Every sport has its top athletes that keep us on the edge of our seats. When they are in the prime of their careers they can break a game wide open with one swing, pass, shot, body check or punch. When you get the opportunity to watch one of the best, it’s a great thing to see, and even better if you have the chance to see them in person. To sports franchise owners it’s a business, but to fans it is entertainment, and loyalties run deep and forever.
But there comes a time in life when those once entertaining athletes are no longer entertaining. When Peyton Manning retired after his last Super Bowl win it was the perfect time for him to go out. But all too often athletes don’t know when to hang them up for good. Who can blame them when greedy owners are still throwing money at them? Nobody is going to retire with a million or more dollars being offered to them.
At that point we are forced to watch an athlete who at one time ruled his sport, but now struggles to stay competitive. We have all been there at some point in life. You’re watching a game and you see that one guy hanging on, hardly getting any playing time anymore. Even worse, when they do, they just don’t perform up to a shadow of what they used to. In a lot of cases you may even feel embarrassed for them.
Everything comes to an end. For example the New York Yankees stopped winning World Series titles every year, the Edmonton Oilers stopped winning Stanley Cups, The Chicago Bulls stopped winning NBA Championships, and the Dallas Cowboys stopped winning Super Bowls. Teams can rebuild and eventually start another dynasty but the human body doesn’t work like that. That is unless of course you are Barry Bonds.
The human body gets old and injuries take their toll. Just the wear and tear of playing on a professional level for many years can break it down. Some athletes just don’t know when to call it a career and let the legacy that they built live on forever. Some keep playing until the paychecks are no longer offered and in a lot of those cases, the legacy that they built up over many years can be destroyed in just a season or two. Today we will take a look back at some of those once great athletes that played too long and ruined their legacy.
10. Gordie Howe
When Gordie Howe was in the prime of his career he was a lot of fun to watch and until Wayne Gretzky came along Howe was the best player that hockey had ever seen. He spent many years playing in the WHA and that led to his NHL statistics not being what they could have been. But they were still the best in the league’s history until #99 came along.
But Howe wouldn’t let his career come to an official end. In 1997 he signed a one game contract with the Detroit Vipers of the IHL and he played one shift during the game. He was 70 years old at the time and it made him the first hockey player to play professionally in six different decades.
While that is certainly a milestone that won’t ever be reached again, it wasn’t something that needed to be done. The shift that he played was uneventful and pretty much a waste of time. I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t want to, but a player of his stature should never have been used as a gimmick to sell tickets. That’s just embarrassing to him and to his legacy.
9. Johnny Unitas
As the eras of professional sports continue to pass by there are always arguments about who is the very best of all time. Johnny Unitas is one name that is always mentioned when talking about the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL.
But what is also always mentioned about Unitas is that he didn’t go out on top. He held on too long and ruined his career numbers that were once stellar for his time on the field. Over the last five seasons of his career, from 1969 until 1973, Unitas tossed 36 touchdown passes while throwing 60 interceptions. By comparison, in his previous five seasons, 1964-1968, he threw 86 touchdown passes. Watching his final years was just hard, especially those last five games with the San Diego Chargers.
8. Brett Favre
Near the end of his career Brett Favre was entertaining to follow. But that’s mostly because of the off-season circus that he would conduct. He retired, then came back, then retired again and came back yet again. And prior to that it was several years of drama in Green Bay every offseason, would he retire or wouldn’t he?
At one point Favre was absolutely one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. But with each retirement or his drawn out decisions on retirement, things got worse each year. If he had just retired with the Packers and let it be, he would have gone down as one of the greatest in history. But he couldn’t let that happen and his legacy will always suffer because of it.
He came back on the field to play a season with the New York Jets. Everyone in New York knew that he was only going to play for one year before retiring again. But when he started winning games early in the season the fans jumped on board. But then he became more interested in sexting with the Jets sideline reporter Jenn Sterger than winning football games. The Jets faltered badly down the stretch and didn’t make the playoffs and Favre then retired again.
But that wasn’t the end of his career. Once again he came back and played two seasons for the Minnesota Vikings. While he wasn’t as bad as the other quarterbacks that the Vikings had, he was a shell of his former self and he wasn’t the star of the team by any means. In January of 2011 he finally filed his official retirement papers with the NFL. But it was at least three seasons too late.
7. Emmitt Smith
Emmitt Smith was one of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL. Watching how he could move through a defense was like watching artwork. But after the 2002 season when the Dallas Cowboys released him, he had a decision to make. His career was clearly near the end and he could have ridden off into the sunset as one of the best ever. But he didn’t.
He is still one of the best ever but he ruined his legacy by going to Arizona to play for the Cardinals for two seasons. For many years the Cardinals franchise was were great players went to die. That’s just the way it was, and Smith was no different. The franchise was so desperate for names to draw in fans that they would pay anyone that had a decent career at the time. The Cardinals benefitted by using Smith as a marketing tool to sell tickets for a couple of years. Smith got paid well but it was at the cost of damaging his stellar legacy.
He will always be remembered for what he accomplished while wearing the Cowboys uniform. But unfortunately for him nobody will forget what he didn’t do in Arizona: continue to play well.
