Sunday, July 17, 2005

You Go, Jerry! -- From One 42 Year-Old To Another

(the following column can also be viewed at, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to and click on "Columnists")

Jerry Rice and I stopped having something in common in, oh, 1984. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel completely qualified to act as his advocate.

Rice is a 42 year-old suiting up as a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos this September. He will begin his 21st NFL season. And he’s not some token, some sideshow. He will be, if he has his way, a bona fide pass catcher for a team that has a real chance at playing in Detroit in February -- in Super Bowl XL.

But back to 1984. You see, that’s when Rice’s and my lives started forking away from each other. In the fall of ‘84, Rice and I were both seniors in college -- he at Mississippi Valley State, and me at Eastern Michigan University. Perhaps the only other thing we had in common was our grade point averages, or maybe our steady diet of pizza. Beyond that, I don’t know. No matter. Despite the drastically different paths to which our roads have led, I am nonetheless a credible authority on something with which he has had to contend: namely, Why in the world are you doing it, Jerry? Why are you coming back AGAIN when most men your age are getting winded just watching pro football on television?

Who else but Jerry Rice should decide when it's time to quit?

Like Rice, I too will be 42 years old by the time the 2005 NFL season kicks off. So why not listen to someone who is in the position to give some advice? So as a fellow 42 year-old, Jerry, I now shall speak on your behalf.

In four words, Go Get ‘Em, Jerr! If you are physically fit enough (and he is) and mentally tough enough (no question) and passionate enough (obviously) and capable enough (there’s still some stickum on those hands), then don’t you listen to those who would maintain that you should be peeling the eye black off your face and shipping your uniform to Canton. Damn the torpedoes of doubt! Pshaw to the mealy mouthed critics who say your desire to play is motivated by selfishness and greed and the simple lack of knowing when to quit. If you want to break off tight pass patterns and catch a ball up the middle with safeties and cornerbacks around wanting to decapitate you, then God bless you, brother. You have my permission.

I always have been a little perturbed at media folks who purport to know when it’s time for an athlete to retire. How would they like it if athletes pestered them in the press boxes across America, bluntly suggesting that they close up their laptops for good? There is only one person who knows when it’s time to quit playing the game, and it sure isn’t any sportswriter whose waistline is probably the same as Rice’s age, and then some.

Granted, there have been some painful endings to some pretty awesome careers. Watching Willie Mays, also at 42, stumble around the outfield and the base paths in the 1973 World Series for the Mets was not a pretty sight, and two words come to mind: "sad" and "grimace". Steve Carlton got knocked around like a pinata toward the end as he bounced from team to team, his ERA looking like the trading price of General Motors stock. And I can still see the images of Muhammad Ali being beaten to a pulp by Larry Holmes, who several times looked pleadingly at the ref to halt the carnage to which he was adding, albeit reluctantly. In these examples, it’s easy to say, "They hung around too long," and from a performance standpoint, that’s probably dead on accurate. But an athlete continues to play and participate not solely because of statistics and results. He or she presses on because, quite frankly, that’s mostly all they’ve ever known since they were tikes. If you listen to the comments of most former athletes, their common denominator is that they quit when the game was no longer fun, or became work, or was simply a drag. They submitted their retirement papers not because their skills had eroded, which may have occurred years earlier. No, they slipped into civvies because the flame of desire had been snuffed out. Simple as that.

Mike Schmidt of the Phillies tearfully quit early in the 1989 season because he felt that he was taking a roster spot away from someone who could help the team more than he was capable of doing. Schmidt called the decision to retire in midseason a wretched one, but he was at peace because he always had told himself that he would get out before he became a caricature. That’s all well and good, but Schmidt is the exception, not the rule. Most guys and gals seem to be on a seven-second delay, figuratively speaking, when it comes to their erosion of skills versus their realization that instead of playing a game, they have a job.

Jerry Rice, I believe, still has some football left in him. But even if I felt otherwise, who am I to say that he should retire? Do I feel his passion? Do I have his fire in my belly? Do I break myself during offseason physical training? Am I truly in a position to say "quit" when I can’t even motivate myself to clean my basement?

No, I am not in that position, but like I said, I feel very much in the position to tell Jerry Rice "full speed ahead" because, as a fellow 42 year-old, I can even more appreciate Rice’s two decade-plus career. And let’s not forget Redskins offensive lineman Ray Brown, a former Lion, who at 43 will be butting heads with those beasts from the other side in the trenches for 30 minutes or so every game this season. And I do mean every game; Brown, in 20 seasons, has missed less games than you have fingers. You don’t think his motivation is anything other than personal pride and the feeling of contentment he has that he is still able to do, at 43, what he did at 23? In the NF-freaking-L?

So rock on, Jerry Rice -- and Ray Brown. You go out there and show those whippersnappers a thing or two about life in the NFL, even if you are almost old enough to be their father. Best of luck to you and I am behind you -- wayyy behind.

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