Retirement, in my mind, is an automatic merit of respect for athletes.
If an athlete makes it to retirement, that alone means he's had a great career.
Retirement is only necessary if you're physically unable to perform your job well enough. That's why everyone—athletes, lawyers, pharmacists, or writers—retires.
That means that athletes who have to retire have played for so long that their bodies can no longer handle the physical beating they take playing sports.
If an athlete retires at the right time, it is the icing on the cake of their legacy. The right time to retire is following the first or second year an athlete's performance significantly drops off once his numbers have peaked.
Athletes who retired at the right time:
Troy Aikman—He peaked in 1992, passing for 3,445 yards with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while completing 302-of-473 passes. But his production didn't plummet until 2000, when he threw for 1,632 yards, seven touchdowns, and 14 picks in addition to completing 156-of-262 attempts. That was Aikman's last year. He retired at the right time and with the right team—the team he played his entire career with.
Boomer Esiason—He peaked in 1986 when he threw for 3,959 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. He also completed 273-of-469 passes that year. In 1992, Esiason only registered 1,407 pass yards, 11 touchdowns, and 15 picks. That was a big drop-off from his previous stats, and normally I'd say he should have retired after that season, but he picked it back up in 1993. He retired after 1997, which was a smart move. His numbers dropped significantly from 1996 to '97. He recorded 1,478 pass yards, 12 touchdowns, and two interceptions in seven games (including five starts). He also made 118 completions on 186 attempts.
Mike Rucker—As a Carolina Panthers fan, I can say that this guy was a fan-favorite, and more. He was a great player and a first-class person. In a nine-year career spanning 1999-2007, Rucker made 421 tackles (346 solos) and 55.5 sacks. His production did drop off a decent amount between certain years, but, as a Panthers fan, I still love this guy, and I'm thrilled he retired a Panther. It would have been a mistake for him to retire with any other team, considering he played his whole career for the Panthers.
Athletes Who Didn't Retire At the Right Time:
Steve Beuerlein—He peaked in 1999 with the Carolina Panthers, amassing 4,436 yards, 36 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. He converted 343-of-571 tosses that year. Two years later, he was on the Denver Broncos but didn't play. He should have retired after that season. But he didn't. He went on to play two more partial seasons with the Broncos. He didn't crack 1,000 yards, seven touchdowns, or even 70 completions either year.
Jerry Rice—This guy is kinda tough to analyze, because he was consistently great from 1986-96. Then he was off-and-on the rest of his career. Nevertheless, Jerry Rice is a San Francisco 49ers icon. He's one of the greatest receivers of all time. But he still didn't retire at the right time. He totaled at least 1,200 yards receiving in all but three seasons with the 49ers.
Rice played for San Fran for 16 years. It would have been great for him to retire a 49er. I remember when he left San Francisco for the Raiders; that seemed about as natural to me then as Brett Favre in a Vikings uniform does now. Jerry Rice lessened his legacy when he opted to play for the Raiders for what turned out to be the last four years of his career, instead of retiring a San Francisco 49er.
Johnny Unitas—The now-deceased legendary quarterback played for the Baltimore Colts from 1956-1972. In his best season, 1963, he played 14 games (teams only played 14 regular season games then) and passed for 3,481 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Unitas also made good of 237-of-410 pass attempts that year.
He didn't have a truly bad year until 1968, during which he only had 139 yards, two touchdowns, and four interceptions in five games. But Unitas suffered a chronically sore elbow that year. He didn't have another truly bad year until 1973, when he compiled 471 yards, three touchdowns, and seven interceptions. He retired the year after. However, who thinks of the San Diego Chargers when they think of Johnny Unitas? No one. The fact that he didn't retire a Colt was a bad move. He should have retired a Colt. Unitas retired a year too late.
Athletes Who Are Currently Hanging on a Thread:
Brett Favre—Everyone knows everything that's happened this offseason involving him and his so-called retirement. But as much as everyone says he should just stay retired, it's obvious that he can still play, and he has an itch to play that he must scratch. Last season he compiled 4,155 pass yards with 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, and he completed about 67 percent of his passes. Favre isn't ready for retirement yet; let him play.
But why do athletes refuse to stop playing their sport? In Brett Favre's case, it's his competitive nature and his love of football. I think that that's the case with many players. But another high-priority reason is that they don't want to take the next step in life. They don't want to stop playing the game they've played for years. They know they'll miss it, and they don't want to deal with the emptiness of not playing and having so much time on their hands all of a sudden. I don't blame them.
But you still have to know when to call it quits, whether it's making sure you do it before it's too late or avoiding regrets, like Favre. That can be the difference between being considered a legend and merely being remembered.