Sports Guys Who Went Out On Top

July 22, 2008 – 11:00 pm by Ryan Phillips

If you’re one of the few people on Earth who hasn’t seen The Dark Knight, I recommend you get off your ass and go take care of that. I don’t gush about movies too often, but this one is everything it’s been advertised to be and then some. The script, direction, cinematography and acting are all as good as you’re ever going to see in a movie. Trust me when I say I don’t just toss statements like that around. But above all, one thing drives the movie and takes it to truly uncharted levels – Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker.

Everyone has been buzzing about Ledger’s work in this movie for over a year and when he so suddenly and tragically passed away in January, the whispers became screams. Everyone started talking about a posthumous Oscar nod for his work. And after seeing the movie, I couldn’t agree more. The guy is simply captivating, amazing, incredible and tons of other superlatives I could put in here. His Joker makes Anton Chigurh look like someone my grandmother would have over for afternoon tea. Ledger’s farewell performance has certainly solidified him as the James Dean of this generation and his tragic passing robbed us of what would have surely been years of phenomenal performances. But he definitely went out on top.

While thinking about how great he was, I got to thinking about other people who have exited while on top of their respective fields – specifically sports, since this is, after all, a sports blog. It’s not as easy as you’d think to come up with people who walked away while at their peak, but here’s what we came up with.

John Elway
Mr. Second Place for his entire career, John Elway was know for being an amazing quarterback on a good team. And for a long time, he was also known as “The Best Quarterback to Never Win a Super Bowl.” He played bridesmaid three times – to the Giants in 1987, the Redskins in ’88 and the 49ers in ’90. It looked like the Broncos would never end up surrounding him with the kind of talent and system needed to capture that elusive title.

Then came Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego. In one of the greatest games of all-time, Elway’s Broncos edged the defending champion Packers in a thrilling 31-24 win. It was almost a perfect ending to his career, as Johnny boy had finally broken through. But then, just for good measure, he came back the next year and the Broncos beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII. In that game, Elway went 18-29 for 336 yards and a touchdown and he also had a three-yard rushing touchdown. He was named Super Bowl MVP in the last game he would ever play. Now that, is going out on top.

Pete Sampras
Note: I allowed McD to opine about his hero for this post because, well, they guy has a man-crush of epic proportions on this guy.

Oh, Pete Sampras. In the mid-nineties, you made a white, suburban teenage boy now using the superhero-alias “The MCD” want really, really badly to be a big-serving Greek from Los Angeles. Then you entered your late-twenties (ancient for a professional tennis player these days). You even lost to Roger Federer before he was Roger freaking Federer. You married a super-hottie and turned 30. By then it was 2002. You hadn’t won a major in two years, your wife was soon to become a MILF, and you had reached emeritus status on tour. The legs and back just weren’t as strong and fast as they used to be; the game had passed you by.

As the completely-unrelated-to-this-post Lee Corso would say, “not so fast, my friend.” Champions know how to go out on top and the ’02 US Open showed up at the perfect time. Except for a hitch in the first round, you rolled through the tournament and finished old foe Andre Agassi in four sets in the final. For fans of disgustingly perfect symmetry, you defeated Agassi for your first major championship: the 1990 US Open. You knew this was the perfect time for you to hang up your spurs (despite waiting a full year to make it official) and didn’t play one other professional match after that.

So we thank you, Pete. You’re the greatest player ever, despite what the Fed-ophiles might say. You were one of the last, and definitely the best, all-court players out there. But even you couldn’t stop men’s tennis from becoming more deeply flawed today than it was then. Americans suck worse than ever and the best players face a weaker talent pool ever year. How else could a clay-loving Spaniard vie for the same Wimbledon title you owned for nearly ten years? There is little beauty left in tennis, Pete. But you went out a champion, and no one can beat that.

Oh, and uh, No Homo.

