Sometimes you can just feel it when someone is about to go out on top; When they're about to cap off their career with something that no one could ever imagine, or a performance that can never be topped.
Every move they make is magnified, with an aura about it that seems to take on a life of it's own. You follow along with them on the path they're taking, in hopes that in some way you can feel what they feel and see what they see.
You cringe at times of pain, and stare in awe at what they're doing—mystified at what you're watching, but believing it all the same—and no matter what, you're unable to look away.
At one point, whether they've been your opposition for years, or the hero that you looked up to, you both gain an understanding and a respect for each other; you for what's come about in the waning moments of their limelight, and him for your ability to ignore the outsiders trying to sway opinions on the matter and just follow along in the magic.
This was Heath Ledger's final appearance—the penultimate moment where he achieved something that only the elite of his brethren ever have—a role in which the audience was enraptured by him.
There's no one word to describe Ledgers' portrayal of the Joker in the Dark Knight except to say that Ledger proved to be one of the most accomplished method actors of our time, and that he truly went out on top—something most athletes fail to do these days.
Now at first, the comparison may seem unjust—Ledger didn't go out on his own terms as so many athletes do; He died—in large part due to his studies for his role. He never had the opportunity to say "this is my final role, studied and performed how I've always done so, and it will be my last". It just was.
But maybe it's a strange, disjointed way, to look at a man who went out at the top of his game—on a euphoric level that so few of us are able to find.
Some athlete's are able to find that level throughout the course of their careers, be it through scoring, grinding, or being that all-around leader, and are able to sustain it for years on end.
Some players' careers don't reach that level of play—but all of that is replaced by winning a championship, leading to a different sense of euphoria, but a level of ecstasy that can still never be taken away.
When some players reach their goal of a championship, or see that they're on the cusp of losing that all-world ability, they follow the path that leads them respectability into the sunset, where they're remembered for acknowledging when they'd accomplished what they'd needed to, or won that elusive trophy.
The Ray Bourques, the Michael Strahans, and the John Elways of the sports world all chose to go out on top.
But lately, there's been another path leading to a different mindset for today's athlete—a mindset where they believe that they have the ability to play for an eternity; a child-like mentality of immortality when it comes to their sporting career.
When this happens, we begin to tire of our heroes because they aren't who we thought they were—the Anti-Dennis Green if you will.
They lose their talent and become a foreign entity in our eyes—someone who went from being able to stop the world on a dime, to someone who's become greedy, ragged, and aged while losing all that everyone once loved about them.
I don't need to name names. We all know an athlete—a favorite, secret favorite, or otherwise—that just doesn't know when to 'hang'em up'. It's all too common these days.
One day I hope that some of our athletes realize that they don't need to hang on for that extra season to earn our respect—that we'll tell our kids about the men that went out on top of their game, not the 600-goal scorer who was relegated to a fourth line checking role due to the erosion of his skills.
Mr. Ledger never had the opportunity to make that choice to go out on top—chances are if he hadn't been taken from us, we would have been exposed to a career full of deep, meaningful memories that would forever shine in our psyches—but someone he accomplished it in a virtuoso performance.
Sometimes going out on top ain't so bad—the view is better after all, and Heath Ledger can attest to that.
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer for Bleacher Report and an NHL Community Leader. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, and you can also read some of his past work in his archives.
Heath Ledger 1979-2008
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