Focusing the Lens on Early Retirement
Sanders, Davis on Andrew Luck’s Decision
Bapis Shares Views on Player’s Interests and Financing
By TERRY LYONS, Editor-in-Chief
NEW YORK – They came. They played. They thrilled us with their talent and they inspired us with their abilities and successes. Then, seemingly in an instant, they were gone.
The list of names is impressive.
As the news of NFL quarterback Andrew Luck‘s retirement surfaced, it was was sliced and diced by NFL executives and player personnel types, by Indianapolis Colts fans, by NFL and mainstream media pundits, and by Luck’s teammates and peers. His decision was shocking to some, selfish to others, disappointing to the fans but totally understood by the former players who’ve walked in his shoes.
From this corner of the world, the viewpoint, from quite a distance, was a “No Cheering from the Pressbox” exception of polite applause for a career well-played. For most, there was a full understanding of the tough decision Luck made before his announcement was fast-forwarded by the “Breaking News” and media machine, albeit because of an insider’s leak to score points for another day at the expense of Luck and his Colts’ team handlers. But, upon hearing the news, then the shocking reactions (see Doug Gottlieb), a “Father Time is Undefeated” reality took over as it was hardly a ground breaking decision. Athletes come and go, and some go a little more quickly than others. The list is long, but here are a few names that came to mind when Luck made his heartfelt retirement announcement:
Jim Brown: Possibly the greatest NFL player of all-time, Brown retired at the age of 30. He played in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns in a career that spanned 1957-65. Brown was MVP three times and All-Pro eight times. While every man has career decisions, not too many all-world athletes can say they retired and made a life choice because they were filming an epic war movie. Indeed, Brown left his football career as he won an acting role in “The Dirty Dozen,” working alongside Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, John Cassavetes and a star-studded list of actors who made the $5.4M budget film some $45M at the box office in 1967. Brown walked away from football to become an actor and some five decades later, re-runs of The Dirty Dozen frequently remind us of the man who is regarded as the greatest football player of all-time.
Sandy Koufax: Another legend who retired at the age of 30. Koufax pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1955-66, a lengthy career. In ’66, he went 27-9, pitched to an ERA of 1.73 with 317 strikeouts. His final season stats, widely recognized as the greatest farewell season of any player in any sport, came while he was fighting against arthritic conditions in his left pitching elbow
Ken Dryden: The goalkeeper for the Montreal Canadiens who was called-up late in the 1971 season and recorded a 1.65 goals against average as he led his team to win the Stanley Cup as he earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. A year later, in 1972, he would go on to win the Rookie of the Year for the NHL, the Calder Trophy as he anchored the great Montreal teams who won Cups in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1979. Dryden’s career spanned from 1970-1979 and that included the 1973-74 season when, unhappy with his contract terms, he took a break from the NHL to work at a Toronto Law Firm as he earned his law degree from McGill University. He retired at the age of 32 and went on to post NHL careers in politics, tv commentating, writing, teaching and, from 1997-2003, as a sports executive with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.
Barry Sanders: From 1989-98, the NFL enjoyed a decade of rushing highlights from true icons, including Emmitt Smith (Dallas), Ricky Watters (SF 49ers), Terrell Davis (Denver) and the great Barry Sanders. While Brown and Chicago Bears great Walter Payton might edge-out sanders as the All-time great, Sanders’ four rushing titles, six All-Pro seasons, a league MVP award in ’97 and a two-thousand rushing yard season (2.053 in ’97) cement his legacy as one of the true greats. Sanders walked away from the game at age 31.
What did Sanders think about Luck’s decision?
“When I first heard the news, I was shocked and surprised,” said Sanders at the NFL 100 event. “I know he’d been dealing with injury, and he was trying to figure out what was going on in the preseason, I was as surprised as anyone.
“But listening to his press conference, it almost took me back a little bit, because this was a tough, difficult decision. I was 29, the same age as Andrew, and just trying to pry yourself away from the game is really difficult. For me, it was something I grappled with all off-season.
“It’s a very personal decision, although you play a team game. He must really banged up and feels he needs to do this. I know he’ll do well. He’s a bright, young man and he has a lot of great options.
“I can understand how the fans were reacting and just how insensitive they can be,” added Sanders. “The Colts were very optimistic, going into the season, that they had a real legitimate chance to do great things with Andrew and it’ll be tough moving on without him. But, the game moves on.”
One of the NFL’s other all-time great RBs, Terrell Davis, had this to say when he was asked about Luck’s retirement decision:
“From 1999 to 2001, I went through three years of rehab to try to get back healthy to where I was previously, and the mental grind and the toll it takes on your body to rehab and try to get to that peak level, and then not ever getting back there, but you’re constantly working at it for three years straight? And then every time you have a set back, it (puts doubt) in your beliefs and your confidence level. It takes such a toll.
