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Smart choices lead to easy street for athletes

Athletes make too much money. Most of us keep saying that. But for some jocks it's never enough.

Many of today's Super Bowl players will have NFL careers that generate millions. By age 30, some can be set for life. Plenty of stashed green to buy another 50 years of mansions, machines and jewels.

But, history unkindly suggests, by the year 2030 or thereabouts, a few well-to-do Patriots and Panthers will have blown it. Average, hard-working people will read of some vulgar demise and exclaim, "He had it all. How can this happen?"

There will always be modern versions of Joe Louis, the boxing colossus of the '30s and '40s, a good guy who repeatedly got robbed by crooked promoters and thieving advisers.

Or maybe it'll be a well-bruised character like John Daly, the bombastic and eternally popular golfer with a habit of burning fortunes because of bad habits and messy relationships. He is working on a third or fourth chance to shape a golden, lasting existence.

Never have athletes been so highly paid or lavishly advised by agents, lawyers and chums. But there must be judgment to avoid an agent like Tank Black, a smooth talker who robbed clients like Fred Taylor, who admits losses of around $5-million.

Avoiding ugly financial plunges should be easier than ever. Athletes who listen to the right voices can be molded into heady, well-insulated operators who double or triple their financial worth after retirement.

For instance, a Magic Johnson.

Still, we always will hear of a Darryl Strawberry or a Mike Tyson, going from youthful riches to middle-age torment because of bad habits and weak constitutions.

How painful to learn of the concluding years of Leon "Daddy Wags" Wagner, a baseball slugger in the '50s and '60s who for a while went stroke for stadium stroke with Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron.

Daddy Wags made pretty good money, although not millions. He died last month at age 69, a bitter man with drug problems who had no money, no car, no address and no life.

Bad choices abounded.

Once a 21st century athlete attains truly big paydays, chances should be better than ever of not becoming another Daddy Wags. There is more counsel available than ever from professional leagues and player unions. If they'll listen, the money can last forever.

For most of today's Patriots and Panthers, there will come a time when ESPN, Fox and CBS no longer show their faces. Fans will cease cheering every step. Battered bodies are liable to pay heavy tolls when a Super Bowl fellow turns 50 or 60.

But there always will be a self-victimized few. Jocks choosing to do dumb things. Associating with bad and outrageous people. Ignoring a flood of sensible counsel. Becoming prey to greedy family members. You will read about them in a few years; sad and perhaps deadly stories.

More than ever, it doesn't need to be.

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS, TWENTY-FIVE BEST: ESPN is soliciting votes on the top 25 athletes from North America during the past 25 years. I have my list of icons from the '80s, '90s and now. Pick yours. I chose not to follow ESPN's demand for a 1-25 ranking. For me, alphabetical is order enough.

We all have our biases, for and against certain individualsand in regard to which sports produce the finest athletes. If you and I agree on 20 choices, I'll consider that harmony.

Mizell's 25:

Lance Armstrong

Larry Bird

Barry Bonds

Dale Earnhardt

John Elway

Chris Evert

Wayne Gretzky

Mia Hamm

Magic Johnson

Michael Jordan

Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Mario Lemieux

Carl Lewis

Dan Marino

Joe Montana

Martina Navratilova

Shaquille O'Neal

Jerry Rice

Cal Ripken

Alex Rodriguez

Pete Sampras

Lawrence Taylor

Mike Tyson

Serena Williams

Tiger Woods

THE LAST WORD: We knew, beginning with Florida State's entry into the ACC in 1992, that the Seminoles would rule the conference in football. Basketball was a worry. It is the sport for which the ACC is most renowned, with a depth of repetitive national contenders led by Duke and North Carolina.

FSU took a smashing for a majority of its first 11 ACC seasons. Big hitters like the Blue Devils and Tar Heels as well as Wake Forest, Maryland, N.C. State and Virginia counted on constant W's against the 'Noles.

But times are changing. Leonard Hamilton is recruiting tough, talented players and coaching them efficiently. Back-to-back upsets of highly ranked rivals UNC and Wake poked the ACC's basketball hierarchy in a suddenly respectful gut.

FSU lost to Florida in January but the 'Noles are closing the gap on Billy Donovan's Gators. Nobody expects Hamilton's kids to achieve soon the Tallahassee level of Bobby Bowden's football stars, but the needle of hope points upward like never before in the school's ACC existence.