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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.