Rarefied air likely to keep Elway afloat

January 28, 1998|By John Eisenberg

The smart money says John Elway probably will keep playing in the wake of his Super Bowl triumph, which is fine if that's what he wants.

He has a nice team around him and he still can play some, so it won't be a bad thing if he comes back.

But it will be a shame, in one sense, because he will have missed the chance to pull off that rarest of feats, going out on top.

No one gets to do that -- not sports stars, not average Joes, not anyone.

Life just doesn't work that way; not for most of us, at least.

Go out on top? In the movies maybe, but not in reality.

Four recent U.S. presidents left office in defeat or disgrace.

Elvis died at 42.

The Beatles stopped speaking to each other and cut one record too many.

Perfect endings? They just don't happen often, except late at night when "Rocky" is on.

A lot of us go out when we have to, when the boss says, "Got a minute?"

Some of us go only after we realize that the legs or spirit, or both, are no longer willing.

But almost no one goes out on top, with the music of a Hollywood-style ending in full crescendo, as it was when Elway rode off the field on his teammates' shoulders Sunday night.

Here's one vote for that as Elway's last ride, because he would go out at the top of the top, and, well, wouldn't you like to see one guy do it?

OK, OK, Seinfeld is doing it. But can you name another sporting hero lucky enough to get the chance to say goodbye at the pinnacle of his career, when things couldn't get any better?

Babe Ruth didn't get to do it. He made a couple of desperate stops at the end, after the Yankees let him go.

Joe Montana didn't win a Super Bowl in his last four years in uniform. Nor did Terry Bradshaw.

Johnny Unitas finished on the bench in San Diego. Brooks Robinson walked away in the middle of a season, hitting .149.

Muhammad Ali? Lost his last fight to Trevor Berbick. Rod Laver? Ended his career playing World Team Tennis. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer? Graduated to the senior tour.

Dean Smith, college basketball's winningest coach, walked away with great dignity before this season, but his last title came in 1993.

Earl Weaver walked away from the Orioles after that unforgettable ovation at Memorial Stadium in 1982, but he came back three years later and it wasn't pretty.

Some athletes and coaches have walked away at the peak of their powers, before any decline set in, but not after winning a title, as Elway did.

Sandy Koufax walked away from the Dodgers after winning 27 games in 1966, but the Orioles swept the Dodgers in the World Series that year.

Jim Brown retired from the Cleveland Browns in 1965 after winning three straight NFL rushing titles and eight in nine years. But his last game was a loss, to Vince Lombardi's Packers, in the NFL championship game.

Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash after winning the 1971 World Series with the Pirates and collecting his 3,000th hit in 1972, so he went out on top, but in tragic circumstances.

Other near-misses?

Lombardi came close, retiring from the Packers after winning three straight NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls. But he came out of retirement to take over the Redskins and missed the playoffs in his last season, before cancer struck him down.

Michael Jordan actually went out on top once, but he came out of retirement to miss Double-A curveballs for 18 months, and now he's back with the Bulls, and we'll see what happens.

There's no such gray area left for Elway. If he leaves now, his last moment is his greatest, a beautiful and improbable turn of fate.

Of course, it's all but impossible to walk away at such a moment, with the roar of the crowd still ringing in your ears. That's why so few athletes are able to go out on top. They compete for a living, and their greatest triumphs always leave them hungry for more.

To walk away at such a moment is, for a top athlete, the ultimate act of self-discipline, admitting to yourself in the glow of victory that you can't do it again. Again, almost impossible.

Rocky Marciano retired as heavyweight champion with a 49-0 record. Dan Jansen won his gold medal, at last, after all that failure. Ted Williams hit a home run in his last at-bat. But the examples are few.

Thus, there's every reason to believe Elway will come back for more. He loves to compete, and he surely wants to bask in the glow of Sunday's win, which will last well into next season in football-mad Denver.

Never mind that the Broncos' '98 season likely won't come close to matching this one.

Sure, there's a chance Elway and the Broncos could make it back to the Super Bowl and repeat. But that chance is slim. The Broncos deserved to win Sunday, but no one is talking about them as a dynasty.

It's far more likely that they'll lose in, say, the wild-card round. And that Elway will have a decent year, take some licks and think hard about calling it quits.

As his competitive spirit begins to wane.

Which it never will do in the days and weeks after a moment as glorious as the one he experienced Sunday.

Oh, well.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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