Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Hanging On Too Long

The sports world was abuzz last week with rumors that quarterback Bret Favre was considering a comeback. What that reflects, more than anything, is how little real news there is from the football world this time of year. Favre was quick to dismiss the rumors, but not before sports radio hosts and football columnists worked themselves into a frenzy.

Part of the excitement stems from the belief that Favre could still perform at a high level. But the sad reality is that too many great players couldn’t force themselves to walk away from the game, continuing to play long after it was clear that there was nothing left in the tank.

Who were the players who had the hardest time letting go? I’ll offer my top-five.

5. Red Grange -- The Galloping Ghost arrived with a splash in 1925, giving pro football a much needed injection of credibility when he walked off the University of Illinois campus and joined the Chicago Bears. He was such a big star that he decide to form his own league the following year. Grange was a success, but his league was not. He returned to the NFL the following season, and in the fourth game back shredded his knee. Grange refused to have surgery, even though he could barely walk. He limped through the rest of the 1927 season then sat out a year, hoping that rest would solve the problem. It didn’t. He returned in 1929 but had lost both his speed and his ability to make cuts. The Bears turned their running game over to Bronko Nagurski, but Grange stuck around to back him up and played defensive back. Grange was still a big box-office draw, but he was a mere shadow of the player who dominated the college ranks. He played just 13 NFL games before blowing out his knee, then hung around for seven more years.

4. Mike Webster
– Over the last few years, Webster has become the poster boy for the debilitating physical ailments that NFL players suffer when their careers are over. The Hall of Fame center was a key member of the Steelers team that dominated the seventies, winning four Super Bowls in six years. Webster continued playing long after his teammates from that era had retired. The Steelers released him after the 1987 season, and he signed on as an assistant line coach with Kansas City. After just a few weeks, he talked the Chiefs into letting him come out of retirement and play, and he spent two more years in the trenches. By his early forties he was showing signs of dementia and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. He had suffered seizures and was taking a cocktail of medication for anxiety and depression. Webster died at the age of fifty, having spent his last few years living out of his truck and sleeping at an Amtrak station in Pittsburgh. Who knows if his post-football life would have been better if he had retired sooner, but looking back, you have to think it might have helped.

3. Joe Namath – He suffered his first knee injury during his senior season at Alabama, and by the time he was 27 Namath had endured 83 knee surgeries. (I’m exaggerating, but not by much). When he was healthy he was one of the greatest passers the game had ever seen. He became the first player to surpass 4000 passing yards in a season, and let the Jets to a shocking upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III. The bum knees sidelined him for the better part of four seasons, and when he returned he struggled. From 1974-1976, he threw 39 touchdown passes and was intercepted 66 times. The Jets were forced to cut him loose, and he spent one last season with the LA Rams trying to recapture the magic. It didn’t happen.

2. Franco Harris
-- Harris was a great running back for a long time, but he stuck around at the end in pursuit of Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record. Brown, who had retired at age 29, was so outraged by that idea that he threatened to come out of retirement to keep Harris from passing him. Brown was 48 at the time.

Brown challenged the 34-year old Harris to race him in a 40-yard dash, and Harris agreed. The event generated a lot of interest and was televised nationally the weekend before the Super Bowl. Brown pulled up midway through the race with a sore hamstring, but still managed a time of 5.72 seconds. Harris finished in 5.16, enough to win the race but a dreadfully slow time for someone hoping to show he could still be productive in the NFL. Although Harris won the race, Brown proved his point.

Clearly out of steam, Harris was released by the Steelers and spent half a season with Seattle before calling it quits. In the end, he fell 192 yards shy of Brown’s rushing mark. Walter Payton passed them both by the end of the 1984 season, and eight other players have passed Harris in the two decades since he retired.

1. Johnny Unitas
- I’m hard on Unitas , I guess, and that’s a reflection of my age. If I’d have seen him rally the Colts to victory in the 1958 NFL Championship game or watched him dominate the early sixties with his passing prowess, maybe I’d be a little more sympathetic. But my earliest memory of Unitas – and one of my earliest memories of the NFL – is seeing him at the tail end of his career with the San Diego Chargers. He’d clinched his place in the Hall of Fame six or eight years earlier, and he’d struggled for years with a chronically sore elbow. I’m not sure why he was still playing. As great as he was for all of those years, he was no longer an effective quarterback at age 36. The Colts benched him at 38, and rather than cut him, they traded Unitas to the Chargers just before his 40th birthday.