By Rob Ficiur
Peyton Manning the quarterback of the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos retired after eighteen seasons in the NFL. Some will suggest that the five time league MVP retired at the top of his game as a champion. While Manning did lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl championship, Manning like most Hall of Fame players was well past his best years when he called it quits.
At 38 years old, Manning was not the player he was as recently as two years ago. In 2015 he threw seventeen interceptions and only ten touchdown passes. Not since his 1998 rookie year has he thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. Two years ago Manning was the MVP with 450 complete passes and 55 touchdowns (and only 11 interceptions). In his final season Manning set many personal records including: Most career yards passing (71,940) and most career touchdowns thrown (539).
Retiring at the top of your game is a rarity in sports. When athletes are successful they want to come back and see if they can win another championship. Had Manning retired after his 2013 MVP season fans would have said he retired too early, with unfinished business with his new fans in Denver. They wanted a Peyton to bring them a championship. Had the Broncos not won it all this year, fans would have criticized Manning for coming back again with such a poor season. Winning a championship makes everyone forget the bad regular season stats and program our memories to think of Manning going out at the top of his game.
Calgary Flames fans remember that when the team won the 1989 Stanley Cup it was the last season for aging superstar Lanny McDonald. Lanny scored a goal in the Flames cup clinching game in Montreal. It is almost easy to remember that goal incorrectly – and say that Lanny’s goal was the cup winning goal. Lanny’s goal scoring dropped drastically in his last three seasons. The Flames sniper, who scored 66 goals in 1982-83 scored only 14, 11 and 10 goals his last three seasons. The same Lanny McDonald who scored 11 goals in the Flames 1986 run to the Stanley Cup final had just one goal in the 1989 post season. Lanny retired a champion, but he was several years removed from being the star he had been.
Fans remember that long time Boston defenseman Ray Bourque was traded to the Avalanche at the trade deadline; hoping to give the five-time Norris trophy winner a chance to win one Stanley Cup. The facts are that when Bourque was traded to Colorado in 2000 the Avalanche were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs. The next season Bourque and the Avalanche went on to win his only championship. Was the 40 year old defenseman still at the top of his game in 2001 when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup? That last year he scored the fewest goals in his NHL career. Goals and points are not a fair measure of the value of any player, especially a defenseman.
Some could argue that Bourque was still an elite defenseman because he finished second in Norris Trophy voting his last year. I agree, sort of. Many times it seems that voting for individual awards seems to be influenced by the past years’ success of a player. Having said that, the 40 year old Ray Bourque who retired in 2001 played 26 minutes per game on a Stanley cup winning team. At age 41, he could have been an elite defenseman with just about every team in the NHL had he not retired.
The only elite team sport athlete to retire as a champion in the prime of his career is basketball Hall of Famer Michael Jordan. After nine years in the NBA, and after winning his third straight NBA title Michael Jordan retired from basketball at age 29. Players’ careers generally peak in their mid to late twenties. Many superstars say that they don’t want to hang around until their play drops to an average (or less than average) level. Michael Jordan was the one star who retired at the top. Sort of…
In retirement Michael Jordan tried to start a baseball career. After one disappointing year in minor league ball, Michael Jordan unretired and returned to basketball. Starting in Year 2 of his un-retirement the 32 year old Jordan lead the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive championships. At 35 years old he retired a champion at the top of his game for the second time in his career.
The need for competition pushes super star athletes to play long past their prime. Most are still effective players, but still a shadow of the superstar form they had achieved. Three years after his second retirement the 38 year old Michael Jordan returned to play for the Washington Wizards scored about half as many points as the 29 year old Jordan.
Fans don’t want their stars to retire early. Even if they are not the elite star they once were, they are still better than average players. As we watch aging stars play we often see glimpses of the superstar we cheered for (or against) when they were the best in the sport.