When the party has died down and the last drinks have been called, there will always be someone who didn’t get the memo. They might have been the life of the party, but before long that awkward moment arrives where they’re explicitly told – “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
It’s the inconvenient truth all sports fans can relate to, that great player who tried to play on that one season too long because they felt they had it in them. Even when the members, the media and anyone with a pair of eyes could see the blinding obvious, they simply refused to accept their fate.
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to see why this would be the case. Since their junior days in High School and beyond, all these men have ever known is playing the game. Once the money, fame and adulation comes into the equation the addiction to this lifestyle becomes intoxicating, so giving that away on account of age is a huge life decision.
But what this does is hamper the evolution of the team and prevents another potential superstars from taking the stage. From Brett Favre to Jerry Rice and Kobe Bryant, the passing of time waits for no man. At a certain point the list manager has to earn their salary to help a franchise transition from relying on their key guy to developing the successor to fill their once great shoes.
Whether it’s football, basketball, baseball, soccer or boxing, the veterans who live life on the gravy train have a habit of squeezing as much lemon from the lemonade as physically possible. These are the 20 athletes who should have put the cue in the rack earlier by overstaying their welcome.
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20 Patrick Ewing
When his time ended at the New York Knicks, Patrick Ewing should have called it a day. The 11-time All-Star was the rock of the Big Apple franchise throughout the late 1980s all the way up until the new millennium. What followed was two very short stop overs at the Seattle Supersonics and Orlando Magic for one season apiece to provide a bit of cover and experience for their respective rosters. A switch immediately followed Ewing’s retirement into assistant coaching where he has stayed ever since. Perhaps it helped his networking, but those last two seasons were ones to forget for the giant center.
19 Ryan Giggs
Soccer stars have a habit of making the most of their playing career. Never was that more the case than for Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, who amassed an astonishing 672 appearances and played into his early 40s for the Red Devils. But as the speed and elusiveness went from his game, he performed a bit-part role off the bench filling in at central midfield without ever really putting his stamp on a game. As a career in management beckoned, the consensus around Old Trafford was that Giggs wanted to maintain his fitness and be around the dressing room long enough so a coaching transition would be easier. Ultimately that worked out, but the last few seasons felt a bit much by the end of it.
18 Rickey Henderson
The original Man of Steal ended up becoming The Journeyman after moves to 9 different clubs in 13 separate changes. With that record it’s any surprise he ever unpacked his gear, shifting from the Athletics to the Yankees, Blue Jays, Padres, Angels, Mets, Mariners, Red Sox, Dodgers and stops back to a handful of them for good measure. The MLB baserunner and leadoff hitter is widely considered to be the best of those disciplines in the game and a character to boot while playing into his 40s, delivering some hilarious quotes along the journey. His brief spells at the Red Sox and Dodgers weren’t anything to write home about though, truly showing the age of a well-worn traveler.
17 Brad Friedel
Goalkeepers are a strange breed; they just seem to act different to outfield players. This was very much the case for American international Brad Friedel, with the towering 6ft 3 stopper going on to play until his mid 40s. Starting out in 1990 with the UCLA Bruins, Friedel put his name up in lights with Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa and towards the end with Tottenham Hotspur. His last season was spent warming the bench behind French captain Hugo Lloris, failing to even get close to challenging the keeper for a spot in the 1st team.
16 Evander Holyfield
The Ring ranked the legend 77th in the list of greatest 100 punchers of all time in boxing, but given the amount of opportunities he afforded himself there’s little wonder he impressed. It took until his 52nd birthday before the penny dropped that his time was past, accumulating 44 wins from his 57 fights. The man known by the aliases The Warrior and The Real Deal is famous for having his ear bitten off by Mike Tyson and perhaps that explains why he didn’t listen to the thousands of voices urging him to put the gloves up sooner. Such is his passion and determination to keep boxing, he flirted with the idea of fighting one of the Klitschko brothers. The man just loves to fight, what more can we say?
