Friday, May 16, 2008

Retiring Too Soon

This week golfer Annika Sorenstam joined Brett Favre in the ranks of athletes retiring at the top of their game this year. Both of them said they had been thinking about the decision for a long time, but to their fans, the decision seemed abrupt, and even a little mystifying perhaps. Obviously playing football exacts a more physical toll on your body than playing pro golf does, so we could understand if Brett felt worn down. But his performance on the field in 2007 dispelled any notions we might have had that his skills were declining. In the memorably snowy playoff game against Seattle in Green Bay, Brett was running around the field like any of his twenty-something teammates. And the Packers are definitely a team on the rise, with some of the best young players in the NFL, and steadily improving depth at key positions like defensive line and wide receiver.

So, we ask, why quit, Brett?

Ms. Sorenstam is also enjoying a great season, and in the somewhat convoluted player ranking system the golf tours use, she is one of the top two female golfers in the world right now—she may end up the season #1. She battled through some injuries last season, but seems to be healthy now. And golfers never really “retire”. They might cut back on the tournaments they play, or just concentrate on the “majors”, but they never completely leave the scene. Golfer Julius Boros when asked why he kept playing on the PGA tour well into his 50’s responded memorably: “Retire to what? All I do now is fish and play golf.”

So, we ask, why quit, Annika?

Both of these fine athletes cited almost identical reasons: they still enjoy playing the game, but the mental strain of preparation, and the battle to stay physically and emotionally on top of your game got to be too much.

I think it comes down to a kind of stubborn pride that you need to have to be a top athlete for an extended number of years. Some athletes demand from themselves nothing less than being the best in their particular sport—and they demand that they constantly improve. When they see that holding on to that top spot is becoming more difficult each year they, perhaps wisely, choose to walk away.

For Green Bay Packer fans, one of the things they have dreaded most is the day when Brett had a poor performance on the field and the coach replaced him with the second string understudy. Now, that will never happen. He exited the game as the starting quarterback of one of the greatest sports franchises in the United States.

Annika says she’s looking forward to other things, including business ventures and getting married. I think she’s also looking forward to not having to look behind her and see the younger players catching up. And they will.

But both of these star athletes will soon see that there’s nothing that can really replace the sound of cheers when your name is announced prior to the game or on the first tee.

And they may not admit it publicly, but they will both have thoughts that they retired too soon.

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