Like regular people, great athletes retire in all sorts of ways. Some do it gracefully. Some do it tragically. Some do it almost invisibly. And some do it endlessly.
Oceans of ink and billions of pixels have been spent deconstructing
I have little interest in whether Brett Favre plays for Minnesota in 2009. Ultimately, I think athletes should play as long as they are comfortable playing and as long someone is willing to pay them to do it.
If you have a rubber arm or a titanium leg -- and a very high pain threshold and a freakish devotion to an incomprehensibly difficult craft -- why not do it as long as you can? As
That's partly because Favre's performance has remained NFL-worthy -- you could even argue he had a better season at 38 than he did at 30. Last year while playing for the New York Jets, Favre was more bad than good and given the way it ended we can forgive Favre his reluctance to quit. Admitting the ebbing of talent and onset of bodily deterioration is hard enough for weekend jocks. For someone whose life is defined by his body, it can be an enormous psychological load. In the NFL, with its retirement gift of endless aches and pains and worse, for some players quitting can feel like a seat in heaven's waiting room. So we get the desire to play. What we can't fathom is Favre's failure to understand that the
In 2006, I suited up for training camp as a kicker with the Denver Broncos to write a book about life in the NFL. During my summer with the team, I had two fascinating conversations about retirement. One was with an offensive tackle named
"When you play football long enough, you see guys take advantage of that situation," Meadows told me. "I didn't want to be that guy. I didn't want the guys in the lockers next to me go out there and bust their tails five, six days a week and then on day seven, when they're calling out your name and the fans are yelling and the smoke's going and the jets are flying over, run out there. I think you make your money Monday though Saturday. Sunday's fun. Sunday's what it's all about.
"Toughest decision I ever made. Right decision. I felt like a 1,000-pound gorilla jumped off my back -- the burden of the team paying you and you can't perform to their and your own expectations."
Meadows told me he was returning because he missed life as an athlete -- the camaraderie, the competition, the challenge -- and because he felt well enough, again, to play, despite the inherent risks of resuming an NFL career. Meadows had analyzed his body and his emotions desires clearly and privately and come to an adult decision. He demonstrated maturity and character and respect for his teammates and coaches and front offices. He wasn't a household name, but his actions also demonstrated respect for the fans of the teams he played for.
The other words about retirement that stuck with me came from the Broncos' quarterback at the time,
Plummer talked about the many things he wanted to do but couldn't because of the demands of the NFL: spend more time with his dad, who was being treated for alcoholism, and his mom, whom he adores; play his favorite sport, handball; backpack, ski, see the world, work with kids, maybe coach some high-school football. He talked about how fortunate he was to have made so much money and stayed healthy. If he did retire, he said, he wouldn't make a big deal out of it. He disdained athletes who did, especially the ones who quickly returned. "Give me a break," he said. "Why'd you retire? You need that much attention? You need that ego boost?"
Plummer retired with a statement and a short news conference. He wound up losing $3.5 million -- bonus money he had to return to the team Denver traded him to, Tampa Bay -- and has lived up to everything he told me that day: He's traveled to Peru and Thailand. He's played in handball tournaments. He's hung out with his family in Idaho, where he lives. Last month, he signed on as the quarterbacks coach of the Sandpoint Bulldogs, the local high-school team.
Plummer finished his career 35,874 yards, 304 touchdowns, eight seasons and one championship short of Brett Favre. But when it comes to leaving a sport with dignity, respect and a sense of purpose, Favre is the one who has a long way to go to catch up.