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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Basic Biittner: Calling it quits not easy at the top

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Three cheers for Brett Fav-ruh! Heretofore known simply as one of the greatest quarterbacks and inspirational team leaders in NFL history, "#4" has now managed to show another side as one of the greatest soap opera stars in NFL history as well - no small feat, considering his previous acting performance, when he played himself ten years ago in the hit movie "There's Something About Mary," was less than stellar.

In this latest soap opera, "The Favre Saga," the good ol' boy from Mississippi again plays himself. At least I think he's playing himself, but it seems to be another dimension of Brett Favre that the public hasn't seen before. After a tearful farewell to the game last March, an idea he'd been considering for a couple of years, Favre changed his mind and decided he wanted to keep playing, and, of course, he would return to Green Bay and lead the Pack to more gridiron glory. No problem, right? After a one-day respite, where it appeared that he would indeed return to the Pack, the country boy will now be exchanging his Packer green for New York Jet green, and become "Broadway Brett."

Favre's "dilemma" is the latest example of a professional sports superstar finding it very difficult to hang up his uniform.

While it's not unusual for a professional athlete to struggle with the retirement decision, not knowing for sure if it truly is "time to go" - after all, he or she is probably only in their thirties or forties, the prime of life for non-athletes - it must be an extremely difficult decision for an athlete who has been at the very top of their profession - loved and admired by millions, earning incredible money on the field of play and even more money in product endorsements - to leave that all behind. As a result, we've had at least three athletes in this category who have toyed with the idea of retirement, perhaps even announced their retirement, only to have a change of heart and "un-retire."

Exhibit number one is, of course, is "His Airness," Michael Jeffrey Jordan - probably the most ballyhooed celebrity athlete in recent memory. Everyone wanted to "be like Mike," even Bugs Bunny, for Pete's sake! When Jordan decided to hang up his Nike basketball shoes for a try at what he said was really the first athletic love of both he and his late father, people thought "Why not? He can do anything... why, he could be a pro golfer too, if he wanted." A few curveballs later, Jordan returned to the Bulls, changed his number "to protect his identity," as they used to say in the movies, led the Bulls to more championships, and retired again. Or did he? No, this time he moved on to be first a second-rate player, then a third-rate executive with the Washington Wizards. I'll bet a lot of you don't even remember that, do you? A mistake, Michael. And I won't even go into the extramarital and gambling problems which have further tarnished your reputation, if not your "basketball legacy."

Exhibit number two is Roger Clemens. Remember him? He used to be the dominant pitcher of his era, a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. After helping pitch his former rival Yankees into the World Series, Clemens announced he was retiring. A few short months later, Clemens un-retired to join his hometown Houston Astros after his Yankee buddy Andy Pettite, another Houstonian, was dealt to the team. The New York Post, in their inimitable style, ran a headline announcing Clemens' change of plans: "What an Ass-tro!" To his credit (or, as it turned out, maybe to somebody or something else's credit), Roger continued to pitch very well before he rather unceremoniously "retired" again - probably for good this time - and also short of his expressed goal of making it to Cooperstown.

Exhibit number three is Brett Favre. Toying with the idea of retirement for two or three agonizingly long off-seasons, he topped himself with this year's drawn-out, on again - off again drama.

Two of the great athletic heroes of my youth were Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. In retrospect, "The Mick" played at least a year or two longer than he probably should have, but, with his career-long history of leg problems, it must have been hard for him to know when "enough is enough." Of course, as it turned out, being "anesthetized" with booze probably didn't help him any in being able to make that decision.

"Say- Hey Willie" returned to New York at the end of his career, this time with the Mets, and aged quickly. Many of us still remember the sad sight of his stumbling out of the batter's box during the 1973 post-season. He retired a short time later.

Others who probably should have retired earlier than they did include Muhammed Ali, whose latter-day cognitive functioning appear to have suffered as a result, and Pete Rose, who hung on with two other teams after he was traded from the Reds, because, like Favre, he enjoyed playing the game and he also wanted to collect all the playing records he could to cement his legacy. Here's hoping Brett's post-career ends up better than that of "Charlie Hustle" - whose nickname now seems a little ironic, don't you think?

Very few athletes have picked a "good time" to retire. Some who did include the great Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, who retired at the age of 30, still at the top of his game, to pursue an acting career. While he never made the "big time" as an actor, Brown has developed into a respected advocate and advisor to young athletes, though he has also had some alleged problems with physical abuse. His legacy as a running back, however, remains etched in the minds of all who saw him perform, and many of us still feel he remains the number one back of all time. Another great back of the mid-1960s, Gale Sayers, had to retire far too early because of injuries.

The topper, though, had to be Sandy Koufax. A wild lefthanded pitcher who struggled with the Dodgers for several years, both in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, Koufax hit his stride in 1962 and for the next five years, was unbelievable - striking out many, walking few, throwing no-hitters, and leading the Dodgers to the World Series, or at least into contention, every year. Koufax developed serious arm problems along the way though, and after the 1966 World Series, having won 27 games that season (53 over the last two seasons) ,while striking out 317 and walking just 77, and leading the league in ERA (1.73) for the fifth consecutive year, "Dandy Sandy" walked away at the top of his game - at the age of 30. Five years later, he was elected easily to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, despite having won "only" 165 games in his career - about half the number usually considered necessary for Hall induction.

While I'm sure it wasn't easy for either Koufax or Sayers to call it quits at such a young age, injury forced their hand(s). But at least that spared them the "agony" today's superstars go through having to decide when to call it quits.

Dan Whitney
Basic Biittner