Money, Hair Canada, NASCAR's wonder boy and international soccer's top scorer were some of sports' biggest stars to call it quits in 2015
This is an article from the Dec. 21, 2015 issue
FLOYD MAYWEATHER JR.
For all of Floyd (Money) Mayweather Jr.'s marvelous talents, his career—which he says ended in September with his 49th win, a unanimous decision over Andre Berto—will be defined by what-ifs. What if Mayweather had faced Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto in their prime? What if he had fought Manny Pacquiao in 2010, not '15? What if, instead of finding reasons to avoid the toughest challenges, he had run toward them?
From his shoulder roll defense to his pinpoint accuracy, the undefeated Mayweather was boxing brilliance. He sat atop the sport's mythical pound-for-pound list for much of the last 20 years and was its biggest star for most of the last 10. His fights generated a record 19.5 million pay-per-view buys and well over $1 billion, nearly a third of HBO's PPV revenue since 1991. For a sport hemorrhaging fans, Mayweather was must-see TV. The negativity that engulfed him—spawned by anything from his domestic violence issues to his social media outbursts to his indifference toward opponents—didn't drive viewers away; in fact, it drew many of them closer in the hope of seeing Money knocked out.
To his supporters, Mayweather did a disservice. He likely would have been favored to outbox Mosley, pick apart Cotto and outpoint Pacquiao had he faced them earlier. So if indeed this is the end—and it will be at least a year before anyone believes it—Mayweather will retire as the richest fighter, with an estimated net worth of $650 million, but not one of the greats. Because the greats never hesitated to take on all comers.
The last seven games of Martin Brodeur's NHL career, the only ones out of 1,266 that were spent with a team other than the Devils, will be remembered as a curious footnote on his future first-ballot Hall of Fame résumé. "No one's going to associate me with the Blues as a hockey player," said Brodeur of his 59-day stint with St. Louis. Twenty-one seasons, 688 wins (the most all time), 28,776 saves, 124 shutouts, 10 All-Star Games, four Vezina Trophies and three Stanley Cups with New Jersey will make sure of that. On Feb. 9 the Devils will retire Brodeur's number 30 jersey and unveil a statue of him outside of their arena. There will also be a contest to give five fans the opportunity to use the statue as a time capsule, allowing some of the Devils' faithful to leave their memories inside the likeness of the goaltender who already gave them so many.
There's no greater testament to Steve Nash's legacy than the point guards who followed him. Sure, he has two MVPs (the first Canadian to win the NBA's top honor), eight All-Star selections and more assists (10,335) than all but two other players in league history. But a generation after teenagers tried to be like Mike, playgrounds everywhere are run by finger-licking, chest-rubbing, quick-trigger point guards trying to emulate Nash. Take the Warriors' Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP. He grew up watching Nash play NBA Pop-A-Shot and developed into a jacked-up version of the British Columbian. Nash never won a championship (painful back and leg problems short-circuited his chance of even competing for one in L.A. with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard), but he will forever be linked to the reemergence of the up-tempo offense.
Upon Richie McCaw's retirement from rugby last month at age 34, London's Telegraph noted that New Zealand's openside flanker and captain was "renowned for his physical turnover work around the breakdown area." Of course, what exactly that might mean is about as comprehensible to most American sports fans as the NFL's definition of a catch to people in Christchurch. Christchurch, Virginia, that is.
In most ways McCaw's story is a universal one: a farm boy who emerged from a small town of a few hundred (Kurow, pop. 339) to become a national hero. Phil Waugh, a longtime Australian opponent, was far from alone when he hailed McCaw as "the best rugby player of all time."
McCaw debuted for New Zealand's All Blacks in 2001 at age 20, and over the next 14 years—as his powerful, 6'2" and 234-pound body accumulated bruises and scars from the most brutal of sports—his legend only grew. He played in more international Test caps (148) than anyone in rugby history, winning a remarkable 131 of them. He was named World Rugby Player of the Year a record three times and became an international celebrity despite being fairly unknown in the U.S., even receiving an invitation to the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
On Oct. 31, McCaw led the All Blacks to a 34--17 victory over Australia in the Rugby World Cup final, making New Zealand the first back-to-back champion in the quadrennial tournament's 28-year history. "I'm hanging up my boots having accomplished everything I could have ever dreamed about in the game," McCaw said. Next up? A possible career as a commercial helicopter pilot. It seems there are always more boyhood fantasies to be fulfilled, even for Richie McCaw.
