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Retire? Did I say I was retiring?

Mark Martin admits he's unfamiliar with this Brett Favre guy. Favre had had a long, fruitful career or something, then he'd sort-of retired or something. And now he wants to come back.

Though the 49-year-old NASCAR driver doesn't know much about the 38-year-old Packers quarterback, he knows there must be something similar about their experience and the ripples they created when they became the latest pro athletes who just don't seem to want to stay retired. Martin doesn't feel bad for refusing to fade away, either.

"I have no apologies for not knowing what my whole life holds for me," he said. "When you're pretty good at something and it's been the … driving force of your life for 35 years and you're still pretty good at it, you probably don't want to quit."

He's not the first athlete to feel that way. Reasons vary for initially walking — or limping — away from a sport that provided fulfilment, glory and riches. There's pride, adoration, compensation. Some just want to prove to themselves they can still do it, as Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks told the St. Petersburg Times in Monday's editions: "What I want to know is, am I just out here on the field, or am I truly producing?"

Others who have opted to return:

• Lance Armstrong ended his retirement after surviving testicular cancer to win a record seven Tour de France titles.

• Michael Jordan ended one of the most spectacular NBA careers to attempt major-league baseball, returned to the NBA to win three more championships to bring his total to six before retiring again, only to become part owner of the Washington Wizards, then a player again before retiring yet again at 40 in 2003. He has rivaled boxers, who can leverage training and pain for lucrative paydays, in his affinity for the comeback.

• Seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens had a teary goodbye in 2003 but an offseason rethink, pitching a lucrative stint with Houston before allegations of performance-enhancing drug abuse apparently made him undesirable.

• Martina Navratilova, one of the most dominant tennis players in history and winner of a record nine Wimbledon singles titles, retired from singles in 1994 at 38 but continued to dabble in doubles. She won the 2003 Australian Open and Wimbledon mixed doubles titles, becoming the oldest to win a Grand Slam. She claimed her 59th Grand Slam title before retiring from doubles in 2006.

• College football star and double Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe, one of the nation's greatest athletes, had to come out of retirement to play professional baseball, football and basketball until he was 40 to support his family — and his alcoholism — in the Great Depression.

• Unsatisfied with his ceremonial role with the Red Wings after retiring in 1971 at 43, legend Gordie Howe played for Houston in the upstart World Hockey Association and the Hartford Whalers, who were later absorbed by the NHL. He averaged 27 goals a season until retiring again at 52.

The trend is likely to continue. Advances in training and maintenance medicine allow athletes to retire healthier, and explosions in salaries have allowed them to do so wealthier. Living out a longer life in leisure cannot always fill the chasm for performers wired to excel in exchange for adulation and compensation.

Though Favre asserted in his weepy retirement announcement that he was leaving on his terms, the NFL's career touchdown-pass leader (442) would have ended his 17-year career with his last pass an interception, by Giants cornerback Corey Webster in overtime of the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field.

Martin is a 35-race winner who has finished second in the points standings four times. He opted to leave longtime employer Roush Fenway Racing to run a partial schedule with another team two years ago, the decided to make one last run for a championship with Hendrick Motorsports, a powerful four-car team that has won 30 races and two championships (with Jimmie Johnson) since '06. He worried that spurning owner Rick Hendrick's offer could haunt him on his "death bed."

“I would never tell him he couldn't do it, just like he wouldn't tell me I couldn't do something I wanted to do," said Martin's wife, Arlene.

This was no charity offer from Rick Hendrick. He has pared Kyle Busch (the Sprint Cup points leader with Joe Gibbs Racing) and Casey Mears from his team the last two years and sees Martin as an upgrade. Mentally sharp and physically ready because of his grueling conditioning program — as evidenced "by those six-pack abs," Hendrick said — Martin belies his gray-and-white hair and weathered face.

Athletes still in their primes seem to grasp the difficulty of loosening the grip on a career.

"If you still have that passion and it's still burning," said New England Patriots All-Pro wide receiver Randy Moss, "then don't put it out."

Times staff writer Stephen F. Holder contributed to this report.

Retire? Did I say I was retiring? 07/28/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 7:32am]
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