When I covered Secretariat's last race for Sports Illustrated, after he won I went down onto the track at Woodbine, and gauging where he had crossed the finished line, I snatched up the last grass that perhaps the greatest thoroughbred had ever laid hooves to in his career. Pretty sappy, I'll admit, but then it's quite a memento if only because it really is rare in sport for someone to declare that this will be the finale -- the last dance -- and then indeed go out a winner.
Most famously, perhaps, was Ted Williams, who hit a home run in his final at bat. But as dramatic as that was, it was a meaningless game before a sparse crowd. Perhaps the most impressive declared last game was performed by one of the least sentimental athletes, the acerbic Dutchman -- Norm van Brocklin, who quarterbacked the Philadelphia Eagles to their last NFL championship in 1960.
This is, of course, what Ray Lewis, the Ravens' superb linebacker, is seeking to do with the Super Bowl. Lewis' valedictory has received exceptional attention because, like van Brocklin, he is a controversial -- even notorious -- character. At least Lewis suffers the media better. When, late in his life, van Brocklin endured brain surgery, he revealed to the press: "I got a new brain -- but I demanded a sportswriter's brain because I wanted one that had never been used before."
But sending Ray Lewis off into the sunset with violins playing requires a bit of soft-soaping. He is not, shall we say, quite the exemplary family man, having sired six children with a variety of women. He was indicted for murder in the year 2000, turned state's evidence and pled guilty to obstruction of justice. And, of course, he can be a brutal player -- witness the monstrous illegal monstrous hit he pummeled the Patriots' Aaron Hernandez with in the AFL championship.
But then, Lewis is demonstrably extraordinary at what he does, playing tackle football. He's also an inspirational leader, he's created a delightful so-called "squirrel dance" and, above all, he is active in charities, claiming salvation from his wayward past. However, if only most everybody loves Ray, absolutely everybody loves redemption. It's odds-on that CBS will cut to him as he sings along with the Star-Spangled Banner before the game.
And oh my, should the Ravens win, CBS will make sure that no less than a phalanx of angels lift Ray Lewis up from his farewell squirrel dance. To Disneyland? No. In Super Bowl hype, only heaven awaits.
In contrast, my favorite pre-ordained departure from sport was so wonderfully subdued. After Rulon Gardner, the wrestling champion, won the bronze medal match at the 2004 Olympics, he leaned down, untied his shoes and left them there on the mat as he walked away, forever from his sport, victorious. Ave atque vale. Hail and farewell.