Peyton Manning could do it. Pete Sampras did it after winning the 2002 US Open; Rocky Marciano did it after defending his Boxing Heavyweight Championship in 1955 and John Elway did it after winning Super Bowl 33. They are all athletes who won the biggest event in their respective sports and promptly rode off into the sunset, cementing their status as legends by going out in the best way possible.
With the Denver Broncos victory in Super Bowl 50 last Sunday, Manning has the chance to do the same, although there has been no official announcement he will retire, he’ll have to decide by March 8 when his guaranteed $19 million dollar salary kicks in for 2016.
There is still a small chance Manning doesn’t walk away and decides to come back for another season, albeit probably with another team as the Broncos will likely want to offload his huge salary to free up their cap obligations and re-sign defensive players who totally dominated top QB’s Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newtown in this Super Bowl run. Manning is past his prime and will be a first ballot Hall of Famer but only he can decide when retirement has arrived, he could play on as other teams have already expressed interest.
Pro athletes retire for all kinds of reasons, loss of motivation, getting cut by a team, career ending injury and off the field issues are just to name a few. There is no manual for when to retire, the dynamics of every sport is different and trying to combine that with the varying personalities of especially superstar athletes can provide some interesting decision-making, see Bjorn Borg who retired at the height of his powers at age 26, only to make a failed comeback.
Just think of how many athletes have played professional sports over the years, and then imagine what percentage of those athletes have reached legendary status whilst they are still competing, then consider how many of those have a chance to still compete for a major event within their sport as their career is coming to end, the numbers would be small.
The very definition of professional sport is that it’s ‘competitive’. There is an old catch phrase in the NFL ‘on any given Sunday’, in fact Hollywood made a movie about it called funnily enough ‘Any Given Sunday’, which starred Al Pacino. It means any team can beat anyone else ‘on any given Sunday’. Andre Agassi once said ‘you can’t phone in the result’, meaning you still had to go out there and compete regardless of whether you were favored or not. That is the true nature of professional sports, nothing is guaranteed, not even if you’re a legend of the game.
Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees played his final game in a regular season where the Yankees missed the playoffs, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers is on a farewell tour right now where his team will struggle to win 20 games all season, Boris Becker lost to then world number 2 Pat Rafter in the 4th round at Wimbledon ranked 77 and never played again.
The truth is most superstars play past their prime, wishing and hoping for one more crack at the biggest prize. The fact is, it mostly never comes. It’s never easy to walk away from a sport that has dominated your life for so long, only the athlete knows when the time is right, you’ve just got to be willing to take that next step if you have the choice.
Peyton Manning may indeed ride off into the sunset with his last game being a Super Bowl victory, or he could return next year and play on, the chances of him being on another Super Bowl winning team within the next year or two are slim to none, but does that even matter?
However it ends for Manning or any other athlete they have earned the right to go out on their terms, it may be messy and not what any fan wants or reporter expects but after all, they’re the ones that have put in the work and sacrifice, that should always be respected.