One late July day in 1999, months after the end to another spectacular season in his Hall of Fame career and just weeks before he was to report back to Detroit for his 11th year in pro football, Barry Sanders fired off a fax (remember those?) to his hometown newspaper (remember those?). “Today,” Sanders wrote, “I officially declare my departure from the NFL.”
And so one of the most wow-inducing athletes ever to tote a ball walked slowly, quietly, mystifyingly away from the game that made him famous. No heads up. No long goodbye speech. No fanfare. No regrets. He left without a limp.
He had just turned 31 years old.
Sanders’ career-ending stroll into the sunset is rare in sports, and even more so in lunch-pail toting, working life in general. Walking away on your terms, Johnny Paycheck-style, is the stuff people dream about while pecking away in their cubicles and stuttering through rush-hour traffic. It’s not something most people actually do.
Most people tend to hang on too long — to pretty much anything, really; to pretty much everything — for a variety of good and bad reasons. If they’re holding onto a job, it’s to try to stuff away a few more dollars to pay off the mortgage or pad a nest egg. We hang on to jobs, and other things, because it’s comfortable, or because we have nothing else we can do. We hang on because it’s all we know. We hang on because no one wants to be known as a quitter, even when quitting might well be the smartest thing to do.
Synching up when you can quit something and when you should, though, is always difficult, no matter what you’re leaving. Linger too long and you risk ceding the final decision on your departure to someone else. (“Sorry, pal, seems you’ve lost a little off the ol’ fastball.” Or, “Sorry, Mom, but we need to take those car keys.“) Call it too early — as many think Sanders did — and you may miss out on some things that you don’t want to miss out on.
I had a friend in Cincinnati who, back in the ’90s, was a really good pickup basketball player, better than I’ve ever been. I was in my early 30s back then, he was in his mid 20s, and he was by far the best player in our games in the intown cul de sac where my buddy Jack lived. Strong to the basket, a good jumper, quick, he completely owned that makeshift court. But a few ankle injuries — everybody turns ankles in pickup hoops — soured him on the game, and he was done by the time he turned 30.
We have a guy in our group here in Atlanta, late 30s, who is on his third knee surgery. He won’t be back, maybe ever. Another one just had a nasty, 90-degree turn of his ankle. Screaming, blood, a surgery the next day, the whole scary thing. No telling when, or if, he’s coming back. He’s not much older than 40.
Yet another longtime hoopster — in his early 50s I’d suspect — used to play pretty much every morning and once or twice a week at night. He played defense only when the spirit moved him, loved to dribble around, launch 3-pointers, and lead our slow-breaks down the court. He was, I thought, a pickup lifer. But the pandemic came, and after we finally started our games again, he said he was done. He found out how much better his knees felt without the pounding he put on them several times a week. We may never see him again, either.
I’m now the oldest player on the court in our Wednesday night pickup games by at least a few years. I’m the one who other teams put their worst defender on. When I’m out there, if I’m not the last one that’s been picked, I’m in the bottom two.
I can still get up and down the court, sure. I can still run. Slowly. But those are kind of the minimum requirements. Show up. Get up and down the court. Try not to get hurt. And try not to hurt anyone. It’s not hard.
Even then, on my worst nights, I’m a second slow and an inch short on everything. I watch as the ball bounces free and my brain splits in half; a part says, “Go get that ball,” and the other half answers, “Oh, you mean THAT ball? You mean, like, now? Like, right now?” I find myself a spectator on the court as younger guys jump and cut and make incredibly athletic moves. On those nights, I just try to stay out of the way. And I go home thinking, “Is it time?”
On my best nights, I’ll drop in a shot or two against an uninterested defender. I’ll hit a three on occasion. I can get to the basket against a sleepy opponent, be a pest defensively, at least stay relatively close with guys my size. I go home thinking, “Yeah, I can still play some.”
But then I think: Against the No. 9 guy on the floor — me being No. 10 — is that enough? Is being OK enough?
What’s going to convince me that, finally, I need to walk away? How will I know?
I suppose this is a question not about sports or boyhood games or your job or work, specifically, but about when to move on. It’s about weighing what you want to do against an honest assessment of what you’re still able to do, or what you have to do. And whether whatever it is that you’re able to do is still good enough.
It’s about deciding to let go, I suppose. When to. How to. All that. And then figuring out what’s next.
My best days of playing basketball, such as they ever were, are undoubtedly behind me. I can’t expect too many more winning three-pointers, too many more nights where basketball provides that all-else-erasing respite. That’s the real beauty of basketball, to me. On a good, competitive basketball night, my daily worries completely evaporate and I’m left with no more pressing concerns than:
1) How can I get open against this handsy bastard guarding me right now?
2) How can I put up a shot that will at least travel in the vicinity of the basket?
3) How can I stick with this 30-year-old who never stops moving, and how can I fight over a screen from that guy who outweighs me by 50 pounds?
4) How can I avoid looking foolish if/when I fail at all of the above? What can I contribute?
I worry, on off days, that real life will intrude and I’ll finally be forced into hoops retirement by a nasty injury or, almost as bad, a particularly heinous on-court embarrassment. (My game has provided plenty of both over the past decade or more >.) Sometimes, there’s just no coming back from those.
I worry, too, that the inevitable and eventual end to my pickup days, whenever and however that happens, will propel me forever into codgerdom. No coming back from that, either, once you get there. Next thing you know, I’ll be playing pickleball. Or bocce. More golf. Getting fat. I can wait for all that.
In the end — and thank god we’re not talking about The End — I just hope I can leave knowing that I gave it a good, long run. Longer, I think, than most. I hope that I can say, on my best days, that I was OK. That I played. That I contributed. And I hope that I can find something else, something close, that will do to the everyday troubles, the everyday aches and pains, what playing hoops has miraculously done for me for decades. I hope whatever that is can hold off that ever-looming dotage a little longer.
And I hope that whenever the time comes to quit that I can walk away like Sanders did. No looking back. No regrets. And without a limp. That would be nice.