Every year, prominent athletes from every sport contemplate moving on to the next phase of their lives. They have given everything they could possibly give to their sport and are now looking towards retirement rather than training camps or offseason conditioning programs.
But while the competitive fire has begun to fizzle and flame out, there is still an ember that glows, just enough for them to think about making one final push - one last kick at the can. The can, of course, representing one more shot at a championship, so that they can go out on top and ride off into the sunset with a big grin on their faces instead of a soft smile traced with regret and sorrow.
Over the years, there have countless examples of athletes trying to achieve this final goal. Some have failed miserably, while some gave it a good go. Some came within feet, or inches, of winning that "retirement" championship - the one thing that might be worse than calling it quits and spending the rest of your life thinking "what if?"
There are also those who have succeeded in their goal - one last year culminating in the raising of a hallowed trophy, an outpouring of years of pent up emotion, and a final, sweet goodbye, to teammates, coaches, and fans. It's the picture perfect ending that many dream of, but few get to enjoy.
Sometimes, the players who achieve this grand exit are bit actors in the grandiose play and no one can blame some of the players who've "gone along for the ride," as for years they were the ones pulling the wagon, and it's nice to let someone else do the grunt work every once in awhile. Others, though, still yearn for notoriety as "the best" (or at least "contributory") and not only finish their career with a championship but also play a significant role in doing so.
20 Lorena Ochoa
Golf is already a difficult enough game to play as it is, so to dominate the way Lorena Ochoa did, especially near the end of her career, is nothing to scoff at. Ochoa ended up retiring from the LPGA in 2010 after four consecutive LPGA Tour Player of the Year Awards. Ochoa finished her career with 30 professional tour wins and two major championships and solidified herself as one of women's golf's greats, even though she chose to retire in her prime. She was the #1 ranked female golfer in the world at the time of her retirement.
19 Ned Jarrett
"Gentleman Ned Jarrett" is a bit of an ironic nickname for a man who couldn't possibly be that calm while whipping around a racetrack in a car at breakneck speeds. Jarrett is a NASCAR Hall of Famer and capped off his brilliant racing career by winning a second Grand National Champion in 1965 before ultimately calling it quits in 1966, becoming the only racer in NASCAR history to end his career as the reigning champ. Jarrett finished with an even 50 wins in his 15-year racing career.
18 David Robinson
David Robinson was the San Antonio Spurs legendary big man that formed "The Twin Towers," along with Tim Duncan another legendary forward for the Spurs. They two played together in the early 2000's and captured the 1999 and 2003 NBA title together. Robinson, better known as "The Admiral," retired after that 2003 championship run and passed the torch "down" to Duncan, who has led the Spurs to multiple Finals and championships since then.
17 Marion Bartoli
Many think of tennis as a "soft" sport, but those who have that mentality couldn't be farther from the truth. Just look to Marion Bartoli as an example - the then 28-year-old had just come off a Wimbledon title (the most prestigious tennis championship of them all), but ended up hanging up her racket just a month later due to the physical toll the sport had taken on her throughout her career. She officially retired after an early-round loss at the U.S Open, not long after the Wimbledon conquest.
16 Jerome Bettis
Affectionately known as "The Bus" (perhaps less so to those who had to try and take him down, though), Jerome Bettis had one last crack at a Super Bowl ring during the 2005 NFL season. Bettis and the Steelers made it count, as they pulled out a win against the Matt Hasselbeck-led Seattle Seahawks to take home the Steelers fifth NFL title. Bettis finished the game with 14 carries and 43 yards, as he played second fiddle to budding star Willie Parker.
15 Florence Joyner
Florence Joyner is often remembered more with skepticism rather than reverence, thanks to the way her career ended in 1988. At the Seoul Summer Olympics, Joyney won three golds and a silver, but the media was more focused on rumors, after her sudden retirement, surrounding her potential use of performance-enhancing drugs to spurn her towards those victories. Joyner has reportedly never failed a drug test, however, so the rumors have always remained nothing but rumors. Joyner unfortunately passed away at the age of 38 due to an epileptic seizure.
14 Dominik Hasek
Dominik Hasek had perhaps the most apropos nickname in the history of hockey. "The Dominator" did nothing but dominate during his NHL career, and he capped off his career twice with Stanley Cup victories. Hasek initially retired after the Detroit Red Wings 2002 Cup win, but came back a year later and played until 2008, when he won another Cup with the Wings (this time backing up Chris Osgood). Hasek was one-of-a-kind -dominant player in the most unorthodox of ways.
13 Michael Strahan
There are vivid images of Michael Strahan cheering his team on during the famous 2007 Super Bowl between the New York Giants and the undefeated New England Patriots. Whether it was Lady Luck shining on Tom Coughlin's Giants that fateful day, or whether Strahan truly riled his team up enough to pull off arguably the biggest upset of all-time, we'll never know. What we do know is that Strahan, one of the best pass-rushers of all-time (and owners of one of sport's iconic smiles), went out a champion.
