No One Retires, Part 3

By Derek Rosenfeld

For many professional entertainers, the prospect of retiring is almost nonexistent. Elite singers, musicians, and actors and actresses very rarely “retire” in the strictest sense of the word; their talents seldom erode over time and, in many cases, improve with experience. Tony Bennett is still going strong at age 85. Ernest Borgnine has two acting projects in the works at age 94.1 The Rolling Stones are still together well into their late 60s. Jane Lynch became a television star near the age of 50. Clint Eastwood and William Shatner are as busy as ever at 80. This past summer, I attended a concert by the great rock guitarist Robin Trower, who is still shredding at the age of 68. The list goes on and on.

Although professional athletes may not be the first high-profile people one thinks of when considering what constitutes a “professional entertainer,” they must now be considered as just that; anyone who works within a multibillion-dollar industry such as Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association, or the National Football League (NFL), can no longer be thought of as anything but.

In Parts 1 and 2 on the topic of the retirements of elite athletes—the new professional entertainers—I focused on what many of them face when attempting to hang on at the very end of their careers; this includes hanging onto their paychecks, their egos, and their youth. However, every so often, we come across those special cases in sports, albeit rare, where athletes have said, “Enough is enough,” and have walked away from the limelight, the prestige, and a multimillion-dollar contract to focus on the next phase of their lives, never looking back on what they may be missing. Although one must search high and far to spot these rarities, they exist, and the following are some of the most interesting and well-known cases of athletes stepping down with grace and (gasp!) dignity.

JIM BROWN

There were many kids who grew up in the Cleveland, Ohio, area—and around the country—during the 1950s and 60s who believed that the Browns football team was actually named for its superstar running back. The first pick of the 1957 NFL Draft out of Syracuse University, Jim Brown would go on to set an athletic standard in professional sports to which all athletes who followed are still chasing. 

Often needing two or more tacklers to take him down on any given carry, Brown played with a ferocity that was never before seen in the league. After leading the NFL his rookie season by averaging 78.5 rushing yards per game for 942 total rushing yards,2 Brown exploded, going on to average an amazing 127.3 rushing yards per game and 1,527 rushing yards on 5.9 yards per carry in 1958. Brown would continue to punish defenses for the next seven seasons, culminating in a 1963 season which saw him rush for a then unheard of 1,863 yards on 6.4 yards per carry, numbers which were eclipsed only by O.J. Simpson’s historic 2,003-yard 1973 season. Brown would go on to rush for 12,312 yards over a nine-year career. To this day, he is still eighth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list.

After another league-leading 1965 season, Brown shocked the sports world by calling it quits at the age of 29 to pursue a career in acting. Brown was most likely aware that the punishment he had taken from his style of running as well as the fact that he had never missed a single game in a 118-game career  could hamper him later in life. He appeared in many films throughout the 1960s and 70s, most notably Rio Conchos, Three the Hard Way, and, of course, The Dirty Dozen. His biographer, Mike Freeman, stated that Brown’s role in Ice Station Zebra made him “the first black action star.” He has since appeared in dozens of TV and movie roles, has worked as a mentor to inner city kids caught up in gang violence, and is an executive advisor to the Browns. In 2002, The Sporting News named Brown as the greatest football player of all time. 

BARRY SANDERS

The only running back in NFL history comparable to Jim Brown, Barry Sanders may have been the greatest pure athlete to have ever played the position. He was a player that gave defensive coordinators nightmares, forced free safeties and cornerbacks to make extra tackles, and made offensive blocking schemes insignificant. In a 10-year career with the Detroit Lions, Sanders cut, slashed, and juked his way to more than 15,000 rushing yards and 109 total touchdowns,3 averaging 5.0 yards per carry for his career and breaking more defenders’ ankles than any halfback before or after.  

A member of both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fames, Sanders rushed to the beat of his own drum, stopping on a dime to reverse his field and sending entire NFL defenses scrambling to catch up, rarely following blocking patterns to create his own holes or simply cutting off into his own direction when he saw his offensive line begin to break down. In 1997, he became just the third running back in history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season (it has since been done by three other players); he would go on to share that year’s NFL Most Valuable Player award (with Brett Favre).    

So, perhaps it shouldn’t have been the shock that it was when Sanders, coming off a near-1,500-yard season, abruptly retired from the Lions before the 1999 season at the age of 30, criticizing the organization for failing to put together a championship-caliber team during his tenure. Citing his lack of desire to play for the perennial NFL also-ran, and a still controversial situation where he apparently tried to force a trade from the Lions, Sanders left the game less than 1,500 yards shy of Walter Payton’s career rushing record. Had he not walked away, Sanders would have set a rushing standard that even eventual record holder Emmitt Smith most likely would not have reached had Sanders continued on his career trajectory.

