The final moment of Super Bowl 50 was one no one could have imagined just four years ago. Coming off multiple neck surgeries, a midseason injury setback, and a near benching for the first time in his career, Peyton Manning, donned with the wryest of smiles, jogged onto the field to shake the hands of his opponents. If his brother’s face didn’t tell it all, you could still see it in Peyton’s eyes. He was a two-time Super Bowl Champion. But mid-trot, the Broncos quarterback paused for a second and searched through the crowd. Perhaps he was looking for his family, his head coach, or eventual game MVP Von Miller for his first celebratory hug of the game. With cameras engulfing him, prepared to capture the most important moment of the future Hall of Famer’s life, Peyton reached out and found the person he was looking for.

After toiling 18 years in the NFL and earning his second Super Bowl ring, Peyton didn’t hug his wife, nor did he embrace his coach or teammates, and if he wanted to hug his brother, Eli definitely wasn’t having any of it. No, the person Peyton hugged was the face of the third largest pizza delivery and take-out restaurant chain in the world: Papa John.


What is the perfect way to retire? It’s something I’ve thought about since my own blip of a sports career ended in high school. My basketball team unceremoniously lost in the sectional semifinals in a fairly close game. I knew that was it. It’s not like I had the choice to continue my athletic career. I was six-feet tall and 140 pounds, it’s not like the NBA was calling any time soon. It all came to end, before I could even blink.

Still as fans, we can vicariously live through our favorite sports stars and enjoy their glory on the court or field. We’re brought to tears in losses, but revel in their success as if they are our children or family members, which makes it that much tougher when they walk away from the game completely.

The R-word is one that all sports fan dread, but perhaps one that their sports idols fear even more. Legacy in sports is built not just on success, but on longevity as well. More often than not, athletes fade into relative obscurity without more than a tweet or two. But if you’ve reached any level of success in any professional sports league, retirement is much more difficult. When exactly is the right time to hang it up?

In the past week, three sports stars I’ve grown to respect have decided (or will likely decide) to call it quits on their career. They’ve all reached the highest level of success in their respective crafts, something we unfairly like to remind even the greatest of athletes far too often (*cough* Charles Barkely *cough*). A ring, a championship belt, a trophy: theses are the universally recognized symbols of having a remarkable career. But often times, titles and success make it even more difficult to know when to call it quits.


Technically, Marshawn Lynch hasn’t officially retired yet. He hasn’t written or said the words “I retire” nor has the team released a statement indicating the end of his career. But for all intents and purposes, it’s safe to say that Beast Mode will never lace them up again, especially since his cleats are hanging far above his own reach presumably in the streets of Seattle or Oakland.

The Seahawks running back departs from the NFL at a very curious time. He’s 29-years-old, and despite coming off a season where he missed several games due to a abdominal injury, there’s no reason to doubt he can play competitively in the NFL. Though not quite in his prime like Barry Sanders, several questions remain as to why Lynch exited the game at a relatively early time in his career.

That’s our tendency as fans. We elevate these super humans to places we want them to be due to our own expectations after watching them dominate on the field for years. We see them so often run one way on the field, only to suddenly hesitate, and cut back in the opposite direction. So why are we so shocked when they do so in real life?

While we confoundedly ask why, perhaps we should be asking why not?

Lynch has won touchdown rushing titles, been to five Pro Bowls, and has a Super Bowl ring. He’s made a collective $50 million dollars on the field alone, not a dime of which he has spent reportedly. He’s also walking away a relatively healthy man, in a sport where concussions and CTE have players dropping like flies in their mid-fifties. He has his successful “Fam 1st Family” foundation to run and still maintains several sponsorship deals.

Seems like a pretty ideal retirement situation to me.

So why do we question his decision? Why do we ask for a public statement, or roll our eyes at Lynch for being coy with his retirement tweet? Why do we criticize Lynch for being selfish by trying to overshadow the Super Bowl, when perhaps he was simply trying to slip through unnoticed in the shadow of the biggest game of the year?


 

There wasn’t a dry set of eyes in the KeyArena during last Monday’s live RAW show. The once thunderous “Yes!” chants seemed to fade with every word that came out of Daniel Bryan’s mouth during his monologue. After months of speculation, the former WWE champion was confirming what many had feared for over a year: he was retiring due to injury.