15 Paolo Maldini
It was one of the saddest moments in soccer, a legend of the club being booed out of retirement. During a lap of honor in 2009 at home in the San Siro, Paolo Maldini sheepishly clapped the same fans who jeered him loudly because in their eyes, he played well past his used by date. Given 24 years of service with 647 appearances, 7 league titles and 5 UEFA Champions League winners’ medals for the club, it goes to show that no player is bigger than the club and the fans wanted to send a message that playing long into your 40's is not acceptable.
14 Gordie Howe
An NHL career that started when World War II was fresh from ending in 1946 and concluded when Jimmy Carter was still in office in 1980. 26 long years in the National Hockey League meant Gordie Howe earned his “Mr. Hockey” nickname outright, suiting up for the Omaha Knights, Detroit Red Wings, Hartford Whalers, Houston Aeros, New England Whalers and the Detroit Vipers across 2 separate stints. He set the pace for scoring until Wayne Gretzky changed the game after Howe’s retirement, but he couldn’t have done anymore playing until the ripe old age of 52.
Apart from Pele, Romario was the evergreen icon of Brazilian football. The diminutive little striker tallied an incredible 55 goals in 70 national appearances and during his Barcelona days in the mid 1990s he was widely considered one of the best players on the planet. But the player’s determination to set goal scoring records knew no bounds, continuing to play in the wilderness at clubs like Miami FC, Adelaide United, America RJ and even went back to Vasco da Gama for a fourth time. Thankfully a move into politics ended his career in 2009, a career that started as a junior in 1979!
12 Julio Franco
Julio Franco’s passion for baseball shows no signs of waning, still fronting up for Japanese semi-pro outfit Ishikawa Million Stars as a player, manager and more than likely locker room attendant, CEO, tea lady and any other role available at the franchise. Beginning at the Philadelphia Phillies in 1982, Franco’s career stretches to the Indians, Rangers, White Sox, Marines, Brewers, Devil Rays, Braves and Mets with multiple stints at various franchises. The Dominican Republic hitter virtually became apart of the furniture in MLB and when you get to that point, you start to get taken for granted rather than appreciated.
11 Sugar Ray Leonard
Aside from a shock loss to Robert Duran in 1980, Sugar Ray Leonard enjoyed just the single defeat in a stellar career until his last 2 fights. Those defeats, the first to Terry Norris in 1991 and then to Hector Camacho in 1997 came 2 and 6 years respectively from retirement announcements. The 36 wins were soured slightly at the end where it was clear for all to see that the legendary boxer had passed his used by date and wasn’t up to standard anymore.
10 Mark Schwarzer
The Aussie goalkeeper is the oldest active player in the English Premier League right now at 43, although given the paucity of playing time we’d have to revisit the term “active.” Sitting on the bench at high flyers Leicester City, Mark Schwarzer began his career as a pony-tailed youngster at Marconi Stallions back home in 1990 before going on to solidify a career in England with Middelsbrough, Fulham and even Chelsea for a short stint. It’s now clear the Socceroos legend is trying to top up his pension.
9 Jerry Rice
Often the best deserve to choose their moment when they go and won’t be convinced otherwise. Jerry Rice’s status as arguably the greatest to ever grace a helmet puts him in that conversation, with the Hall of Fame legend playing into his 40s with the Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks and even accepting a practice squad role with the Denver Broncos in 2005. It spoke to Jerry’s love of the game and with 3 Super Bowl rings in the cabinet he probably couldn’t care less that he’s made the top 20 of athletes who overstayed their welcome.
8 Roger Clemens
2003 was the icing on the cake for the legendary pitcher. He bid farewell to the Yankees after a career that took off with the Boston Red Sox way back in 1984. He set records and the standing ovation he received achieved the weird feat of uniting Red Sox and Yankees fans alike. Then came the comeback, the after the Lord Mayor’s show moment we all wish didn’t happen. It started with the Houston Astros and finally ended in 2007 back at the Yankees where it all … ended, supposedly.