LENNOX LEWIS        

As was mentioned in Part 2 of this series, boxing may be the sport most dubious for having its greatest names (Leonard, Ali, Foreman, Holmes) retire, then return, then retire, then return again, and so on. Some find it hard to leave at all. Roberto Duran fought until the age of 50, only to retire after a serious car accident. Evander Holyfield won the World Boxing Federation heavyweight championship in 2010 at 49 amidst incredibly weak competition and steroid allegations. Bernard Hopkins, 46, defended his World Boxing Council (WBC) middleweight championship this past October 15.

Lennox Lewis was a three-time world heavyweight champion, Olympic gold medalist,  and self-proclaimed “pugilistic specialist” who compiled a 41-2-1 professional record, knocking out every major contender to the crown during his reign, which included Holyfield, Mike Tyson, and Vitali Klitschko (the current WBC heavyweight champ), among many others. The 6’5”, 250-pound Brit was indeed all that he claimed to be, being one of only three boxers in history to retire with no unavenged losses. After TKO’ing Klitschko in 2003, Lewis retired from the ring in February 2004 and, shockingly, stayed retired.

Although Lewis was 39 years old at the time of his retirement, he was coming off two high-profile victories (Tyson and Klitschko) and looked to have little to no competition for the crown. Despite much goading from Klitschko (who required 60 stitches in his face after the bout) for a rematch, Lewis hung up his gloves, surprisingly for good. Historically speaking, nearly all fighters in his situation would have kept fighting. Instead, Lewis decided enough was enough. 

During his retirement, Lewis has popped up occasionally in television and in film, appearing on Donald Trump’s reality show “The Apprentice,” competing in the World Series of Poker tournament, and serving as a boxing analyst for HBO. He is also active in several charities.

MIKE MUSSINA

Another athlete who retired at the age of 39, yet could have soldiered on for several more productive years, was former MLB pitcher Mike Mussina. Despite never winning a Cy Young award, “Moose” was a perennial contender for the award—finishing in the top 6 in the award’s voting in nine of his 18 years—and was one of the top pitchers in the American League for nearly two decades. As was discussed earlier this year in my article on the credentials of potential Hall-of-Fame candidates, Mussina racked up an impressive 270 wins during baseball’s “steroid era” and flirted with 20-win seasons five separate times during his 18-year career. However, heading into the final year of his contract with the New York Yankees in 2008, he had never broken through with that elusive 20th win in any season.

That all changed when Mussina began systematically befuddling opponents throughout 2008, quietly and steadily racking up wins at a rate that left him with 19 on September 28, the day of his final start of the season against the Boston Red Sox. Mussina threw six innings of three-hit ball in a 6-2 victory, finishing the year with a 20-9 mark. He finished sixth in the Cy Young voting but stayed true to the promise that he made to himself before the season that 2008 would be his last in the bigs. In modern MLB history, only Sandy Koufax (who retired at 30 because of an arthritic condition in his elbow) retired following a 20-win season.4

In many walks of life, retiring is indeed a little like dying. It is about the inevitable passing of time, the outliving of one’s usefulness, and the begrudging acceptance of the onset of age and the passing of youth. Firefighters themselves seem be split on the very idea; some relish their impending final days at the station house, looking to move on to other endeavors, while others are true “lifers,” working within the fire service in other capacities.

The vast majority of athletes have more trouble than most when attempting to deal with this issue, especially considering that many are forced to do so at an age where most people’s professional lives are just beginning to hit their stride. As former MLB Catcher Rick Cerone once said as he was approaching the end of his long career, “I may have been an old player, but I was also a young executive.”

Photos found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of, top to bottom, Philkon, Timothymonaghan, Lymantria, and Keith Allison.

ENDNOTES

1. www.imdb.com/name/nm0000308.
2. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/B/BrowJi00.htm.
3. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/S/SandBa00.htm.
4. http://newyork.yankees.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20081120&content_id=3686061&vkey=news_nyy&fext=.jsp&c_id=nyy.

