Watching a master of any craft do his or her work is awe inspiring. In the sports world, where increasingly every action is viewed under a microscope and the stakes driven to unthinkable heights thanks to the media, maintaining a high level of excellence for longer than a few years is nearly impossible. So when a legend comes along every so often and displays that clear gap between themselves and the rest for 10, 15, 20 years, it's nothing short of amazing. The Wayne Gretzkys, the Michael Jordans, the Serena Williamses — these people transcended their sports like no one before them, and they'll always be remembered for their unprecedented streaks of inhuman performance. What most don't remember is how legends like them begin to fade towards the end of their illustrious careers.
All at once, the careers (as players) of three all-time great athletes appear to be coming to an end in this manner. Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, and Kobe Bryant have all seen their bodies break down in recent years, with the latter formally announcing that this NBA season will be his last and the former two unclear when or if they'll ever play their respective sports professionally again. As a fan of these individuals, the sports they play, and greatness itself, witnessing this less-than-graceful end of the road is rather sad and painful.
There's no question that Woods, Manning, and Bryant's feel for their respective sports are sharper than ever. They've all reached the top of the mountain and at various points in their careers looked like they weren't even playing the same game as their opponents. It's not the mind that signals the end for a player, though — if that were the case, they'd all play well into old age. It's always the body that betrays an athlete, even when the gears inside his or her mind are clicking together flawlessly.
When Woods knows exactly the type of swing he needs to get a golf ball to die right by the hole but can't consistently trust his body to do it, that's when it starts. When Manning looks at a defense and shreds it up in his head exactly as he's always done but can't physically get the football where it needs to go, that's when it starts. When Bryant sees an opening to sink only the type of impossible shot he could do back in the day but only hits the rim, that's when it starts. There's no way to predict the exact moment beforehand, but it's a long-repeated notion that the players themselves are the last ones to realize when it's already taken place.
For their part, these superstars are quick to focus on the positive aspects of their career and how lucky they were to enjoy such success. "There's no sadness in that, said Bryant recently about his retirement. "I've had so many great times. I see the beauty in not being able to blow past defenders anymore. I see the beauty of getting up in the morning and being in pain, because I know all the hard work it took to get to this point. I'm not sad about it. I'm very appreciative of what I've had."
Similarly, both Woods and Manning don't seem to be worried about having to call it quits when the official time comes. Although Woods is still four major championships away from tying Jack Nicklaus for the most ever, and Manning has just one Super Bowl victory to his name, both know their place in history and aren't willing to compromise the rest of their lives just to continue playing. "To watch my kids and play sports and to grow up and participate, and even teach them how to become better, oh my God, it gives me so much joy. I can't imagine not being able to do that as I get older," Woods told the New York Post.
Whether either of them makes it back to the field before announcing retirement is unclear, but what is clear is that the closer they get, the more appreciative they become of the extended time they were able to perform at peak physical condition. For us as fans, the twilight of their careers is sad. For them, as all-time greats, it's an absolute honor.
Cover image: Jeffrey Beall via Flickr