7 Javier Zanetti
Inter Milan have never known a player like him. When the Italian giants signed the versatile midfielder back in 1995 from Argentine club Banfield, no one could have predicted that he would go on to amass a remarkable 615 appearances over a decorated 19-year career that culminated in a treble win under Jose Mourinho in 2010. But when The Special One departed for Real Madrid, the black and blue side felt a lot like their colors as incoming manager Rafa Benitez struggled to deal with an aging squad. They held onto some older superstars too long, including club captain Javier Zanetti who played on till his 40s.
6 Arnold Palmer
The 2004 Masters was at the very least one tournament too far for the aging legend Arnold Palmer. At the tender age of 75 the man with 62 PGA Tour career titles to his name with 4 Masters, a U.S. Open, 2 Open Championships and 3 PGA Championships wanted the good times to continue. Unfortunately age caught up with the American golfing icon, failing to make the cut in his 50th appearance at the event. It wasn’t by a slim margin either, falling 21 shots short of the mark.
5 Muhammad Ali
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., aka The Greatest. His story remains one of the most iconic in global history, forget sports. But the end was a sad reflection on an industry that used and abused their star athletes like they were washcloths, without any care for well being. For all his belts and admiration, Ali was convinced through bad management to fight on into the late 1970s and his loss to Larry Holmes in 1980 was described by Sylvester Stallone as like “watching an autopsy on a man who is still alive.” His crippling Parkinson’s disease took hold only 4 years later, a direct result of copping blow after blow to the head.
4 Michael Jordan
If you remove emotion from the equation, something which is incredibly hard to do when you’re talking about the greatest of them all, then MJ did go on a bit too long if we’re being honest. His two seasons with the Wizards in 2001 to 2003 started off incredibly well, becoming the first 40 plus player to score as many points in a single game. Then the final goodbye year saw Jordan drop his high standards and he was seeing as much bench time as he ever did throughout his career. It’s not something that will define him by any stretch, but even Jordan would admit in his quieter moments that the final goodbye dragged out a bit long.
3 Kazuyoshi Miura
Didn’t anyone tell Kazuyoshi that 48 is too old to keep the party going? At the time of writing the age old Japanese striker is still playing soccer, despite the fact his 50th birthday isn’t too far down the track. His decorated career has taken him across all corners of the globe, from Santos and Palmeiras in South America to Genoa and Dinamo Zagreb in Europe. But it’s in Japan where he is still idolized, scoring bucket loads of goals for the likes of Kawasaki and Kyoto over a career that started in 1986. This is beyond anything to do with overstaying your welcome, now soccer fans have developed a perverse curiosity to see just how long Kazu can play for.
2 Brett Favre
Favre’s in, he’s out, let’s shake it all about. The man with more retirement tours than The Rolling Stones, Phil Collins and Eminem put together certainly fits the bill for overstaying his welcome in the NFL. 19-years in one of the most physically grueling and demanding sports with a Super Bowl ring and 11 Pro Bowls tells its own story, but only part of it. The Gunslinger’s career spanned 4 franchises with a lot of controversy, leaving the game under a scantily clad cloud in 2010. Towards the end his name became a punch line and given what he achieved, he deserved better than that by leaving at the first retirement.
1 Kobe Bryant
The end had to come and finally Kobe put the Lakers and the NBA out of their misery by announcing a retirement years in the making. Depending on your allegiances in basketball it is probably an indictment on the fans of the game that the news was met with relief rather than shock and sadness, but that’s the result of continuous rumor and speculation. The 5-time champion began to look a shadow of his former self as the 37-year old battled injury and a body that refused to do what it had done for 20 years in the NBA. He’ll be forever known as a legend of the sport, but perhaps with an asterix about how it finished.
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