Comeback road paved with ruts and glory

Returns: Deion Sanders isn't the first to try to come back. But will he flourish, like George Foreman, or fall flat, like Magic Johnson?

August 30, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht and Christian Ewell | Gary Lambrecht and Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

For quarterback Mark Rypien, the decision to walk away from the game he loved was an easy call. And three years later, after dealing with a family tragedy that had consumed him in his time away from pro football, the idea of returning to the playing field at the ripe age of 38 grabbed him and refused to let go.

Rypien, who already had won a championship ring and a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award with the Washington Redskins 10 years earlier in the 1991 season, knew his best days were well behind him, and that getting his body conditioned to absorb NFL contact would be an exacting task.

This was not about the money. He had achieved financial security. This was about re-acquainting himself with the game that had defined him, about proving to himself and to some past critics that he could still put on the pads and be an effective competitor.

"I love to compete. As a player, that's a feeling you miss," said Rypien, who played on four teams over four years after his release by the Redskins in 1993 after having shoulder surgery. "For me, everything was gravy [after winning a Super Bowl]. But when you don't go out on your terms and people say you can't do it anymore, that motivates you. I thought maybe I could end this on one last note."

Those sentiments have been echoed countless times throughout the sports world by athletes who have retired, only to attempt a comeback - athletes such as former NFL cornerback Deion Sanders, 37, who appears headed for the Hall of Fame, but not before perhaps ending a nearly four-year absence by returning to the field in a Ravens uniform.

Among other reasons, pro athletes end their careers due to injury, an erosion of skills, diminished desire to maintain conditioning, and management deciding they are finished.

They stage comebacks sometimes for financial need, but often because they miss the stage where media and fans are tracking their every move, miss the camaraderie with teammates, crave the rush of competition at the highest level.

Rypien, who stopped playing to turn his full attention to his ailing, 3-year-old son, Andrew - who had a malignant brain tumor and died on Aug. 22, 1998 - sent out feelers to about 20 teams and eventually landed in the summer of 2001 with the Indianapolis Colts as a backup to franchise quarterback Peyton Manning.

More than money

The Colts barely needed Rypien's services, since Manning had become one of the league's most durable, productive passers. But Rypien counts that season, during which he earned the one-year minimum veteran salary of $477,000, as one of the sweetest of his 13-year career.

"It was great to be back in the locker room with the guys, talking football, talking about what it takes to be a pro," recalled Rypien, who said his daughter, Angela, originally suggested the comeback idea. "I wasn't there to compete with Peyton for the starting job. I was coming in as an insurance policy. It was more of a chance to play for a year to satisfy the end of my run."

Rypien figures that is partly what is pushing Sanders to come back, after winding up his last, injury-marred season with the Redskins in 2000. Sanders is expected to fill a part-time need as an nickel back (fifth defensive back).

Others say Sanders is repeating a pattern that is all too familiar in sports.

"One of the most difficult things an athlete has to do is retire," said Gail P. Solt, the director of sports psychology at JFK University in Orinda, Calif. "All of the adulation, some people just can't walk away from it. They can't find their own self without it. That might be the case with Deion.

"I've talked to several people who have gone into major depression over this. They have driven themselves to the highest levels, and now what? There are those few who need to go back for money. But generally, they have been very successful and it's about the other things."

"It's not just the money they used to make, it's how you used to go to a restaurant and get any table you want, then [after retirement] you're just another guy. The invitations become fewer and fewer," added Robert Troutwine, a Kansas City-based industrial psychologist who developed TAPS, a nationally recognized personality test for athletes.

"The guys that transition most successfully find a competitive outlet, [such as] in the business world. I've seen guys transition a little easier if they stay around the game, [for example] as a broadcaster. The transition away from the game is painful and difficult. It's hard to get it out of your system."

Jordan to Sandberg

Occasionally, comebacks are successful. After a failed attempt to play pro baseball, Michael Jordan rejoined the Chicago Bulls in March 1995 after a 17-month retirement from the NBA and led them to three straight titles beginning in 1996.

Hockey superstar Mario Lemieux twice overcame cancer before retiring in 1997, then returned to the ice nearly four years later. He scored 76 points in 43 regular-season games and led the Pittsburgh Penguins to the NHL's Eastern finals.

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