 

Derek Rosenfeld is an associate editor for Fire Engineering. He is the head baseball coach at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey, where he worked as an assistant coach from 2005-2011. He has also been an infielder in several highly competetive semipro baseball leagues throughout the tri-state area. During the mid-90s, Rosenfeld was a three-year starter at second base for the Ramapo College baseball team in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he earned all-New Jersey Athletic Conference honors and was a two-time New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association (NJCBA) all-star selection. He was named MVP of the 1997 NJCBA All-Star Game. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Ramapo College.  

  

  

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No One Retires, Part 2

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By Derek Rosenfeld

At some point in all of our lives, we will have to retire, whether by our own choice or somebody else’s. For professional athletes, especially the most accomplished ones, this is usually decided by somebody else and can lead to a very public and sometimes acrimonious breakup between them and the team, the fans, and the media. In Part 1 on this topic, I explained how very few elite athletes truly call it quits on their own terms, many times consigned to spend their final days in the spotlight in the unfamiliar position of being on the bench; used as a part-time player; or left to sit at home, waiting for the phone to ring. 

However, this has led to a more recent phenomenon that has seen several high-profile athletes announce, sometimes dramatically, their retirements, only to return to the game weeks—even days—later. One can hardly be blamed for being skeptical after yet ANOTHER player who “retired” just a month ago announces that he has signed a new contract with a new team. Can any of these athletes be taken seriously when they presumably walk away from their sport with something “left in the tank”? After NFL Quarterback Kerry Collins “retired” on July 7, it was hardly a surprise when, on August 24, he was signed by the Indianapolis Colts and announced as their starting quarterback after Peyton Manning was lost to injury. Even Babe Ruth, the greatest American sports figure of all time, hung on until his last athletic breath, playing 28 games for the Boston Braves in 1935 after being released by his beloved New York Yankees, who did not want to adhere to his frequent requests to be made its manager.

Let’s take a look at some of the most famous—and infamous—retirements and unretirements in modern sports history, announced by athletes who were gone today, here tomorrow.

Brett Favre

Any list of the most famous retirement flip-flops in sports history must begin with Brett Favre. The most prolific quarterback in NFL history (for better and for worse), Favre first announced his retirement from the Green Bay Packers on March 4, 2008, only to inform the team a few months later that he wished to rescind that decision, accusing the Packers of forcing his hand. Eagerly waiting to place future Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the Packers decided to trade Favre to the New York Jets later that year.

During a 2008-09 season in which his new team appeared playoff bound, Favre’s Jets collapsed, losing four of its last five games, finishing with a 9-7 record. On February 11, 2009, Favre announced his retirement for a second time. After he was placed on the Jets Reserved/Retired list, Favre signed with the Minnesota Vikings, his original first choice after the Packers, where he narrowly missed taking the team to the Super Bowl following an overtime NFC Championship Game loss to the eventual champion New Orleans Saints. 

Favre returned to the Vikings in 2010 amid grumblings from teammates for his having missed most of training camp; he repeatedly said that 2010 would be his final season. The 40-year-old Favre was constantly pummeled throughout the year, taking particularly vicious hits in games against the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears. On January 17, 2011, 15 days after he was unable to pass the NFL’s mandated postconcussion tests (keeping him out of the Vikings’ final regular season game), Favre officially filed his retirement papers with the NFL, concluding the most drama-filled end to a career American sports had ever seen.

Michael Jordan

 

Before Favre set the gold standard for unretirements in professional sports, that honor was held by the greatest basketball player of all time. Prior to the 1993-94 NBA season, months after leading the Chicago Bulls to its third consecutive NBA championship, Jordan announced his retirement from basketball at the age of 30, telling everyone that he “had nothing left to accomplish.” Little did we know that, motivated by his father’s murder at a North Carolina truck stop in July of that year, Jordan signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox, looking to play the game his father loved. Jordan spent the spring and summer of 1994 playing for the White Sox’s AA minor league affiliate, the Birmingham Barons, and the Arizona Fall League’s Scottsdale Scorpions.

On March 18, 1995, after batting .202 with three home runs and 30 stolen bases for the Barons the previous summer, Jordan announced, “I’m back” in an NBA press release. He proceeded to lead the Bulls to another “three-peat” of championships (1996-98), then retire again on January 13, 1999, “99.9 percent certain” that he would never play again.

Of course, that changed one year later. Jordan became president of basketball operations and a part owner of the Washington Wizards in January 2000. When he became unsatisfied with the team’s roster and overall play, he took matters into his own hands and jumped back onto the court after the start of the 2001 season. Although he no longer was the high-flying slam dunk artist of his heyday, Jordan still possessed the scoring touch that made him a legend, averaging more than 21 points per game in his two seasons with the club. He played his final game on April 13, 2003, at the age of 40.

