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Athletes who retired at the top of their game

Last week, longtime Bucs great Derrick Brooks announced his retirement from professional football. Unfortunately, professional football actually retired Brooks 18 months ago. His last game was the final game of the Bucs' 2008 season, and he retired only after failing to hook on with another team. The point is that it's rare an athlete goes out on his terms. Remember how the Lightning's Dave Andreychuk finally won a Stanley Cup in 2004 then hung around through a lockout and healthy scratches before retiring midway through the 2006-07 season? Sports are filled with countless stories of great athletes who went out on less than ideal terms. Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de Frances, from 1999 to 2005, and could've biked away on top. Instead, he returned last year to finish third in the Tour de France and this year to finish 23rd. There are others whose careers ended in uncomfortable fashion: Michael Jordan with the Wizards, Joe Namath with the Rams, Johnny Unitas with the Chargers, O.J. Simpson with the 49ers, Dale Murphy with the Rockies, Franco Harris with the Seahawks and, the most cited case, Willie Mays with the Mets. On and on it goes. It just goes to show how rare it is for an athlete to go out the way he wants. So, today, we look at the athletes who went on their terms, stars who managed to make their final memory a great memory. Think of it as our Crash Davis Award: players who hit their dinger and walked away.

Annika Sorenstam

Imagine if Tiger Woods, two or three years ago, had suddenly quit. Well, that's sort of similar to Annika Sorenstam retiring from the LPGA Tour in 2008 at age 38. Sorenstam was one of the greatest female golfers ever with 10 majors, a career Grand Slam and 72 tour victories (third all time) to her name. When she retired to start a family, she was ranked No. 2 in the world behind Lorena Ochoa, who, interestingly, retired earlier this year while ranked No. 1. Ochoa, just 28, said she still might play on the tour from time to time, but the winner of 27 LPGA events no longer plays regularly.

Mike Eruzione

Eruzione was the star of perhaps the greatest moment in American sports history. The captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team scored the winning goal in the third period to lead the Americans to a massive upset of the then-USSR. Legend has it that heading into the third period of the game against the Soviets, the 25-year-old Eruzione told a teammate he would retire after the Olympics because he'd never be able to top the experience of playing for the United States and coach Herb Brooks. Eruzione was true to his word. Following the Games, he turned down offers to play in the NHL, preferring his memory to be the 1980 Olympics.

Jim Brown

Some would argue that Brown is the greatest football player of all time, and you have to admire how he walked away in the prime of his career at age 30. He played nine seasons (1957-65) for the Browns, made the Pro Bowl every year and was an All-Pro eight times, including the final three seasons of his career. On the day of his retirement in 1965, it could be argued that Brown was still the best player in the game.

Bobby Jones

We're going old school. Really old school, to remember someone many claim is the greatest golfer who ever lived. Jones had just won the U.S. Open, the British Open and the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1930 and had won 13 of the previous 21 major tournaments he had played in when he retired from competitive golf. He was only 28 at the time.

Marvin Hagler

No sport has seen more pathetic and failed comeback attempts than boxing. Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran are just three of the dozens of boxers whose careers ended with hard-to-watch losses. But there are boxers who knew when to hang up the gloves. Rocky Marciano retired in 1956 as the heavyweight champ with a perfect 49-0 record even though he was only 32. He toyed with the idea of a comeback but wisely decided against it. When Marvelous Marvin Hagler lost a split decision to Leonard (a fight that many thought Hagler actually won) in 1987, Hagler's pride didn't get in the way. Still an elite boxer, Hagler didn't let a shady decision cloud his judgment, and he retired just shy of his 33rd birthday. And, unlike so many others, he stayed retired.

Barry Sanders

This generation's Jim Brown. Sanders stunned the sports world by retiring in the 1998 offseason at age 31 after only 10 NFL seasons, all with the Lions. Coming off a season in which he rushed for nearly 1,500 yards, Sanders was only 1,457 shy of Walter Payton's NFL career rushing mark when he retired by sending a fax to his hometown newspaper, the Wichita Eagle. He was a Pro Bowl selection in his final season and was just a season removed from being the NFL MVP after rushing for 2,053 yards.

John Elway

No. 1 on any list of how you want to go out as an athlete. For years, the Broncos quarterback was considered one of the best in the game, but he had one major blemish on his resume: He had never won a Super Bowl despite reaching the big game three times. He finished his career by winning two Super Bowls, including being named Super Bowl XXXIII MVP in his final NFL game at age 38. He appeared to have plenty left in his tank, but he walked away on top.

Jerome Bettis

The longtime NFL running back saw plenty in his 13-year career. He was an offensive rookie of the year, and three years later he was a comeback player of the year. He played for two teams and made six Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams. But one thing he hadn't done was win a championship. That elusive Super Bowl ring finally came with the Steelers in February 2006. Playing in his hometown of Detroit, the 33-year-old helped the Steelers beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL (appropriate letters for the oversized running back known as "The Bus"). When the game was over, Bettis said, "It's been an incredible ride. I played this game to win a championship. I'm a champion and I think the Bus' last stop is here in Detroit." And it was.

Ted Williams

According to Baseball Reference, 41 players have homered in their final major-league at-bat, including well-known players such as Tony Kubek, Mickey Cochrane and Albert Belle. But there's no more famous final at-bat homer than that of the great Ted Williams. On Sept. 28, 1960, the 42-year-old Williams stepped to the plate in the eighth inning against Baltimore's Jack Fisher. Williams yanked a 1-and-1 pitch into the Red Sox bullpen. Coincidentally, Williams only played the 1960 season because he didn't want his career to end after a disappointing 1959 season when he hit .254, in part because of a bad back. Teddy Ballgame finished the 1960 season with 29 homers and a .316 average. That's how you go out.

Athletes who retired at the top of their game 08/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 14, 2010 8:48pm]
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