The legacies of the greatest athletes are often measured by the totality of their careers, whether greatness is achieved over a long, historic run, or tragically cut short by injury, illness or personal failing.
But an athlete generally creates and solidifies his legacy during the prime of his career in a given sport. That's when they constantly make headlines by racking up stats and, ideally, winning championships.
When we talk about the historic career of Joe Montana, we focus on his glory days with the San Francisco 49ers during the heyday of the Bill Walsh era, not his final season as a Kansas City Chief.
When a young, talented hockey prospect with unlimited potential is compared to Wayne Gretzky, he's being compared to the man who anchored the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 80's, not the man who retired in a Rangers uniform.
Many athletes play well beyond their prime and remain productive contributors; some overstay their welcome and play well beyond their expiration date, while others know just when to walk away. But, either way, there's nothing better than watching an elite athlete playing in his prime and performing with ease.
Here are 10 athletes who are in their prime right now.
Despite the occasional slump, there no doubt that Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin is a certified superstar in the sport. He's been a serious physical presence and one of the NHL's leading scorers since entering the league.
Even with seven seasons behind him in the NHL, Ovechkin, at age 27, is still considered to be in his prime. Hockey players reach their peak at an earlier age than many other athletes, some time between ages 22 and 28, which means Ovi doesn't have much time left on this list.
Usually NFL teams prioritize the contract extension of their franchise quarterback over that of their running back, but there's a good reason the Ravens locked up 25-year-old Ray Rice, their superstar running back, before the 2012 season and left quarterback Joe Flacco's contract for 2013.
Running backs have a very short shelf life in the NFL and Rice is one of the best in the league. The average career for a player at the position is just 2.57 years, but Rice isn't an average player. For the best running backs age 30 seems to be the universal drop off point, so Rice still has awhile in his prime.
The results of a 2009 study done by John Charles Bradbury indicated that both pitchers and hitters in Major League Baseball hit their peak around age 29, several years later than previously thought.
Which means the prime career range for a ball player in MLB is between ages 28 and 30. The Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, the reigning NL MVP, is just 28 years old right now. So his best days are still ahead of him.
In an article for ESPN in 2012, sports journalist Bill Simmons noted that NBA players peak somewhere between the ages of 25 and 29; the prime years of most players' careers. A California State Science Fair project done by an eighth grader earlier 2012 and published by USC seems to back up that claim—or vice versa.
Where these statistics first originated doesn't matter, because even if Simmons did cite the Science Fair Study, it's actually pretty legit. Which means that the Clippers superstar point guard Chris Paul is right in the prime of his career at age 27.
Despite the chronic concussion symptoms that Pittsburgh Penguins superstar center Sidney Crosby has dealt with for the last year, in 2012 the became the NHL's seventh-youngest player in history to score 600 points. Not bad for a 24-year-old, right?
Studies peg the peak performance of an NHL player somewhere between 22 and 28. Which puts Crosby, who just turned 25, right in the middle. If he can stay healthy and the NHL lockout ever ends, there's no telling what else he'll achieve moving forward.
So far he's got a Stanley Cup Championship and and Olympic gold medal to his name.
According to an article on LiveStrong.com, soccer players reach their peak performance between the ages of 22 and 27. And because of the extreme conditioning required to play the sport at a professional level, most players suffer a sharp decline in their early 30's.
Well, Barcelona's Lionel Messi, who recently turned 25, doesn't have to worry about father time impacting his game for quite a few years. Messi is two years younger than Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and recently beat him out to win the Onze d'Or award for the third consecutive year.
After a statistically ridiculous year in 2011, Detroit Lions superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson made the cover of Madden 2012. Sure he benefited from quarterback Matt Stafford, a star on the rise, staying healthy for the whole season, but Megatron did pretty well in his absence too.
Broadly speaking, wide receivers in the NFL tend to peak around age 27, but don't suffer the same sharp decline as players at the running back position. Calvin Johnson just turned 27 in September 2012, so don't expect his performance to start rolling downhill anytime soon.
In 2012 ESPN ranked the top 500 players in Major League Baseball and Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander landed in the No. 4 overall spot. You can't really argue that ranking considering Verlander's stats this year—at least he's earning that $20 million a year paycheck.
Studies vary on what the peak age of a pitcher in MLB, but there are more than a few that suggest it's age 29. Which just so happens to be the age of Justin Verlander. So not only is he in the prime of his career, he's at the absolute peak right now.
The average career of a quarterback in the NFL is 4.4 years, which means most end up out of a job before even reaching their peak career age. At 28-years-old, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is just entering the prime of his career—and he already has a Super Bowl under his belt.
Evidence suggests that quarterbacks hit their peak physically at 24, but it takes years to master the mental aspect of the game. Many of the greats had the best statistical season of their careers in their 30's and a recent Middlebury College study suggested that QBs peak at age 31.
Which means Packers fans have nothing to worry about at the position for quite some time.
Sorry LeBron haters, despite what his hairline may indicate, LeBron James is currently in the prime of his career and will be for a few more years. The peak career years of NBA players are between the ages of 25-29, and LeBron is right in the middle at 27.
Not that you need any statistics or studies to see that the hottest of the Heat's "Big Three" is in his prime. James has won an NBA Championship, a league MVP and an Olympic gold medal—and that was in 2012 alone!
It's going to be a tough couple of years moving forward for LeBron haters.