Ray Bourque
He was a Boston Bruin for 20 1/2 seasons and he never hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup. He loved Boston and Boston loved him. But sensing the end of his career approaching, Bourque requested a trade from the fading Bruins in early 2000. On March 6 that year he got his wish and was shipped off to the Colorado Avalanche. He immediately became a force both on the ice and in the locker room for his new team but they failed to win the Cup in his first year. He returned for one final go with the Avalanche in 2001.

Just as an example of how good this guy was, here are a few of the spots he holds in the all-time NHL rankings: Seventh in games played with 1,612; Fourth in assists with 1,169; Ninth overall and First among defensemen in points with 1,579; First in goals scored by a defenseman with 410. He also won the Norris Trophy for the league’s top defenseman five times.

So obviously, amazing talent, gritty, great player who in his first 21 years hadn’t won a cup. Well on June 9, 2001 he – and the Avalanche – finally broke through, as Colorado beat New Jersey 4-3 in the best-of-seven series. Bourque had waited longer than any player in the 108-year (at the time) history of the NHL to win a Stanley Cup. His fans back in Boston were so thrilled for him that on June 12, 2001 they threw him a victory parade that was attended by nearly 20,000 fans, at which he brought the Cup back to Boston with him. Game seven of the finals that year was the last of his incredible career.

Michael Strahan
Rather than stick around and try to beef up his numbers in support of his Hall of Fame campaign, Strahan retired this offseason following the Giants’ improbable Super Bowl XLII victory. Instead of remembering him as an aging, ineffective, once-great defensive lineman (Warren Sapp anybody?) we’ll always remember Strahan as the guy hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after his defensive line dominated the seemingly impenetrable Patriots’ offensive line.

In his final game, Strahan finished with two tackles and one sack, while leading the Giants’ unrelenting pass rush. It was Strahan’s first Super Bowl victory in his 15 NFL seasons. He finished his career with 141.5 sacks, seven Pro Bowl selections, five first-team All-Pro selections, two NFC Defensive Player of the Year Awards and one NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. He also owns the single season sack record at 22.5. By leaving on top, Strahan probably strengthened his Hall of Fame profile, because we’ll never see him struggle on the field.

Michael Jordan
In 1998, after six championships and five MVPs, Jordan topped off the Bulls’ second three-peat with a dramatic jumper against the Utah Jazz. Possibly the greatest performer of all-time Jordan went out on top without ever showing himself as a diminishing talent. He left before he wore out his welcome on the biggest stage and played all of his career for the same franchise he helped build from almost nothing. Instead of remembering him for falling off, or fading away, we will remember him as leading the Finals with 33.6 points per game and winning his sixth NBA Finals MVP Award. During his final regular season he averaged 28.7 ppg, won his fifth MVP Award, was selected to the All-NBA First Team, First Team All-Defense and was the All-Star Game MVP. What a way to go out right? The perfect end to the perfect career. And they all lived happily ever after.

Until 2001 when Jordan decided to return to the NBA as a member of the Washington Wizards. In a move that was totally not about his ego, Jordan slogged through an injury plagued 2001-02 season. He returned again for the 2002-03 season and played in 82 games averaging just 20 ppg and making headlines for verballing abusing many of the young players he had actually helped select as President of Basketball Operations (Kwame Brown anyone?). His stretch in Washington was mainly notable for rumors of the escalation of his massive gambling problem. Furthermore, his Wizards jersey ranks right up there with Johnny Unitas’ Chargers, Emmitt Smith’s Cardinals and Joe Montana’s Chiefs unis in the “Oops” Hall of Fame. Again, this return was totally not about ego, it was all about a desire to play basketball again.

Yep, they lived happily ever after.

John Wooden
Pretty much peerless in the “Greatest Coach of All-Time” debate, Wooden’s dominance while at UCLA was something we’ve never seen in major college or professional sports. In 27 seasons with the Bruins his teams won 620 games and 10 NCAA titles, including seven in a row from 1967-1973.