“People assume that we’re indestructible, that we don’t have injuries and we don’t think like humans, (they don’t understand) it’s a mental drag every single day,” added Davis.
“Part of it, too, is when you’re injured – and players talk about this – you don’t feel like you don’t belong, that you’re not part of that team. It is the weirdest feeling, when you don’t contribute to a team, you don’t feel like you’re a part of it. That takes a toll on you. So I understood exactly what he said when he went to the podium.
“He was drained. He had gone through years of trying to get his body back to the level he knows he can play at and he never achieved that. He’s not healthy today. So, when he walked away, I understood it.
“In 2001, before I retired, I said, ‘I’m going to give this one more chance.” said Davis. “I didn’t have the strength, the mental toughness, it had beat me down so bad. I knew, if I could make it through that training camp. that I would continue to do it, but it was a long shot. I knew it was my last training camp.
“The last preseason game, I told (then Broncos head coach) Mike Shanahan, ‘I can’t do it anymore. I was done. I was trying to fight to just get healthy for the next practice. I’d have my knees drained, then I’d go a couple more days, practice… knee drained … practice, knee drained. It was just a cycle.
“When I went out, I find;t want to, but I couldn’t;t fight it anymore. I had to retire.”
Here Now, The Notes (and Quotes): With Luck’s early retirement from the Colts, the question lurking under the radar from the off-the-field aspects of his decision is whether Luck or the legions of professional athletes competing for jobs in the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball are properly prepared for retirement. Are they ready to retire or are they forced to play longer to cash an extra paycheck at the expense of their mental and physical wellbeing?
With that in mind, a day after the NFL 100 festivities at the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, it was time to walk over to New York’s famed Rockefeller Center to meet with Michael Bapis, the head of the sports and entertainment practice of Vios Advisers, a division of the Rockefeller Capital Management Group. At the plaza offices and perfectly manicured gardens overlooking St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Bapis was asked these questions:
@DigSportsDesk – When is it best for a professional athlete to begin planning for retirement?Most “young” athletes/superstars think they’re invincible and don’t want to hear about life 10 or 12 years down the road. How and when can you influence an athlete to properly prepare for retirement?
Bapis: “Today, athletes need to think about the Arch of the Career before they sign their first contract or endorsement. We see young athletes learning more and more about financial literacy and money management, but it’s not enough. Whether it is gamers, high school athletes going directly to the pros, or college athletes balancing the rigors and complexity of NCAA rules, education is key.
“Every young athlete believes they are invincible. In the past few weeks, Andrew Luck chose to leave the field and the millions he could have earned from the Indianapolis Colts, because he feared for his health and the complications that would come with more hits on the field in the coming seasons. For Luck, the future, a bright one off the field with his family and whatever career he is planning, begins now.
“And, he’s not alone, the NFL Players Association estimates that the average career length for a pro football player is about 3.3 years. Like your physical health, it’s never too early or late to plan for your financial wellness and retirement. The key is education. Who is teaching, instructing and leading these young athletes? Who is ensuring that they connect with the right people who have the best their best interests in mind? That is key, and that starts at home and in school.
“It’s simple, you prep for life’s lessons the way you prep for on the field competition. They parallel each other and in many ways work in lock step. This way when that choice is selected or whether it is forced on an athlete, the rainy day issues of finance are covered for a longer period of time. These athletes have a great advantage in that their second career may well outdistance their first and using that financial base to amplify that second career is key.”
@DigSportsDesk – What is the perfect “team” for a player as he builds business? Agent, and financial advisors, what else? What is the best overall situation for a player to succeed “off the court/field?”
Bapis – “Great question. Let’s face it, technology continues to transform our lives, media is becoming more personalized, digital and shareable. Globalization, wearables, gaming, online gambling and eSports and other innovations are creating a great convergence of sports and entertainment. Athletes no longer have to rely on a media middleman to connect with their fans for loyalty, content and commerce. They can do it themselves.
“Many athletes are becoming their own brands with their own multimedia platforms, delivering direct, personalized content and experiences to their fans. This creates unmatched opportunity, risk and complexity for athletes who are still learning to navigate this new world of change and transformation. At Vios-Rockefeller Sports & Entertainment, we have both the experience and talent to help them maneuver and win.
“I think less is always more and having people who can speak to key needs; finance, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, are very important. You do not need a massive team; you need to have the right team that work in your best interest to give the athlete the ability to listen and make smart decisions, just like they would in a locker room. At the end of the day, size does not matter, it’s about the relationship, trust and client experience.
“Also, there is never one person who can do everything well; in the business world the decathlete never wins! We’re believers in true collaboration, working hand in hand with the athlete’s existing team of accountants, attorneys or business managers.
