and the best political journalist on television Jon Stewart ended his 16-year run as host of The Daily Show on Thursday. It was a star-studded affair that was filled with emotion, hilarity and reflection during his final episode on Comedy Central.
It can be said, without question, that Stewart is leaving the game at the absolute top. No one is as ‘must-watch’ as Stewart, and his words have been perceived as being the most influential in keeping America aware of what’s happening around the world, regardless of whatever direction you think he leans.
Moreover, the true success of Stewart could be the talent he’s spawned over the years. Much like Bill Walsh in football or Gregg Popovich in basketball, the Jon Stewart-tree is a cavalcade of personalities that are now household names: Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Jessica Williams, Aasif Mandvi and his replacement Trevor Noah, to name a few.
In sports, seeing someone like Stewart ride off into the sunset might be the biggest unicorn of them all.
Quick…off the top of your head. Name the last elite, Hall-of-Fame caliber athlete you can remember finishing his career at the highest of notes.
That’s it, there are no other answers. John Elway.
If sports were going to nominate someone as their Jon Stewart, it would be Elway, as the man who was perennially one of the best QBs in the league finally won two Super Bowls in his final two years of tenure with the Denver Broncos. Elway’s walking away from the Broncos seemed fair and just, as the previous 13 seasons were always a reminder that Elway was a great player, but never had reached the mountaintop. In his final two years, his career was validated by many with championships, although his status as elite was never really in question.
That’s the thing about sports that might be different than any other profession or industry, as athletes rarely ever pull off ‘The Elway.” Here are a few examples:
- Willie Mays: The quote, “growing old is just a helpless hurt” from the greatest centerfielder of all-time was the sign that mortality will affect everyone in it’s path. The ‘Say Hey Kid’ hit just .238 in 135 games over two season for the New York Mets. My Uncle Bill, a longtime Mets fan, said he couldn’t force himself to watch Mays as a Metropolitan. “It was just some old guy playing the outfield that I didn’t recognize.”
- Allen Iverson: Another quote, this time from The Answer as he took his talents to the Memphis Grizzlies. “God chose Memphis as the place that I will continue my career […] I feel that they are committed to developing a winner.” Iverson played a total of three games for Memphis, and another 25 in a triumphant and turbulent return to Philadelphia. Most everyone loved Iverson, but his career ended in an epic flameout.
- Jerry Rice: Two things here. The greatest wide receiver of all-time was a member of the Seattle Seahawks at age 42. Also, the greatest wide receiver of all-time was wearing some of the worst braids in the history of braids.
- Muhammad Ali: Even “The Greatest” couldn’t walk away on time, as a washed up Ali fought until age 39 and getting brutally beat up by a rising legend in Larry Holmes in 1980, and a non-legend in Trevor Burbick in 1981.
Rocky BalboaSylvester Stallone said that watching Ali fight Holmes at ringside was like, “watching an autopsy on a man who is still alive.”
Those are just a few names off the top of head, as other “greatest ever” players like Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky couldn’t just walk away on top. Leigh Steinberg, legendary agent of athletes for over 40 years, highlighted why professional athletes can’t retire as their skills diminish:
The classiest exit–winning the critical game and going out with that as the last memory seems impossible for most athletes. Even those athletes with lifetime financial security, rewarding family lives, exciting second career possibilities can rarely do it. They are bright and realistic on every other issue except retirement. Most pro athletes play until they are too injured to compete and there is no team that is willing to sign them. At the culmination of an exhausting season, fresh off the aches and pains and disappointments, many athletes contemplate retirement. But as spring training or training camp beckons many months later, they cannot bear to not play.[…]
When their skill and physical shape start to diminish, an element of denial kicks in. If the last season did not end on a positive note–they are like gamblers doubling down to win what they have lost. They are by nature optimistic, and believe in themselves, and know if they are just given another chance, things will work out.
These are the same athletes who are unaccustomed to losing at anything, and they’ll be damned if they lose to Father Time. Jon Stewart, at age 52, has a mind and personality that will last for another 10-20 years at least. Kobe Bryant, who will be 37 at the start of the 2015-16 NBA season, has a body that might not last another year or two, at most.
There are other socioeconomic, educational and psychological issues that come into play with athletes that an entertainer, corporate executive, politician or teacher will never have to deal with. As sports fans, we’re constantly blessed by athletes who perform at the highest of levels to provide a sense of satisfaction and gratification that we can’t receive anywhere else. When those elite athletes go up against Father Time, who is undefeated, the end result usually feels cruel and unusual.
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”