Average professional sports careers for athletes who don’t evolve into superstars or even serviceable bench players last for only a few years. Even the world’s elite athletes, individuals who are recognized all around the world for titles they have earned and the money they have been paid, cannot run away from the great equalizer that is time. Injuries, wear and tear on the body, and depreciating skill sets or an overall lack of skills eventually ends every pro sports career. It is that knowledge that they only have so long to perform in front of paying audiences that drives so many athletes to hang around for every second that they can milk until the doors on their playing days are closed.
Some athletes need a nudge toward a new path that does not involve performing for world championships and for millions of dollars per year. This includes aging players who are now, at the current stages of their careers, doing more harm than good to their legacies by not hanging it up and moving on. It includes guys with bodies that, for one reason or another, are not meant to last throughout rough and tough seasons. This list begins with a famous quarterback who has, to a point, seen the writing on the wall, a man who is still eying a future in the NFL.
20. Tim Tebow
Tebow, to his credit, has technically already landed a new career as a television analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network. Don’t kid yourselves, though. He’d run from those gigs if it meant signing a deal to be on even an NFL practice squad. The truth of the matter is that Tebow probably deserved better from NFL clubs. He did, after all, help the Denver Broncos win a playoff game whether or not anybody wants to give him credit for doing so. Tebow has undeniable flaws as a quarterback, but you are fooling yourself if you don’t believe that he works for TV channels right now because teams don’t want to put up with the media circus he generates.
19. Sam Bradford
Bradford has the mind and the physical skills to play and play well as an NFL quarterback, to the point that he could be one of the top signal-callers in all of pro football. There is just one problem: He cannot count on his body. Bradford has been banged up at different times during his brief career, and he has appeared in only 49 games since the start of the 2010 season. What is most worrisome moving forward is that Bradford has suffered multiple ACL tears in less than 12 months. Bradford got $50 million guaranteed as the last No. 1 overall pick to be paid under the league’s prior system. How much is attempting one last comeback really worth?
18. Carson Palmer
The Sports Gods giveth and taketh away, often without explanation. Just days after Palmer signed an extension that was supposed to keep him as the starting quarterback of an Arizona Cardinals team on its way to the 2015 NFL Playoffs up through the 2017 campaign, the veteran QB suffered a torn ACL. It is the second time that a debilitating injury has sidelined Palmer when he was on the verge of potentially winning something of merit. Unlike when he was hurt while featuring for the Cincinnati Bengals, Palmer will turn 35 years old in December. Both the Cardinals and Palmer may move on next year.
17. Troy Polamalu
Polamalu has been one of the best defensive players in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he should never play for another team before he retires. He already has a spot in the Hall of Fame guaranteed to him. The problem, as it pertains to his future with the Steelers, is that Pittsburgh needs to get younger on defense if they are going to win a championship before the window closes on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being able to make a Super Bowl run. Polamalu’s cap hit will be in the $8 million range over the next two seasons. Choosing to free up that cash could be his final act of service to the club.
16. Jordan Cameron
Unlike the majority of the players showcased in this piece, the Cleveland Browns tight end has not yet hit his physical prime. He is, when healthy and in football shape, one of the best players in the NFL at his position, an All-Pro talent who is difficult to defend against. That he has suffered three concussions over a two-year period should have Cameron considering whether playing pro football is really for him. The serious nature of concussions and similar head injuries are no longer mysteries. Cameron needs to think about the quality of his life a decade from now before choosing to suit up for the Browns or for any other team.
15. Cliff Lee
As a stellar starting pitcher in a professional sports league that does not have a hard cap for player salaries, Cliff Lee has made more than enough money to keep him set for the rest of his time on this planet. He turned 36 years old this past summer, his arm is not what it used to be, and he has been downed by injury problems during what is the final portion of his Major League Baseball career. Odds are that Lee will cash in on one final contract because of the state of pro baseball these days, but he needs to be planning for life after baseball and would be better off doing it sooner rather than later.
14. Michael Vick
Fans of the New York Jets could not help but wonder how much better off the 2014 edition of the team would have been had Michael Vick and not Geno Smith been named the New York starter at the end of August. Such discussions have been silenced, and all indications are that the Jets will move on from Vick in the 2015 offseason. A player unlike any other in many ways, Vick’s future in the NFL won’t be as an active quarterback. With miles upon miles on his legs and a long injury history, Vick should bow out gracefully and then mentor younger NFL players in an effort to keep them from repeating his mistakes.
13. Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro hit for over .322 after joining up with the New York Yankees in 2012. The Yankees rewarded him with a contract, but Ichiro has failed to produce the numbers that he did a couple of years ago. He in unquestionably one of the best pure hitters of his time and in the history of Major League Baseball. Ichiro turned 41 years old earlier this fall, and his legacy is already set. No World Series contender will be seeking out his services, and Ichiro should, before going all-in on being a player in 2015, think about other options that will be available to him moving forward.
12. David Wright
Wright is one of the most beloved players in the history of the New York Mets, he is on a deal that guarantees he will make $138 million, and he has a full no-trade clause. He isn’t going anywhere so long as he loves being with the Amazins. Wright has been slowed by shoulder problems and back injuries over the years, to the point that some within Major League Baseball believe that the end of his prime has come despite the fact that he is only 31 years old. Wright’s future outside of baseball may come sooner than he would have believed a decade ago.