“I have loved this in a way I’ve never loved anything else”

In one sentence, in just twelve words, Bryan encapsulated his relationship with wrestling and perhaps unintentionally, perfectly illustrated the feelings wrestling fans had for him. Bryan wasn’t like any other wrestler we’ve seen during the modern era. He wasn’t supposed to be WWE champion. He wasn’t even supposed to really be a star. He was talented, but far too small. He had the technical skills, but he was too small. Charismatic, but again, too small.

The final RAW itself very much mirrored Bryan’s own career. A slow, but steady build-up followed by a roaring wave of an entrance and finally a speech that made it feel like someone pulled the plug on the television mid-way through your favorite movie. Each word of Bryan’s explanation was a gut punch to every wrestling fan.

“Multiple concussions.”

Talk about a finishing move to fan’s emotions. It was all happening so fast, faster than Bryan’s epic rise as the company’s top superstar. “It can’t be happening. It shouldn’t be happening. Maybe it’s a work.” For the first time, wrestling fans wanted everything not to be real. No, this was certainly no work. Bryan was walking away, and certainly not by choice. It was another retirement that left fans wondering “If only…” and “What if?” Another imperfect ending.


So when exactly is the perfect time to retire? It seems like Peyton Manning had it served up to him on a platter as Super Bowl 50 came to a close. He’d checked all the boxes. A prolonged career, his second Super Bowl ring, millions of dollars, his fans cheering him, and his doubters left scratching their heads. His performance wasn’t exactly ideal, as his offense gained the fewest yards ever in Super Bowl history, but that would hardly matter in 5 to 10 years. He walked away a champion, into the sunset.

Yet we still laughed as his obviously planned embrace with Papa John. We ridiculed his seemingly staged Budweiser shoutout during the trophy acceptance speech. All of this silliness and I haven’t even talked about Manning’s health. ESPN reported it takes nearly 15 minutes for him to take off all of his gear, not to mention he can hardly even take off his own cleats unassisted. Manning even admitted that he’s probably going to need a hip replacement down the road. So sure Manning may be exiting the game of football in glory, but his painful ride into the sunset makes us all want to yell “Come back, Shane!

The fact is this: we often glorify our sports stars to the point that we want to see the final chapters of their career play out in a way that fits their career arc. One final game, one final win. But no matter what they do, no matter how many titles they walk away with, regardless of their health, there are no perfect endings. Even the greatest scripted films and television shows can’t tie a bow perfectly (looking at you, “Lost”). Sure, we might scoff at running back’s single tweet, sob while a wrestler reveals just how broken he is, or meme-out when a quarterback embraces his favorite pizza man. But we react this way because we’ve put our own expectations on retirement on an untouchable pedestal. Perhaps it’s a reflection of ourselves. We use sports to get away, to escape our own mundane nine-to-five lives, so watching our favorite gladiators exit stage-right awkwardly makes us uncomfortable of what our own futures might hold. It breaks the picturesque fantasy we’ve crafted in our minds. If their endings come so suddenly, what hope is there for us?

It’s a frightening notion to come to grasps with, but it’s probably scarier for the stars themselves. You dedicated your entire whole life to one craft, and then retire with half your life in front of you. But the more you fear the end, the greater the risk you run of ruining the middle of your story. Manning got his perfect ending, but at what cost? Multiple neck surgeries and long-term health risks? Even Daniel Bryan admitted hiding concussion-induced seizures in order to try to get back into the ring. Don’t get it twisted: both those men could have died at any moment doing what they love. So why are we so dumbfounded when a healthy and wealthy Lynch walks away early?

Endings won’t ever be perfect, no matter what a star athlete does. We’ll pick away at their motives, we’ll discuss “what if”, and we’ll continue to dissect their careers for years. Don’t feel guilty, it’s what we’ve been trained to do. But instead of hoping for a perfect endings based on our outlandish expectations, we should allow athletes to write their own endings and come to grips with it knowing that things will probably be OK. Especially if they have a lifetime supply of delivered pizza and cold beer waiting for them in the sunset.