High School Football
Nobody has seen more Summerville (S.C.) High football than John McKissick, but on Friday nights this fall the Green Wave's games looked new to his 89-year-old eyes. "From up in the stands," says McKissick, "you can really see more than you can down on the sideline."
That lesser vantage point was McKissick's view for 63 seasons before he announced his retirement last June. A former linebacker and fullback at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., McKissick was hired as Summerville's coach in 1952. All told, he won 10 state titles, led five undefeated teams and coached four future Super Bowl participants (as well as current Bengals wideout A.J. Green). He is the winningest football coach at any level, with 621 victories, 155 losses and 13 ties.
Over the years McKissick's success begat offers for positions at the collegiate level, such as Clemson, South Carolina, Presbyterian and The Citadel. But he remained in the three-bedroom house in Summerville that he's owned since 1956, where he raised two daughters with wife Joan. "I turned them all down, and I'm glad I did," says McKissick, "to stay here in this nice, nice town."
In purely statistical terms she is known as the greatest goal scorer, male or female, in the history of international soccer. But there was always more to Abby Wambach than just the numbers. She took one of the basic elements of the game—headed goals—and made it her trademark, intimidating defenders with her relentless approach.
Wambach displayed a will to win that simply exceeded that of all others. That's the only way to explain her greatest goal, a last-second strike during stoppage time against Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup. With the U.S. trailing 2--1 in the 122nd minute and down a player, midfielder Megan Rapinoe's cross found Wambach's head, where it sailed just inside the post to even the score and stave off elimination. (The U.S. won the game 5--3 on penalty kicks but lost to Japan in the final.)
Yet even with her two Olympic gold medals and all-time goals record (184, of which 77 were with her head), Wambach was missing one thing entering 2015: a World Cup title. She said her career wouldn't be complete without it. This year that title finally came in a World Cup final rematch against Japan. And even if the 35-year-old Wambach was no longer the U.S.'s biggest threat, she was a vital part of the team that inspired a nation. There's no better way to go out than that.
The name Jeff Gordon could have been synonymous with BMX racing if his mom hadn't intervened. Gordon was only four when he began riding bikes, but Carol Bickford wasn't comfortable with the sport's potential risk to her baby. "You fall off the bike and chances are you're gonna get hit or get run over or something," she said. By Gordon's fifth birthday his stepfather, John Bickford, brought home a quarter midget race car as a BMX replacement, and weirdly enough the new set of wheels—gas-powered to go up to 30 mph—put his mom's mind at ease, thus beginning a legendary career on the racetrack. In 23 years at the Sprint Cup Series level Gordon set a record for victories (93, the most in the circuit's modern era) and won four championships (the fourth most all time). The 44-year-old also helped make his sport feel safer—on the track, where he raced clean, and off, where his polished and family-friendly personality helped fuel NASCAR's 1990s and 2000s growth.
When Troy Polamalu retired last April after 12 seasons in the NFL (all with the Steelers), he took with him a résumé that guarantees inclusion in any discussion of the best safeties in the history of professional football: four-time All-Pro, eight Pro Bowl selections, 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 32 interceptions, 12 sacks, three AFC titles and two Super Bowl rings. Still, those accomplishments are just the packaging on a singular gift to football.
Polamalu, who went to Pittsburgh from USC as the 16th pick in the 2003 draft, was a force of nature. He dressed out at 5'10", 213 pounds and seemed both shorter and lighter, yet he performed with a relentless fury that stood out even on NFL fields, where desperate violence is the default action on every snap. Polamalu committed at full speed to his instincts, often ignoring convention, game plans and tendencies while trusting his gut. "The way he views the game is different," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told NFL.com when Polamalu announced his retirement. "The way he plays the game is different." A mane of thick, black hair flew at all times from the back of Polamalu's helmet, lending a poetic dynamism to his work.
He paid a price for his relentlessness. Polamalu missed 34 games in his career, due to a variety of injuries, including multiple concussions. And as the NFL moved to make the game safer toward the end of his career, Polamalu found himself lost in a sport that had become different from the one he loved. "When you start conforming to these rules," he told SI in the summer of 2011, "you take away the aspect of fear, and overcoming fear is what makes us men, you know? It's what challenges us. You take that away, you kind of make the game for everybody."
His game was not for everybody. It was his alone.