@DigSportsDesk – In this area of expertise, what do you think goes un-said and under-reported?
Bapis – “I think the simple success stories for athletes who have made the proper transition sometimes goes un-reported. It’s very easy to talk about the extremes; extreme failure and extreme success; that’s sexy and generates interest. What is most valuable in this space are the listeners and the quiet leaders. We are in a world where yelling and boasting seems to be key.
“In this business; quiet and thoughtful reflection rules the day.”
In Other Sports News: Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association have had discussions about randomly testing players for opioids, according to multiple media reports Friday, after an autopsy report showed oxycodone and fentanyl in the blood of late Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs. … MLB does not currently test major league players for opioids. However, minor league players are tested for opioids, which are classified as drugs of abuse instead of performance-enhancers. … MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said that Skaggs’ death has changed the union’s focus on the issue. … “For several reasons, including the tragic loss of a member of our fraternity and other developments happening in the country as a whole, it is appropriate and important to reexamine all of our drug protocols relating to education, treatment and prevention,” Clark said in a statement. … Skaggs died on July 1 with traces of alcohol and painkillers in his bloodstream, according to the autopsy performed by the Tarrant County (Texas) medical examiner’s office. … Skaggs’ family hired Texas-based attorney Rusty Hardin and in a statement said that his death “may involve an employee of the Los Angeles Angels.” MLB has begun an investigation into Skaggs’ death. … Of the more than 70,000 Americans killed by drug overdoses in 2017, nearly 48,000 deaths were caused in part by opioids, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and can be fatal in small doses.
Washington Wizards rookie forward Rui Hachimura will sit out the final two World Cup games for Japan because of fatigue and knee discomfort. … “While everyone had hoped for Rui to finish the World Cup with Team Japan, the Wizards and Japan Basketball believe it is best for Rui to not play the final two games and have a short period of rest before he must start NBA training camp with the Wizards, which begins only three weeks from now,” the Japanese Basketball Association said in a statement released by the NBA team. … The Wizards selected Hachimura, a product of Gonzaga, with the ninth pick in the NBA draft in June. He was born and raised in Japan. … Hachimura had just four points on 2-for-8 shooting in Japan’s 98-45 loss to the United States on Thursday. … “I love Team Japan. This was a difficult decision for the Wizards, Japan Basketball, and myself to make,” Hachimura, 21, said in a statement. “I am still learning about my body and trust that the Wizards and Japan Basketball are doing everything they can to help me be the best I can be for the NBA season and the 2020 Olympics.” … The Philadelphia 76ers will unveil a sculpture of Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley on Sept. 13 outside of their practice facility in Camden (NJ). … Barkley played his first eight seasons with the 76ers after being selected fifth overall in the 1984 NBA Draft. He made five straight All-Star teams and averaged 23.3 points and 11.6 rebounds in that span. … He still ranks in the top 10 in club history in offensive rebounds (first), defensive rebounds (first), field-goal percentage (second), total rebounds (third), free throws (fourth), steals (fifth), points (fifth), field goals (sixth) and minutes played (eighth). … Barkley’s No. 34 was retired by the team in 2001 and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. … His sculpture joins those of fellow franchise greats Billy Cunningham, Wilt Chamberlain, Maurice Cheeks, Julius Erving, Hal Greer and Bobby Jones along 76ers’ Legends Walk. … In PGA Tour news, as the Fall Season will soon start-up, Dustin Johnson underwent surgery Thursday to repair cartilage damage in his left knee. … Johnson’s agent said the world’s No. 3-ranked player was resting comfortably and expected to make a full recovery before returning to the PGA Tour this fall. … The surgery was performed in Fort Lauderdale by Dr. George Caldwell. Johnson had a similar procedure on his right knee in December 2011 and returned to action in mid-January 2012. … Johnson, 35, won his 20th PGA Tour title in 2019 at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship. The 2016 U.S. Open champion was runner-up at this year’s Masters and PGA Championship. … He struggled down the stretch this season with zero top-10 finishes in his past eight starts. Johnson tied for last in the 30-man field at the Tour Championship in his most recent start.
Digital Sports Desk posts a once-a-week Sunday Notes column, entitled: “While We’re Young Ideas.” It’s a throwback of sorts to the days when sportswriting and the baseball beat were the best jobs in the entire sports industry, maybe the entire world. One of those sportswriters was named Dick Young and he wrote “Young Ideas” with a “Diamond Dust” section for notes and quotes. … We welcome feedback and suggestions (psst, they call ’em pitches) for mentions within “While We’re Young Ideas” or Digital Sports Desk. Please follow and encourage (at least) another person or two to plug into (@DigSportsDesk) (@WhileYoungIdeas) and (@terrylyons).
Field Level Media, GraceNote, and Digital Sports Desk staff reporting contributed to this column.