There is no better word in the English dictionary to describe the decline of an aging sports superstar than “awkward.” I think the media and fans, like me, are partially to blame. We act surprised or frustrated when we watch Kobe Bryant air-ball three shots a game or Peyton Manning throw a ten-yard pass slower than a high school quarterback. We essentially ignore the second law of thermodynamics and expect a nearly-forty-year-old athlete recovering from major injuries to perform at an elite level.
Of course Kobe can’t still score 81 on any given night (or 18, for that matter). Peyton Manning probably can’t throw a 35-yard out pattern with the speed and precision he did in 2004. The underlying problem is that we have spent the last 15 years watching players like Manning, Kobe and Tiger Woods dominate their respective leagues, so we have the tendency to take their greatness for granted instead of accepting that Father Time eventually takes his toll on everyone. Perhaps what makes players like Tim Duncan and Tom Brady so unbelievable is that they can still play at an elite level late in their careers, so we don’t have to lower our expectations.
The aging superstars themselves should be blamed, too, because their greatest strengths usually lead to their downfall. An incredibly competitive nature drove Kobe Bryant to win five championships and become one of the greatest players of his generation. It's the same thing that led Tiger Woods to win 14 majors, including a Masters victory on a broken leg. It led Peyton Manning to break the all-time touchdown record and win a Super Bowl. However, as these athletes age, they continue playing with the same competitive drive in a shell of the body they once had.
The bottom line is that just because your mind says yes, doesn’t mean your body says yes, too.
This past week, Kobe finally realized that his time is up, announcing that this season will be his last. After career-threatening injuries, it seems that Woods and Manning are close to making similar decisions. It’s sad that some of the greatest athletes of a generation will soon hang up their jerseys (or their Sunday red Nike shirts, in Tiger’s case), but I think it’s better for everyone involved to remember them for what they accomplished at the peak of their careers and not for the last year of playing below prior expectations.
Thanks Kobe, Peyton and Tiger for over 15 years of greatness. I’m sorry the last year had to be so awkward.