There are many ways to end. The best are like John Elway, Payton Manning and Ray Lewis, all of whom retired as NFL Super Bowl Champions. Much more common are the less glamorous ways, like the retiring of Brett Favre after his career dwindled from legendary Packer to irrelevant Viking or Barry Sanders’ listless and underwhelming last game as a Detroit Lion.
As I read up on athletes’ last games and seasons, focusing on the ones that quit by choice, I realized just how many legends pass into the history books without much fanfare or send off. Can you tell me when Michael Jorden’s last game was? Or who he even played for in that game? (Hint: It wasn’t the Bulls).
So many of these athletes end up finishing their careers as nobodies on irrelevant teams, relics of a bygone area. But there are two exceptions I will highlight.
The first exception is Kobe Bryant, scoring 60 points in his 1,346th and final game. Kobe and the Lakers overcame a 10 point lead held by Utah Jazz in the last three minutes of his career to give the team and LA one last, thrilling win.
You could tell it was the end. There were no critics to silence, no “we’ll get them next season”—just Kobe, a ball and an opportunity to put an exclamation mark on the last page in a chapter of NBA history.
The 37-year-old Black Mamba was visibly exhausted from his exertion. He knew this was his last hurrah, and he was giving it everything he had left. There was nothing left to prove.
Of all the ways a legend could go out, that was it.
The other exception is a guy you’ve probably never heard of, unless you have been a Vikings fan for the last 10 years or so. His name is Chad Greenway, ex-linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings. Yeah, he’s not the most famous NFL player, or even most famous Viking. He didn’t have the best stats or flashiest plays. But what he did have was 11 consecutive seasons in Viking purple, only missing four games during that time.
His career spanned from before the Brett Favre Years, through the Childress Saga and the Frazier Fiasco and into the modern Zimmer Era. In other words, Greenway was as Viking as the horns on the helmet and became the staple of the Viking’s defense. Greenway took several pay cuts to stay with the Vikings, and his hard work and team-first mentality set the stage for the current culture of success in the North’s defense.
His last game was a 38-10 meaningless win over division rivals Chicago Bears. In front of almost 66,655 adoring fans, who had cheered him on through the good, the bad and the ugly, number 52 took the field one last time.
Kobe ended his career a five-time World Champion. Greenway ended his career having only four playoff appearances. Kobe ended his career as a legend of his sport. Greenway will only be remembered by the most dedicated of Vikings fans.
But in the end, both athletes left the sport knowing they gave it their best shot, both stayed loyal to their team and their fans until the end and both finished out their careers with the respect they had earned. And that is the best way to end.