11. Ray Allen
I get why Ray Allen would want to make another run in the NBA. He gets to be on a Brett Favre deal in that he gets to join up with the team of his choice whenever he wants. He is a rent-a-player postseason three-point shooter who will play on an NBA championship contender. He is reportedly in tremendous shape. Allen also turned 39 years old last June. He has already proven his greatness, and linking up with the Cleveland Cavaliers or San Antonio Spurs for a couple of months will mean little to his legacy. Enjoy your life and the money you made playing basketball, Ray.
10. Jake Locker
Being a successful professional athlete isn’t always in the cards for those who enter a league with high expectations. Jake Locker was selected in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans, but injury after injury have resulted in the 26-year-old appearing in 27 games throughout his pro career. The Titans moved on from Locker in 2014 when the club drafted Zach Mettenberger. Mettenberger is starting for Tennessee, and Locker is set to be a free agent. His time in the NFL as an active quarterback may be over regardless of any future attempts to resurrect what hasn’t been much of a career.
9. Jason Giambi
It is possible that the veteran first baseman and designated hitter could have a new career before this piece goes live. Giambi turns 44 years old in January 2015, and the Cleveland Indians have essentially told him that he won’t be brought back in a pinch hitter role. Giambi has not yet officially retired, but he is already being linked with teams that need a bench/hitting coach. Giambi could be awarded with such a role by the Tribe in Cleveland. The New York Yankees, with whom Giambi played and starred for all of those seasons, could also use Giambi in the clubhouse and on the bench.
8. Thierry Henry
The current New York Red Bulls captain has done it all in the worlds of club and international soccer. Henry has won titles, buried a boatload of memorable goals, and he has had a historic career. He even helped the Red Bulls win the 2013 Major League Soccer regular season title — the Supporters’ Shield. At 37 years old, Henry can only contribute so much to the Red Bulls on the pitch over a long campaign, and he is eating up money that the club should, beginning in 2015, spend elsewhere. His time in the sport won’t be finished for years to come, but Henry’s playing days are about done.
7. Ray Rice
Ray Rice became a household name among those who don’t even follow the NFL in 2014 because of the much-publicized incident involving the former Baltimore Ravens running back and his then-fiancee and now wife. It is no secret that Rice will be hoping to latch on with some team in the future. He would be wise to not bank on getting such an offer. Any team that signs Rice will become an instant target of criticism and protests from multiple factions. Rice received a $15 million signing bonus as part of what was his final contract with the Ravens. He should be fine as a non-player in the future.
6. Adrian Peterson
Peterson, like Rice, become a public enemy because of a domestic abuse situation, this one involving the method that the Minnesota Vikings running back used to discipline his children. The futures of both Peterson and Rice remain in doubt as the upcoming holiday season approaches. It is not yet known if the Vikings, a side that wouldn’t be a Super Bowl contender even if Peterson was playing on Sundays, want to bring him back for another campaign. Those assuming that Peterson will be welcomed with open arms by any team in the immediate future may want to pump the breaks just a bit considering that he has not done himself any favors with statements he has made since being sidelined.
5. Amar’e Stoudemire
Still a relatively young professional basketball player, Stoudemire turned 32 years old in November 2014. You wouldn’t know that by his alarming injury history. There have been fluke moments, such as when Stoudemire suffered a lacerated hand after he punched a fire extinguisher. He has also dealt with lingering knee issues. Every pro athlete out there is one misstep or one unfortunate collision with an opponent away from being forced to retire. That is especially true of a player with Stoudemire’s resume. Stoudemire is finishing up the final season of a deal that earned him over $99 million from the New York Knicks, and his body is telling him that pursuing other interests wouldn’t be the worst thing for him.
4. Drew Brees
Brees is one of the best quarterbacks of his era. The 35-year-old is a former Super Bowl champion who also has a Super Bowl MVP award in his trophy case. He has not, however, looked like the dominant quarterback of old throughout 2014, and the New Orleans Saints have been maybe the most disappointing team of the current NFL season. The Saints are only in the playoff picture because they are in the NFC South, a division that has four terrible teams. Is this just an off year for Brees and the Saints, or has the veteran quarterback entered the closing time of his playing days?
3. Kevin Garnett
The veteran in his 19th NBA regular season has seen it all and done it all in pro basketball. It will not be long after he retires before Garnett is enshrined in the Hall of Fame. In the final year of what has turned out, for the team, to have been a regrettable contract for the Brooklyn Nets, Garnett should already have his future planned out for him. Neither the Nets nor any other team in the league have any real reason to offer Garnett one final deal. The sun may be setting on his playing career, yes, but Garnett’s career was one as bright as it could have been.
2. Alex Rodriguez
He is the parasite who just will not go away. A-Rod, the “lightning rod” of Major League Baseball and of New York sports, will be attempting a comeback with the New York Yankees. The Yankees guaranteed Rodriguez $275 million over 10 years before the start of the 2008 season, so of course the club is going to see if he can in any way help the 2015 team. A-Rod can do whatever he wants with his life. He has that luxury. Maybe, as a penance for his noted crimes against baseball, Rodriguez should choose something more low-key for at least a few years. I hear that operating a gondola can be soothing.
1. Kobe Bryant
Bryant will, so long as the NBA exists, be viewed as one of the greatest players in the history of the league. His legacy is set in stone, and Bryant has also acquired financial stability for generations to come. He now needs to realize two things: The Los Angeles Lakers will not win an NBA title while Bryant is on the books for over $48 million spread out over two years, and that he should not suit up for any other team during his pro career. Kobe helped the Lakers win five NBA championships. He can now offer one final assist for the team by beginning a new career after the 2014-15 season comes to an end.