It’s an odd skill — esoteric, really — knowing when to quit, when to walk away. It’s not taught in school, parents don’t coach it, friends either don’t know or don’t like to talk about it. It’s not a competence celebrated in obituaries, “James was a loving husband and a great dad. I’ll always hold dear the memory that he knew when to quit.” It’s not an expertise touted on résumés — “MBA San Diego State, Vice President of Hand Strap Development, Hemlock Mobile Phones. Knows when to quit.”
Knowing when to walk away is a handy tool for jobs and marriages. But, it’s a delicate thing to manage, extremely difficult to do well. Every quitting is unique. Every quitting affects the people you care about. There are no hard-and-fast rules.
Quitting is something you do alone. Do it right and you move on with dignity; do it wrong and you’ll carry the weight of failure on your back.
It’s exponentially more difficult to know when to quit in professional sports, particularly the big four of professional sports (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL). It’s not surprising that almost every athlete stays too long. Somebody pays you $500,000, $1 million, $5 million, you’re going to stick around as long as the money rolls. The downside of sticking around is letting somebody else decide when you go.
It’s a tricky call, particularly for NFL players whose average career is three and a half years. Let’s say you’re an outside linebacker making $2 million a year playing for the Chargers. Odds are heavy you’ll never see that kind of money again. Arthritis and brain injury are in the future, may happen, may not.
According to a 2009 Sports Illustrated article, within two years of leaving the game, 78 percent of NFL players are bankrupt or facing serious financial stress. Sixty percent of NBA players are tapped out within five years of adios. The incentive is to stay until someone makes you go.
Walking away at the right time is exceedingly rare and for the very few. Follows are my nominations for the NFL Players Who Knew When to Quit Hall of Fame.
1) Jim Brown. He was 29 years old when he retired. Brown played nine NFL seasons (1957–1965), never missed a game because of injury. A three-time MVP (won the award his first and last seasons in the league), voted to the Pro Bowl every year he played. In 2002, Sporting News named him the greatest football player of all time.
2) John Elway. The book on John Elway used to be he had great awareness, great arm, doesn’t get injured, throws with power and accuracy. He’ll win a lot of games, but not the Big One.
Elway led Denver to five Super Bowls. Let’s pause here, dear reader, and travel back to the evening of January 28, 1990. We’re in New Orleans, it’s a chilly evening, 55 degrees, tourists are wearing coats on Basin Street. Now comes a roar from the Superdome. San Francisco has beaten Denver 55–10. Those 55 points were the most ever scored in an NFL championship game. Tonight marks Elway’s third Super Bowl and he’s lost every one.
What if he walks now? Elway becomes a second-tier novelty item, akin to Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills. But not really. Buffalo lost four Super Bowls in a row. Kelly has that category nailed. Perhaps Elway could settle for being the guy who lost three Super Bowls. But that wouldn’t be a record, not even a great bar bet: Elway shares that distinction with Fran Tarkington.
Elway decides to stay. Eight long years later he takes the Broncos to another Super Bowl and wins, Denver 31, Green Bay 24. At Qualcomm, no less. Now comes the beauty part, the high risk, high-wire, 100-to-1 part. Elway stays on for another year, drives the Broncos back to the Super Bowl, beats Atlanta 34 to 19, and is awarded Super Bowl MVP. Then he retires! Brilliant!
3) Peyton Manning. Maybe. Granted, the guy’s got stats: Five times NFL MVP, Pro Bowl MVP, Super Bowl MVP. His NFL records go on for two pages, single-spaced.
On the other hand, he’s one for three in Super Bowls and he’s had four neck operations. On the other, other hand his neck took 2012 off, he comes back to a new team, and produces a monster year, the second-best year of his career. And that makes his meltdown at Super Bowl XLVIII intriguing. Seattle 43, Denver 8, and it could have been worse. Manning threw two interceptions and was lucky it was only two. He was slow and on occasion seemed confused.
He needs two Super Bowl wins. Figure 200 to 1.