And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
-- A.E. Housman,
"To An Athlete
A photograph of LaDainian Tomlinson holding his son, Daylen, accompanied the story of the great running back's retirement. The image could be telling: Tomlinson holding the child firmly and watching him closely, as if to safeguard the boy's equilibrium, and Daylen staring wide-eyed into the lens of the camera, as though to search for something to explain all this formality. Tomlinson's wife, mother and daughter were all there, too, in San Diego, for the announcement.
And so maybe Tomlinson will be different. "Social support" is the most significant factor in an elite athlete's successful transition into retirement, according to Scott Tinley, who was himself a professional athlete for 17 years, twice winning the Ironman World Championship, but who now teaches at San Diego State University.
Saying it was simply "time to move on," Tomlinson seems to have understood the arc of his career, and he recognized its end. His productivity, after all, dipped dramatically with the Jets last year, when he ran for 280 yards. He also appears to be moving on to the next chapter of his life with considerable encouragement and support surrounding him, and so he could indeed be different from many elite athletes who struggle with retirement as if it's an anaconda around their necks.
Why do so many elite athletes, and even those who have made millions of dollars in their careers, find it so difficult to recognize their time to retire? The signs are usually clear to almost everybody -- the stride shortens and the recovery time lengthens; victories become rare and mistakes frequent; or maybe a fastball loses its velocity or a punch its pop -- and yet some athletes drag out their careers with a desperate pantomime.
Johnny Unitas set one of sport's lapidary records: He threw a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games for the Colts. But in the early 1970s, accuracy and strength began to abandon "The Golden Arm," as he was called, and over two years, the great quarterback threw for a total of seven touchdowns, after having thrown for 107 the previous five seasons.
He probably should have retired after the 1971 season, certainly after the 1972 season, and he could have left the sport from a platform of cheering, unqualified adulation, with a xylophone trill up his spine and a contrail of greatness. But Unitas finished his career with the Chargers, where he was benched for a rookie named Dan Fouts.
The great Willie Mays, whom many regard as the greatest all-around baseball player to ever swing a bat, was a two-time MVP for the Giants, but "The Say Hey Kid" finished his playing career as a publicity ploy with the Mets.
After becoming the NFL's all-time rushing leader during 13 seasons with the Cowboys, Emmitt Smith had the two most unproductive seasons of his career in Arizona. Archie Moore, who had knocked out a record 131 opponents, stumbled around the ring at the end of his career; Terrell Owens, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, recently caught passes for the Allen Wranglers of the Indoor Football League -- why do so many glorious careers have to conclude ingloriously? And why do some athletes, their careers ended, then veer into embarrassment -- e.g., Tonya Harding trying to box, Carl Lewis pretending to sing -- or worse?
"It's all much more complicated than most people realize," Tinley said. Many factors -- psychological, physical, social, professional, educational and financial -- contribute to making the retirement decision difficult and can blind athletes to their best interests. The same factors also contribute to the "emotional trauma," Tinley said, that often follows retirement.
For his doctoral dissertation, Tinley studied 29 retired elite athletes, male and female, from various sports. The athletes in the study included Olympic medal winners, record holders and all-stars. Some of Tinley's findings are rather disturbing, if not surprising.
Most of the athletes in the study had difficulty deciding when to retire and resisted retirement. Athletes didn't take advantage of retirement counseling even when it was freely available. They generally weren't prepared for retirement or for anything after sports and so encountered many problems with the transition. And in most of these problems associated with retirement, the popular culture was complicit.
The culture, in a process Tinley calls "gladiatorializing" (as in gladiator), creates sports stars, uses them and then tosses them aside, as if they're toys that have been outgrown. Mike Webster, one of the greatest linemen in the history of the NFL and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, ended up homeless, living in the back of his pickup, before dying at age 50.
And why do so many athletes attempt a comeback, and maybe another? George Foreman became the oldest heavyweight champion in history in 1994, at 45, after his second comeback. But comebacks don't always lead to successful and happy conclusions.
Brett Favre, a three-time MVP in the NFL, became more famous for his retirements than his accomplishments. He retired from the Packers, but then played for the Jets. Then he retired from the Jets, but played for the Vikings. And then he concluded his glorious and long career on the bench, unable to pass a mandated post-concussion test.
Michael Jordan, by acclamation and consensus the greatest basketball player ever, retired in 1993 after leading the Bulls to three NBA titles. After an embarrassing baseball flirtation -- he played for the Birmingham Barons and the Scottsdale Scorpions -- Jordan returned in 1995 to lead the Bulls to three more titles before retiring again in 1999. Two years later, he returned yet again, this time as a player-part owner of the Washington Wizards. He averaged more than 30 points a game for his career, but only 20 points in his final season.
Even then, though, Jordan was a marvel, a 40-year-old playing in the NBA, just as Mays was amazing when at 42 he played center field in the World Series. But in a culture obsessed with youth, such performances can go unappreciated, or even resented, because aging athletes, especially superstars who have extended their careers too long, are animated reminders of mortality and of the inevitability of physical decline. But why is a graceful exit so elusive, so difficult to make?
Defining a career
A major reason, according to Tinley, is that elite athletes define themselves by their sports achievements. That's who they are: the all-pro quarterback, the incomparable basketball star, the gold medal winner, the record holder. And so, of course, they often don't know when to retire and don't want to retire: Retirement for them has become a metaphorical death, a loss of identity.
As a sports psychologist (John Murray) once said, elite athletes are the only people who have to die twice. And as Matt Birk said as he contemplated retirement, that's who he is, the center for the Baltimore Ravens, and once that's gone, nothing will ever be the same (quoted by Elizabeth Merrill in a story for ESPN.com).
"I'm still trying to understand the puzzle of who I am...and face life after sport," said one of the elite athletes in Tinley's study, quoted namelessly in the dissertation.
"All my identity was derived from my athletic career," said another athlete in the study. "Now I'm trying to figure out who I am."
One athlete complained that having retired he'll never "feel special again" and another that he went from being a "hero to a servant." The retired athletes in the study said they experienced depression and anxiety, largely because they had worked diligently for many years to define themselves as elite athletes only to find that definition, that identity and indeed that person suddenly overwhelmed by an avalanche of declining skill and advancing age.
Retirement is tough for everybody, but especially for heroes. But that's what the culture has turned elite athletes into, heroes. They haven't cured cancer or saved a life, they probably haven't even taught a child to read, but in some modern perversion of values they're heroes. The problem arises when the athletes believe in their own mythic heroism.
Gavin Grey, the miserable protagonist in Frank Deford's Everybody's All-American, is a fiction, but his story sounds sadly familiar. A Heisman winner, he's unable to define himself as anything else and becomes a drunken failure even as others around him advance to mature success.
And this identity is reinforced and propped up by fame and money. Athletes frequently succumb to the "tyranny of fame," Tinley said. The extravagant money they sometimes make and the adulation and attention they enjoy, even if from fawning sycophants, only make the decision to retire and the transition more difficult.
What elite athletes need most of all, Tinley said, is an environment where people don't defer to them because of their athletic accomplishments but treat them as equals. In other words, elite athletes, even if they're cultural heroes, need genuine, caring support, too, like the family that surrounded Tomlinson when he announced his retirement.