing we can do is appreciate the players while they’re around and thank them with grace when they decide enough is enough. Some sports stars – like Steve Young – don’t get to make the decision so freely.