Legends of Their Game

By John Fontana

“Old-timer” use to describe a single day event reserved to honor storied athletes of season’s past.  Now, it could just as easily define tonight’s pitching duel or next year’s Tour de France champion.  Why the change?

In professional sports, retirement is a four-letter word. It’s the end of a rewarding relationship with the game, teammates and fans.  When a once-in-a-generation athlete hangs up his cleats (or high tops, skates, racing shoes, etc), the moment is necessarily cathartic – the fall comes when an athlete must admit that they’re no longer the powerhouse of past seasons, but a mere human whose talent has been eroded by the grindstone of time.

When it was time to hang up lucky No. 7 after 16 years in the pocket, John Elway broke into tears.  In stark contrast, former Green Bay Packers QB Brett Favre (who turns 39 in October) didn’t think football looked very good from the couch.  Everyone knows what happened there. Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong (now 37), retired three years ago to Austin, Texas, but is now living and training in the high country and plotting his return to the big French race next summer.

Clearly the competitive beast that dwells within these “old-timers” doesn’t retire when they hang up their jerseys. Others aren’t even bothering to do the retirement flip-flop.

Major League Baseball pitchers – some well past their best fastballs and change-ups – routinely stay on the mound past their prime. Jamie Moyer (45), Mike Mussina (40), and Trevor Hoffman (40) – for example.

Fans, the reason for any of these athletes existence in the spotlight, love watching these transcendents. Parents highlight faded but performing athletes as links to their own childhood and pass along that passion to their sons and daughters. The players of their youth are now old-timers.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, history is still fun to watch.

Modern medicine may be responsible for keeping an athlete functioning at a professional level. But these athletes posses a fire deep within that fuels their drive to compete. Of course, the hoopla, fans, competition, camaraderie and pageantry are nearly impossible to pass up. Who will cross over next?

Michael Strahan has turned down the New York Giants once, but as the season progresses and his old teammates make another run at glory, he could get itchy feet. Daunte Culpepper seems a lock to strap on his helmet again.  One wonders if Shaq will rescind his 735-day retirement countdown just to prove he’s the baddest old-timer of them all?

Who do you think will be the next “old-timer” to return from retirement for another season or two?

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