12 Landon Donovan
Landon Donovan is the most recent example of a legend going out on top, after his LA Galaxy won their fifth MLS Cup last week with a 2-1 extra time victory over the New England Revolution. Donovan has been a pillar of MLS since the beginning of his career, helping grow the game and becoming a national soccer icon. Despite a rough go of it in 2014 (especially after being spurned from the USMNT), Donovan capped it off with the sweetest (and final) MLS Cup of his storied career.
11 Lennox Lewis
Lennox Lewis' name might not be the first name that comes to mind when we think about boxing in the last 20 years - that title goes to "Iron" Mike Tyson - but at least Lewis can say he was one of a handful who were able to handle Tyson in the ring. The first British boxer to hold the title of undisputed World Heavyweight Champion of the world, Lewis had a good run as a professional boxer, including a defense of his title against the aforementioned Tyson in 2002 (and he even survived a Tyson bite!). He ended his career with a final title defense against Vitali Klitschko in 2003 - one of the few in the history of the sport to retire without an unavenged defeat on his record.
10 Ray Bourque
Ray Bourque, overall, will be remembered as one of the best offensive defenseman of his era. Bourque was never able to get his hands on Lord Stanley's Holy Grail in his twenty-plus years in Boston. In his final NHL season, he got the chance to play on a talented Colorado Avalanche roster and finally got his crack at the Cup. The Avalanche won the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals in 7 games over the New Jersey Devils, with the lasting image being Avs captain Joe Sakic handing the Cup to an emotional Bourque before even raising it himself.
9 Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis is remembered in a lot of different ways - some remember the leader, the dominant linebacker, the heart of the Baltimore Ravens franchise. Others remember him for less than enviable reasons, notably stemming from the murder trial that tainted the beginning of his career. One thing people have no choice to remember is that Ray Lewis left the game an improbable champion, after the Ravens stunned the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl in 2013.
8 Pete Sampras
Pete Sampras will always be fondly (or maybe not so fondly, depending on who you rooted for) remembered as one of the greatest male tennis players of all time. His rivalry with Andre Agassi was the stuff of legends, and Sampras' 2002 U.S Open win over Agassi (his fifth all-time) was one of the final glowing moments of his career. He ended up sticking around for a bit longer, but there's no doubt he went out on top.
7 Bill Russell
Bill Russell was The Man in the NBA before the NBA started breeding mega superstars. Russell was one of the greatest centers the league had ever seen, and has forever been labelled with the hallowed tag of "winner." Russell won two NCAA national titles before going pro, and then went on to win 11 NBA titles in just 13 years in the league. Of course, the last one came during his final season, against the hated Los Angeles Lakers, in a major upset for Russell's Celtics.
6 Mark Spitz
For a younger generation, Michael Phelps is the only name that ever mattered in swimming. Before Phelps, though, there was the "original" Phelps - his name was Mark Spitz. Spitz is a legend of the pool, and like all the others on this list, he finished his brilliant career in style with a world-record breaking seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
5 Michael Jordan
Widely considered the greatest NBA player of all-time, Michael Jordan was also a master at toying with the emotions of his many fans. Jordan very nearly earned two separate spots on this list, thanks to his two retirements - the first in 1993 (after a third consecutive NBA championship) and in 1998 (again after three consecutive NBA championships). Suffice to say Jordan was very good at "leaving on top" (until his third retirement, at least).
4 Jean Béliveau
People in Montreal and around the hockey world will wonder why Mr. Béliveau is not higher on this list. Béliveau was one of the greatest centers the game has ever seen - one of the first big centers teams today covet to no end. Béliveau, like Bill Russell, was a perennial winner, with ten Cups as a player and seven more in various capacities with the Montreal Canadiens. His last Cup (also similar to Russell) was perhaps the most unexpected of all, with the Canadiens upsetting two powerhouses in the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks en route to the team's 1971 championship, after which the Habs legend called it a career.
3 John Elway
Before John Elway rebuilt the Denver Broncos into a current-day perennial powerhouse, he was busy leading game-winning drives and throwing touchdowns as the most revered Broncos gunslinger of all-time. Elway was on the "Dan Marino Path," as he was 13 years into his Hall of Fame career and still without a Super Bowl ring. Elway changed that in his final two seasons, capping off 1997 and 1998 (the year he retired) with Super Bowl wins against the Green Bay Packers and the Atlanta Falcons, respectively.
2 Joe DiMaggio
Often considered one of the best of all-time, Joe DiMaggio was a one of the more dominant forces on some of the greatest baseball teams the game has ever seen. His 56-game hitting-streak is a record that will likely stand the test of time, and he helped the Yankees win nine World Series titles between 1936 and 1951. DiMaggio ended his career with a bang, helping the Yankees to a 1951 World Series win before riding off into the sunset (to do things like marry Marilyn Monroe, for starters).
1 Rocky Marciano
Rocky Marciano is the greatest boxer most have never heard of - partially because he fought such a long time ago. Marciano was the most dominant fighter of his era, and perhaps of all-time. It's hard to dispute the fact, since he never lost a professional fight. A 49-0 record (with 43 knockouts, to top it off) and a final title defense in 1955 against Archie Moore, make him the greatest of all-time to go out while at the top of the mountain.