In 1974 the Bruins shockingly lost in the NCAA tournament, finishing third. But they came back in 1975 to win their eighth title in nine years. At the postgame press conference of UCLA’s 75-74 semifinal win over Louisville, Wooden announced that the title game would be his last. The Bruins sent him out in style with a 92-85 win over Kentucky. Wooden’s departure was shocking. He walked away after utterly dominating a sport for a decade. His coaching techniques were unique and we’ll probably never see another like him. But he left before anyone could find fault with how he operated. His exit was all the more shocking because it meant that the final game he ever coached was at the San Diego Sports Arena. And frankly, that place is a dump. It’s a scar on the face of my beautiful city. Hell, it was barely nice enough to house the San Diego Sockers or the San Diego Gulls, let alone the greatest coach of all-time’s final game.

Floyd Mayweather*
After compiling a 39-0 record with 25 KOs and winning world titles in five weight classes, all by the age of 30, Floyd Mayweather walked away from boxing. He was almost unanimously considered the sport’s pound-for-pound best, and certainly had a few years left before he started the decline inevitable for all boxers. The astonishing thing about “Pretty Boy” retiring wasn’t that he decided to leave the violent world he’d known since early in his youth, it was what he left on the table. After winning two of the most profitable fights in the history of boxing – over Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton – there were certainly other big money fights out there. Notably, a rematch with De La Hoya that was already set in stone when Mayweather announced his retirement. Not only did he walk away from his passion, he walked away from what could have been upwards of $30 million. A fight with fellow unbeaten phenom Miguel Cotto could have had “fight of the century” potential as well.

If he stays retired, our final (non-WWE-related) vision of Floyd will be how he rose to the challenge against Hatton. It was often said of Mayweather that he needed to be pressed to display his considerable talent. Hatton pressed him and Floyd responded with a phenomenal performance and a near-perfect flurry to finish the fight, and likely his own career. When you listen to Floyd’s uncle and father speak, it’s not hard to imagine why he retired as early as he did. Pretty Boy has always had the gift of gab and who knows how many fights it would take to erase his abilities. In a sport where so many guys continue to fight long after they should hang ’em up, Floyd got out before it got sad. Guys like Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones Jr. and Evander Holyfield could learn a lesson from the far younger Mayweather.

Jim Brown
Brown was a beast. Likely the best running back of all-time when you consider what he did and how far ahead of his competition he was. He played just nine seasons in the NFL, but his impact was ridiculous. He made the Pro Bowl every year he played in the league. He was also a nine-time All-Pro selection, three-time MVP and is still the only running back in NFL history to average more than 100 yards per game for his career. He finished with 12,312 yards and 126 touchdowns and a 5.2 yards per carry average for his career. He did all of that despite never playing past the age of 29.

To put his numbers in perspective you have to remember that the league only played 14 games per season when Brown retired and in his first four seasons it only played 12. He averaged 1,368 yards per season despite those restrictions. His career yards per game average stands at 104.3 and in his final season he won his third MVP Award. He walked away after that season and pursued a mildly successful acting career. But because he left at the height of his career, he is always remembered as being as dominant as he always was. A pure power running, with speed to burn, he’ll probably always be remembered as the NFL’s most dominant individual because of his achievements. No one surpassed him during his career, therefore no one will ever be remembered as better than him.

*Editor’s Note: This is all providing he stays retired, which – as with anything concerning the Mayweather family – is fairly questionable.

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  1. 3 Responses to “Sports Guys Who Went Out On Top”

  2. John Elway can go to hell that horse faced son of a bitch.

    By MilwaukeeBooter on Jul 23, 2008

  3. How many of those guys were like Al McGuire, who said he was done after the end of the season when the season had just started?

    It is easy for someone to go out on top after they had just won it all, much harder for someone who still wants to win one.

    By SportsBubbler on Jul 23, 2008

  4. See, I told you to put Al McGuire on the list. The Milwaukeeans are up in arms.

    By Hick Flick on Jul 23, 2008

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