Sugar Ray Leonard

Boxing may be the sport most notorious for comebacks. From George Foreman to Larry Holmes to Muhammad Ali, the allure of the ring, the next big payday, immeasurable pride, and the fear of conceding to age all factor into why so many of boxing’s best refuse to walk away, despite its being the sport with the potential for the most bodily damage.

Leonard was certainly one of the greatest pound-per-pound fighters ever. He had compiled a 32-1 record (his only loss was to Roberto Duran) and won several world welterweight titles when, after defeating Bruce Finch in February 1982, Leonard retired for the first time that November at the age of 26, citing a detached retina and a lack of desire to ever box again. That retirement lasted slightly more than a year, as he announced he would return for a series of fights against the top welterweight competition in the field, much to the dismay of boxing fans who thought he was risking his eyesight. He fought one fight—a TKO victory against Kevin Howard—in May 1984 and announced his retirement for the second time.

In March 1986, Leonard sat ringside at the Marvelous Marvin Hagler/John “The Beast” Mugabi bout. After dissecting Hagler’s performance in an 11th-round KO of Mugabi, Leonard decided to come out of retirement once again, believing he could beat Hagler. The two fought on April 6, 1987. It was dubbed “The Super Fight”; Leonard came in as a 3-1 underdog to Hagler, who at that point had not lost a bout in more than 11 years. However, a quick and flashy Leonard scored one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, outpointing Hagler for 12 rounds in a controversial split decision that still causes many boxing fans consternation today. Hagler retired after the bout (for good), as Leonard consistently waffled on a potential rematch. Leonard announced yet another retirement shortly thereafter.

November 7, 1988, brought about Leonard’s third comeback. He scored a TKO victory over Donnie Lalonde to win both the super middleweight and light heavyweight championships. He then fought two more high-profile bouts against Thomas “Hitman” Hearns and Duran, a draw and a unanimous decision victory, respectively, then suffered a loss, only his second, to Terry Norris in 1991, ending his third comeback. Leonard announced after the loss, “It took this fight to show me it is no longer my time. Tonight was my last fight. I know how Hagler felt now.”

In January 1997, the 40-year-old Leonard came back once again, this time against the popular middleweight Hector “Macho” Camacho. Camacho soundly defeated Leonard in a 5th-round TKO, prompting Leonard to once again call it quits. Leonard flirted with fighting again in 1998 before calling it a career with a 36-3-1 record.

Björn Borg

With 11 Grand Slam singles titles (fourth-most all time), including five straight Wimbledon championships, Borg is considered one of the greatest tennis players ever and certainly the best player of the 1970s. His won/loss percentages for both Wimbledon and the French Open (where he won six titles) are still career records. In 1982, 26 years old and seemingly at the top of his game, he abruptly and shockingly retired (although he did play in one tournament each in 1983 and 1984) with little explanation. Nevertheless, it was another surprise to fans when Borg, now 34 years old, growing out his famous locks, and brandishing a wooden racket (the new graphite racket had overtaken wood by then), attempted a comeback in 1991 after much of his estate was in disarray because of failed marriages and bad financial decisions.

Beginning his comeback at his favorite tournament, the Monte Carlo Open, Borg failed to win a set in seven ATP tournaments. In the process, he garnered much criticism from peers such as John McEnroe and current stars such as Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, who called it “very, very sad.” Borg’s bizarre comeback, though, was short-lived, as he withdrew from competitions in 1993.

Since then, Borg has made a comeback of another sort: His Björn Borg fashion company is one of the most successful clothing companies in all of Europe. He continues to play on the seniors’ tour to this day.

In part 3 of this series, we will look at some high-profile athletes who did what many consider unthinkable: They retired with something left in the tank—and stayed that way.

Images found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of, top to bottom, Vinnytrix, Beezer34,  Keith Allison, Steve Lipofsky, Marine 69-71, Neurofibromats – Reggie Bibbs, and Thomas C.

 

Derek Rosenfeld is an associate editor for Fire Engineering. He is the head baseball coach at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey, where he worked as an assistant coach from 2005-2011. He has also been an infielder in several highly competetive semipro baseball leagues throughout the tri-state area. During the mid-90s, Rosenfeld was a three-year starter at second base for the Ramapo College baseball team in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he earned all-New Jersey Athletic Conference honors and was a two-time New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association (NJCBA) all-star selection. He was named MVP of the 1997 NJCBA All-Star Game. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Ramapo College.