Great Athletes Seldom Quit - Unfortunately

By , Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science Monitor

John Elway, easily the best quarterback in the National Football League these days and perhaps the best who ever played the game, has the opportunity to do something even better than he has done in many a star-spangled effort on the field.

Yes, sir, better than leading the Denver Broncos on 45 fourth-quarter scoring drives to win games; better than being the winningest quarterback in NFL history; better than throwing and completing more passes for more yards than all 18 of the Hall of Fame quarterbacks

He can quit.

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In a perfect world, this is what Elway - who in his 15th year with Denver finally led the Broncos to their first ever Super Bowl victory - should do. He says he'll announce his decision, oh, in a while. Meanwhile, waiting for John consumes pro football fans these days.

Please, John, quit.

Here's why: Athletes rarely quit when they are on top. They just can't bring themselves to walk away from the roar of the crowd and the siren call of the dollars. By failing to call it a career at the optimum moment - Elway holding the Super Bowl trophy over his head following last January's triumph over Green Bay is a fine example - our memories of them are not as eternally glowing as they should be.

Joe Namath in many ways made pro football as the multitalented and outrageously brash quarterback of the New York Jets. He predicted his upstart team would whip heavily favored Baltimore in Super Bowl III, whereupon it did.

But, sadly, knee-braced Namath couldn't bring himself to quit. He was sent packing to Los Angeles in his final year where for the most part he stood on the sidelines and looked both pathetic and pitiful. Should have quit, Joe.

Arnold Palmer, who in many ways made golf (91 tournament wins) with his swaggering game and dazzling smile, couldn't bring himself to quit. It has been painful for years to watch Arnie miss cuts in golf tournaments he used to dominate; it's painful to watch Arnie shoot 80s these days. He hasn't won in a decade. Should have quit, Arnie.

Muhammad Ali, who in many ways made boxing with his mouth that roared and the ability to back up his words with deed, couldn't bring himself to quit. He got beat two of his last three fights. Should have quit, Ali.

We watched the gloriously gifted and fast Mickey Mantle be reduced to hitting pop-ups and limping on the base paths. We have been watching one-time tennis queen Steffi Graf playing far beneath herself. Roberto Duran can't kick his boxing addiction. A.J. Foyt insisted on driving racecars when he should have left the driving to others.

John Elway has the glorious opportunity to dust his hands off and announce, "Been there, done that, thanks, folks, for the good times." And we will remember him, in San Diego, trophy held high and smile wider than the Pacific Ocean.

The problem is doing anything the second time almost never is as good or as much fun as the first time. So if Elway announces that he'll come back, he will say the reason is he wants to try to help his team win a second Super Bowl. He will be telling the truth. What he won't admit is the inner fires no longer burn as hotly. They can't.

Think about it. Name one repetitive thing in your life that gave you a bigger rush the second time than the first. Second bike, second day in school, second serious girlfriend or boyfriend, second time to make straight As on your report card, second job, second time to the top of the Empire State Building? This doesn't mean the second or third or 100th time can't be excellent. It just means it can never be as scintillatingly wondrous as the first time.

There can be, granted, occasional sparks in the wake of some flaming triumph. But sparks don't often lead to flames except in forests. More often they lead to smoldering.

Now, if Elway had just won a Super Bowl early in his career, it would not be time to quit. But to do what he has done in the twilight of his football days is so splendid, so career-capping, that we cannot bear to watch the glitter turn to tarnish.

Don't do this to us, John. Quit. You are cash-laden and honor-bedecked. You owe it to yourself. You owe it to us.

Will he quit? Naw.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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