If you read the headline and thought this might be about potty training, or jumping out of your seat a minute before half-time to avoid queuing in the gents, you’ll be disappointed. Today’s subject is sportsmen and retirement. Age withers us all (apart from Cleopatra obviously) and there’s nothing sadder than seeing a once great sportsman cling on to the very end, a shadow of their former selves, collecting their pay cheques but soiling their legacy.
Of course, there are occasions when remarkable longevity makes a great player even greater. Ryan Giggs played on after his fortieth birthday and was loved for it. He was sensible enough to play only occasionally and look after his body. Most importantly though, he was still pretty good in his dotage; Giggs was worth keeping around as a wise old head and a useful substitute.
The longevity of Jerry Rice, arguably the best NFL player of all time, also enhanced his greatness. Many wide receivers are washed up by their thirtieth birthday, but Rice played into his 40s. He obviously lost some speed but his skills and instincts endured. He caught 92 passes for 1,211 yards as a 40 year old, scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl, and was named to the Pro Bowl – an event for the top players in each position. It’s like a footballer being named in the PFA team of the year … even though they’re a decade older than most of their peers.
Giggs and Rice are probably the exceptions rather than the rule, however. Even the great Sachin Tendulkar played for two years too long (in my opinion). The wait for his one hundredth hundred was painful. Sachin was a wonderful player and an all-round good egg but his powers had clearly diminished by the end. It’s no surprise he reached his famous landmark against minnows Bangladesh.
When I’m asked whether I’m a Lara lover or a Tendulkar man, I invariably say the former. Lara quit at just about the right time; I only have memories of him at his very best. The last year of Tendulkar’s career spoiled things a tad. How sad that a great player struggled for so long. It’s a sorry image I can’t get out of my head.
Ian Botham was another fantastic sportsman who could’ve retired earlier. Although part of Beefy’s greatness stemmed from his larger-than-life personality – and therefore the sight of him trundling in to bowl with a wobbling gut enhanced his cult status somewhat – the Botham who played for Durham was a far cry from the golden child who excelled for Somerset and bashed the Aussies.
Mike Tyson, who has just released a fascinating autobiography, is another interesting example. The difference between the young Tyson, who was an intimidating and irresistible juggernaut, and the washed up Tyson who bit people’s ears and lost to Danny Williams, was striking. I guess he just needed the money or didn’t know what else to do with his life.
I’ve often wondered why sportsmen go on too long. I’m convinced it’s nothing to do with ego – at least not universally so. Although some stars play on precisely because of their ego (refusing to accept they’re no longer ‘great’) others carry on because of a complete absence of ego: they don’t care about their legacy and just want to keep doing something they love for as long as they can, for as long as they’re wanted.
Other sportsmen carry on due to insecurity: a fear of what comes next. Jonny Wilkinson has been extremely candid about his mental health since retiring from rugby. Poor Jonny misses the team environment, feels as though he’s lost his identity, and doesn’t know what to do with his life. As someone who started playing international rugby at such a tender age, he doesn’t know anything else. One hopes he can find some inner peace in his new life. TV punditry probably doesn’t fill enough hours.
The aforementioned Jerry Rice was also fearful of retirement. He needed extreme competition in his life. He was a workaholic, known for practicing the week after Super Bowl victories, who needed the focus and drive that professional sport gave him – that total dedication to achieving shared goals.
When Rice finally realised, as he rapidly approached his 43rd birthday, that his body wouldn’t allow him to compete anymore, he immediately appeared on Dancing With The Stars, the US equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing. He just needed another competitive goal. Call him an addict.
Two prominent sportsmen currently contemplating retirement are Mitchell Johnson, the Aussie fast bowler and Freddie Mercury lookalike, and the Denver Broncos’ Payton Manning. One looks likely to hang up his boots with immediate effect, while the other keeps plugging away – even though he’s way past his best – desperately hoping for one final shot at glory. What a shame that fairy tale endings happen so infrequently.
Before the current test between Australia and New Zealand at Perth, Mitch admitted he was contemplating retirement ‘most days’ but still enjoys playing. This set alarm bells ringing. Former players often say it’s impossible to give your absolute all, and perform at the peak of one’s abilities, unless the mind is 100% committed. After taking just 1-131 in 24 overs in the Kiwis’ first innings, the temptation to retire will be that little bit stronger.
Johnson was always an imperfect cricketer: fearsome and almost unplayable at this best, but comically poor at his worst. He’s enjoyed a remarkable international renaissance since the 2013/14 Ashes. It would be a shame if cricket followers remembered him for the lean times rather than his destructive best. Maybe it’s time for Mitch to hang up his long spikes while he’s still in credit? I’m sure there’s a Queen tribute band out there that needs a new lead singer.
If Mitch needs any encouragement, he need look no further than the mixed emotions experienced by Payton Manning last night: the great NFL quarterback, now 39, finally broke There’s Something About Mary star Brett Favre’s record for the most passing yards in NFL history. Overall though, he endured a torrid night: Manning completed just five out of twenty passes, for just 35 yards, and threw four ugly interceptions – some of which highlighted his alarming loss of arm strength. He was benched (substituted) during the third quarter of his team’s loss to Kansas City.
What should have been one of the greatest nights of Manning’s life turned into the mother of all disasters. A champion player like Payton deserved much better. But when one carries on past one’s prime, after age and injuries have corroded one’s abilities, you’re asking for trouble. Big trouble.
Manning’s head coach, Gary Kubiak, said after the game that Payton will keep playing as long as he enjoys the daily grind and could help his team. But is Manning best placed to know whether he’s actually helping? The crowd cheered when he was substituted. Maybe Kubiak will have to make the decision for him – the ultimate sign that one has played too long.
Although great players deserve to go out on their own terms, there’s no room for sentiment in professional sport. It’s better to bow out when people ask ‘why’ you’re calling it a day rather than ‘when’. Or so the saying goes …
But consider this: if you’re still capable of helping your teammates when you walk away, aren’t you leaving them in the lurch to some extent? Aren’t you putting your welfare, or ego, above the team’s needs? Is this what a true sportsman, or a true team-man, would do?
Perhaps a true pro soldiers on until he or she is no longer useful. Even if, in doing so, the timing of their departure is ultimately taken out of their hands. It’s sad when this happens. It might even be portrayed as stubborn or deluded. But it’s also admirably selfless. There has to be honour in that, surely?
PS I’d love to hear your views on this. Which sportsmen do you think retired too late or too early? Is it better to go out at the top and leave the public wanting more? There’s always the possibility of a glorious comeback 😉