NEW YORK – Legendary NFL players have been retiring on top since the league’s early years. But the romanticism of it all is a relatively new phenomenon driven by fans and media who insist on trying to force feed the perfect final act to their superstars.
Sometimes, the legend is ready to step down when we want him to. Ray Lewis announcing his retirement, weeping through postseason national anthems and then helping the Ravens beat the 49ers with a last-minute, goal-line stand in Super Bowl XLVII a year ago was as good an ending as it gets.
Good for Ray. Good for us. A tidy ending to a first-ballot Hall of Fame career that was exhausted after 17 seasons.
Sometimes, however, the legend is old but looks so alive, so vibrant, so mentally head and shoulders above his younger peers. Yet when he reaches the game’s grandest stage and his driver’s license says he is 37, he is handed a script by a reporter and pointed to the horse he should ride through the confetti on Sunday night.
Peyton Manning just set NFL records for passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55) on a 13-3 team that beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady for the AFC championship. Yet the second question tossed his way upon arriving in New York for Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVIII was whether this would be his last game.
“I know that there have been a number of players who have walked away as champions,” said Manning, who went 1-1 in Super Bowls with the Colts. “I’m sure that it is a great feeling for those people. John Elway, Ray Lewis did it last year, and Michael Strahan. In talking to Ray Lewis, and talking to John Elway, they couldn’t play anymore. It was all they had to give. They truly left it all out there.”
Even two years removed from four neck surgeries, Manning still has plenty that he can, and wants, to give. And unlike Brett Favre, who skipped offseason preparation and was only interested in gamedays at the end of his career, Manning still is energized by the year-round preparation.
“I certainly had a career change two years ago with my injury and with changing teams,” Manning said. “I’ve been truly on a one-year-at-a-time basis. So, I really have no plans beyond this game. I had no plans, coming into this season, beyond this year. I think that it is the healthy way to approach your career at this stage.
“But I still enjoy playing football. I feel a little better than I thought I would at this point, coming off that surgery. I still enjoy the preparation part of it, the work part of it. Everybody enjoys the games. Everybody is going to be excited to play in a Super Bowl. When you still enjoy the preparation and the work part of it, I think you ought to be still doing that. I think as soon as I stop enjoying it, if I can’t produce, if I can’t help a team, that’s when I will stop playing. If that’s next year, then maybe it is. I certainly want to continue to keep playing.”
Manning still has a chance to go out on top. He will just have to make another Super Bowl or, who knows, multiple Super Bowls.
The league has seen its share of legendary players, Hall of Famers leave the game on top. Some were planned. Some weren’t.
Former Gopher Bronko Nagurski retired to become a higher-paid professional wrestler after the Bears lost the 1937 championship game to the Redskins. Nagurski came back in 1943 and retired again after the Bears beat the Redskins in the title game.
Browns quarterback Otto Graham retired after winning his sixth title (including four in the All-America Football Conference) in 1954. Cleveland coach Paul Brown talked him out of retirement, so Otto went out and won another NFL title in 1955 before retiring for good.
In 1959, Eagles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin won the NFL title, beating the Packers and first-year coach Vince Lombardi 17-13. Van Brocklin then retired and was hired to coach the expansion Vikings in 1961.
Then there was Hall of Fame running back Cliff Battles.
On Dec. 5, 1937, he ran for 165 yards in the Redskins’ season finale against the Giants at the old Polo Grounds in New York. That gave Battles the league rushing title with 874 yards and sent the Redskins to the NFL title game instead of the Giants.
After helping Washington beat Chicago in that title game, legend has it that Battles gave Redskins owner George Preston Marshall an ultimatum: Pay him more than the $3,000 that he had been paid every season since his rookie year in 1932 or else.
Marshall chose “or else.” Battles, at age 27, retired. On top, so to speak.