Take Brian McBride's recent decision to walk away. It hurts to see the brave war horse of domestic soccer move on. On the other hand, he had a fantastic career, full of achievement, and he speaks of few regrets.
Same for a few others in soccer who are retiring this year, with less decoration perhaps, but stacked high with memories and cherished relationships. The Chicago Fire's C.J. Brown, for instance, grew his classy 13-year career right along with Major League Soccer. Former U.S. international Eddie Lewis, a model of determined professionalism, will walk away, among a few others this year.
We don't relish seeing them go, but we revel in the shared moments. We walk away from the table full, so to speak.
Not so with Taylor Twellman. Everyone walks away from this one still a little hungry; the meal was tasty, for sure, but the portions were less than satisfying. His body of work in the sport, grand and memorable as it was, will be stuck forever as the embodiment of promise unfulfilled.
We just didn't see enough of the New England Revolution striker who announced his retirement this week at age 30. Twellman must quit because of ongoing medical problems related to concussions suffered over an implausibly prodigious career. He's also, unfortunately, American soccer's first high-profile premature retirement. For everything he accomplished over seven heralded MLS seasons (plus two more where he rarely played), Twellman was surely destined for even greater achievement.
He did everything humanly possible over the last two years to heal, but we'll never know how far the 101-goal scorer might have gone. By the way, every one of his 101 MLS goals came in a New England Revolution shirt, and those who know Twellman best say he's particularly proud of that.
"There was no better center forward or pure goal scorer in our league, and there was no better guy you wanted in the locker room," Revs coach Steve Nicol said. Arguments to the contrary are tough to find.
Twellman was a striker's striker. For a man not blessed with blazing speed or unusual size, his scoring rate in MLS was nothing short of stunning. What he did possess was a hunting dog's instinct for goal scoring. Twellman knew just how to lurk with menace right off a defender's anxious shoulder, just out of view and ready to knife into favorable position near goal at the moment of truth. With natural ability that was nurtured by Nicol and by former England international striker Paul Mariner, Twellman built his sum over just 174 matches.
The sniper who drifts north of one goal every other game will be rich in most professional soccer leagues. Landon Donovan, who will one day own the MLS scoring marks if he doesn't acquiesce to the calls from England, has 103 goals in 232 regular-season matches -- a rate of production well below Twellman's (although Donovan plays further away from goal and does equal harm with his assists). In fact, none of the five men ahead of Twellman on MLS' all-time scoring list come close to his scoring rate. Ante Razov (114 goals, 262 games) is next closest, and yet not really close at all.
Twellman earned the league's MVP award at age 25. He was a two-time MLS Best XI selection and a five-time All-Star. As far back as 2004, just after Jason Kreis became the first MLS man to reach 100 goals, the future Real Salt Lake manager humbly allowed that his days as scoring king wouldn't last. He saw what everyone else was already seeing in Twellman: a young man who would lap the field and consume the scoring records in time, assuming MLS could keep the overseas talent hawks from getting their claws into him.
Twellman was even a marketing force. Last year, Cosmopolitan called out his baby blues and named him one of the country's sexiest bachelors. Was he a little brash? Yeah -- but he could preternaturally back it up.
The effects of seven concussions took it all away. The last damaging blow occurred in August 2008. Twellman got the goal, of course, but he also took a fierce punch in the head in a collision with L.A. Galaxy goalkeeper Steve Cronin, and we've seen the Revs' all-time scoring king on the field just twice since. He tried mightily, but nothing would eliminate the ongoing symptoms.
"The hardest part of this injury is that I can do zero about it," he said during a news conference this week to discuss his retirement. "And that is the most humbling thing that has ever happened to me in my life. For those who know me very well -- and I see a lot of friends here today that were also my teammates -- anyone that knows me knows if you told me I couldn't do it, guess what? I'm doing it. If you told me I couldn't fix it, I'm going to fix it. And for two years, I have done everything from acupuncture for 12 hours, to waking up at 6:30 a.m., to sitting in a dark room for six months, and I can honestly sit here and say that I've done it all, I've tried it all. I'm sick and I'm injured."
Other sports have their histories of athletes either forced to retire early through circumstance, or who simply walked away before we thought they should.
Tennis great Bjorn Borg walked away in 1983 at age 26. Barry Sanders was 31 when his retirement shocked the NFL world in 1999. That came about 35 years after another fabulous running back, the inimitable Jim Brown, dropped jaws with his surprising retirement. A hip injury took away dual-sport wonder Bo Jackson too early. Michael Jordan "retired" twice, in 1993 and 1998, both times arguably at the top of his game. Dutch striker Marco van Basten heads the list of world footballers whose careers were cut down prematurely by injury.
Now domestic soccer has its most unfortunate, most pronounced case of promise unfulfilled.
A couple of less friendly bends in the river along the way add to the intrigue, to the wonder of what might have been. For one, some still insist that Twellman never got a fair shake internationally. The numbers don't exactly support any claims of U.S. Soccer bias, however; Twellman had just 6 goals in 30 international appearances. Still, fans are fans, which means they tend to be emotional about these things -- and it's hard to fault the good fan who has his favorite player's back.
There's also this unpleasant matter of Twellman's missing his opportunity to go overseas -- and the establishment does bear some blame for this one. England's Preston North End came knocking in January 2008. New England effectively blocked the sale, an action that Twellman cursed bitterly at the time. It was Nicol who called the striker to break the bad news.
Twellman reflected on it this week: "Did I agree with him? No. Did I have choice words? Yeah. But when you sit back and reflect on what was a short but fun and good career, that's a player's dream, to find a coach that believes in you and finally says, 'You're my man.' "
In the end, isn't that what so many athletes want to hear?
Few of us will ever know what it's like to be a decorated, beloved and handsomely rewarded athlete. Twellman has that, at least. But we all know something of opportunities lost. We know of paths not taken, of loves lost for reasons unexplained, of career doors unopened, of personal matters left unresolved. And we wonder what might have been.
In this way, we're all just like Twellman today, left to wonder what might have been and to ponder the melancholy of promise unfulfilled.