There are some people out there who simply don’t know when to call it a day. In most cases, it is simply because the sport they play is all they have ever known, having invariably started young and relied much on coaches or senior players to show them the way at the top level.
These five greats of American sporting culture are amongst those that attempted to defy Old Father Time to a longer-than-average extent, but ultimately should have retired sooner.
Voted player of the century in 1999, Pelé needs no introduction. Essentially a one-club man with Santos - for whom he scored 643 times in 656 appearances, excluding friendlies - the Brazilian exploded onto the world stage in 1958, being an integral part of Brazil's first-ever World Cup win. His contributions did much to see Brazil defend that maiden title four years later, before defying his advanced years to fire his nation to a 'perfect' World Cup in 1970, which consisted of straight wins.
The fledgling generation of soccer fans over in the States only witnessed a Pelé in the twilight of his playing years, with the Brazilian signing for New York Cosmos in 1975. Though his contributions helped Cosmos win the NASL championship in 1977, there are still isolated beliefs that he should have stayed with Santos until the very end, even though he was only a part-timer at the club by the mid-1970s.
What probably cannot be argued, however, is the fact that it was a taste of transatlantic transfer trends to come. Today, the MLS imports some truly stunning talents near the end of their careers, and although some players carry on longer than they should, there are sometimes positive outcomes when a veteran takes to the field against his better judgment.
4. Martin Brodeur
While NHL goaltenders have greater license to carry on well beyond their prime years, some could easily assert that Brodeur took it to an extreme. Over the course of 22 NHL seasons, he was a rock in goal for the New Jersey Devils, with his reflexes doing much to give his team three Stanley Cup triumphs along with five Eastern Conference championships.
Brodeur’s 2018 inclusion into the NHL’s hall of fame was well-deserved, and he appeared in the Stanley Cup finals late on in his career in 2012. Sadly for Brodeur, however, 2012/13 heralded a statistical decline, rendering him surplus to requirements at NJ. Rather than retire gracefully, he opted to join the St Louis Blues in 2014.
Within two months, he had decided the game was up, having made just five starts for the Blues. Even at the very end, there was still the occasional hint of the old Brodeur, producing a shutout (3-0) in his final win as an NHL player.
3. Rickey Henderson
Perhaps the greatest baserunner the MLB franchise has ever seen, Henderson’s mastery of stealing home was complemented well by his eccentric personality and insightful approach. First running out in a major league game in 1979, Henderson’s impact was instantaneous, and between 1980 and 1991, he would also be named an All-Star ten times.
Henderson was also the top base stealer for the American League on 12 occasions and was crowned MLB’s overall top stealer six times, winning that accolade on the final occasion at the age of 39 in 1998. Even as late as 2001, at 42, Henderson was a major fixture for the San Diego Padres, in what was his second spell at the franchise.
It was during this stint that Henderson made his 3,000th career hit – a nice, round number to justify finally hanging up the helmet. Henderson did no such thing. He would instead end his career in relative obscurity, touring the Indy leagues between 2003 and 2007.
The year of 2007 heralded his acknowledged retirement, but as of July 2019, he has not yet submitted formal retirement papers to the MLB. Thus, the elderly Henderson theoretically remains fair game to any head coach mad enough to take a chance.
2. Johnny Unitas
Best remembered as a talismanic mainstay for the Baltimore Colts, Unitas was a true 'American Dream' of a QB. A three-time MVP, and a record holder for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass for over half a century, he set a standard for all marquee QBs that remains relevant even today.
Unitas joined the Colts in 1956, and within three years had racked up his first MVP season. Even the Colts’ decline in the 1960s did not affect him too severely, and his ability to inspire his peers kept them within touching distance of glory year on year.
A 5-9 season with the Colts in 1972 should have been his cue to retire gracefully. His personal trajectory had been a negative one following injury struggles in the late 1960s. It was a very aged Unitas that joined the San Diego Chargers in 1973, and he was clearly not the same player anymore. Taking to the field as a starter soon became an impossibility for him, and it was a thoroughly unfitting end to the career of a true NFL legend.
1. Michael Jordan
Prior to Jordan’s emergence onto an NBA court in 1984, as the third pick of that year’s draft, the idea that one man could truly 'carry' a sport – and single-handedly thrust its presence to new levels – was ludicrous. However, Jordan would quickly become the face of the franchise, becoming a trailblazer for endorsement culture.
By 1999, Jordan had won just about all there was to win, and having completed his second 'three-peat' the previous year, he could finally retire in peace. Evidently, that was not yet in his vocabulary, as in 2001, he returned to play for Washington Wizards. Though he was injured throughout much of it, his first season with the Wizards was promising, and Jordan ended it as their top scorer.
Time would yet have its way though, with Jordan suffering from torn cartilage in his knee, which prevented him from making the impact his 2001/02 performance promised. That should have been his cue to stop, but at great risk to his post-career condition, he carried on. Medically speaking, Jordan should have retired much sooner, but his conquest for ultimate longevity was well-recognized in his final pro game, in April 2003, with a standing ovation from the entire arena.