There is a continuing pattern here on this list. Every athlete at one time was one of the best at their craft until they held on too long. Chris Chelios is the next guy that was one of the best. He was without question one of the best defensemen in NHL history. But he kept playing, and playing, and playing. If he could have got another paycheck he wouldn’t have stopped. He finally retired at the age of 48.
Chelios kept his career going by playing in the minors with any team that would sign him. He played in the NHL for 26 seasons, won three Stanley Cups and was an All-Star eleven times. He also won the Norris Trophy for being the top defenseman in the NHL three different times.
The Hall of Famer loved to play and as long as someone would give him some money for doing so, he wasn’t about to stop. He made it back to the NHL in 2010 with the Atlanta Thrashers and played in 7 games before finally retiring. If you are a hockey fan chances are good that you saw Chelios play in person SOMEWHERE. That’s how many teams he played for trying to keep his career alive.
5. Evander Holyfield
Evander Holyfield was one of the best fighters in the ring. He fought between 1984 and 2011. He took on anyone and never backed down from a challenge, winning most of them. He was victorious in 44 of his 57 matches, including two wins over Mike Tyson, and he beat Riddick Bowe, and took down Buster Douglas after Douglas had shocked the world by knocking out Tyson.
The two fights against Tyson saw both fighters well past their prime, but boxing is in such need of big name fights that fans paid huge amounts of money to see these two legends in the ring. Everyone knows about how Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear off during one of the bouts. After that incident Holyfield himself was probably thinking that he should have retired before that match.
Holyfield damaged his legacy by not calling it quits somewhere around 1999. In his last 18 fights, he won just 8 while losing 10. He is a perfect example of being embarrassed for someone else. Watching the beatings that he took near the end of his career was tough. But probably not as tough as it was for him to take them.
4. Jerry Rice
Jerry Rice was the best wide receiver that football has ever seen. This is a fact and it is undisputed. He went to the Pro Bowl 13 times and was an All Pro 10 times. His statistics are the type of numbers that may never be matched. But he stuck around the NFL for too long. When the 49ers saw the end coming for him, Rice should have seen it as well and called it quits.
He left San Francisco to sign with the Raiders and he didn’t do all that bad there. But something was off. He wasn’t the same, but it was still more than most receivers in the league at the time had to offer.
But in 2003 it was clear that his best days were far behind him and in 2004 the Raiders traded him to the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle had already retired Rice’s #80 in tribute to longtime Seahawks great Steve Largent. But Rice wore his #80 anyway and that was just weird to watch. He didn’t do the number any justice with one horrible season in Seattle and he then moved on to Denver.
Rice was at training camp with the Broncos when it became obvious that he was going to be released. The end had finally arrived. But he retired before the Broncos could cut him and at the very least he saved a little face. But he should have done that a few years prior.
3. Steve Carlton
When you talk about the best pitchers in baseball history Steve Carlton is always mentioned. He was a power pitcher that could strike out a batter whenever he felt like it. Yes he was that good. Nobody wanted to be in the lineup on a day when Carlton was on the mound for the opposition. But he didn’t know when to quit.
His last four seasons in the major leagues killed his legacy. Anyone that saw him pitch couldn’t tell that this was a guy that was headed to the Hall of Fame. Those four years saw him post a win-loss record of 16-37 with five different teams. Take away those last years and his career record was 313-207. That’s the stuff that legends are made of. But his final record of 329-244 is just a clear sign of someone that held on too long.
2. Patrick Ewing
Patrick Ewing was one of the most dominant centers in basketball for 15 years with the New York Knicks. His last two years there he showed signs of the game catching up to him and the Knicks knew when it was time to cut ties. They traded him to the Seattle Super Sonics where he played one bad season, showing that New York knew what they were doing.
After the poor showing in Seattle, Ewing went to Orlando and gave Magic fans another poor showing before retiring. Those last two years are another good example of being embarrassed for a player. Watching him lumber up and down the court, when he did get into a game, was like watching a wounded animal die. You wanted to go out on the court and give him a hand but you couldn’t.
1. Mike Tyson
When Mike Tyson was good, he was the best ever. There was nobody in the world that could stand toe to toe with him when he was at the top of his game. Why anyone even got into the ring with him on most nights is a mystery.
His overall win loss record was 50-6 with 44 knockouts. That’s a very impressive record until you see that he lost three of his last four fights, all by knockout. Over his last 12 bouts he had a record of 5-5-2 including two losses to Evander Holyfield. The two no contests were against Andrew Golota when Tyson failed a drug test and another fight that his opponent couldn’t continue after a Tyson cheap shot. The five wins were against no competition and the five losses were to Holyfield twice, Lennox Lewis and a pair of nobodies.
In 2005, Tyson was fighting journeyman Kevin McBride. On paper it was a fight that Tyson should have won easily. But in the ring it was a close bout for six rounds. As the seventh round was about to begin, Tyson refused to come out of his corner. He just up and quit the fight. Later he said that he only took that fight for the money and he had no thoughts that he could actually win the fight. He said that he was out of shape and had lost his passion for fighting. So it appears that he realized that he held on too long after the sixth round of that bout. Those last 12 fights killed the legacy that he had worked so hard to build up. At one point he was the most feared man in the world. But by the end of his career he was nothing more than a complete joke.