A funny thing happens in the last years of an athlete’s sport life. When a man (or gal) cannot jump like he used to or run like he used to, he is humbled. The armor they built around themselves rusts away, and we’re there, watching for the first time not a super hero but a person. They become vulnerable. We get to see who our heroes really are, and we’ll remember that just as well as we remember their rings and trophies and records. We’ll remember when they let their guard down. When they become honest. When they become real.

Photo by Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News
Photo by Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News

Typically, we get to see this play out a handful of times every five years. Now, we’re in the middle of one of the ends to one of sports’ great epochs. Peyton, Kobe, A-Rod, Duncan, Garnett, Pierce, Jeter, Papí[1], Grantland[2]. Their sports lives are sputtering to an end all at once, leaving us to watch them launch ducks instead of dimes or shoot air ball after air ball or sit behind a booth while watching younger, more capable kids play in the World Series.

The last years of an athlete’s sports life are meaningless from a numbers perspective. Anything better than horrible play is a pleasant surprise; anything worse is expected. Peyton can’t throw the ball 15 yards any more, but that doesn’t take away the fact that he’s the most prolific passer in football history. Nothing you see in these final games will change that. Nothing ever will. That’s not the point. What’s interesting is how he responds to that.

We heard nothing but glowing remarks about Peyton Manning since he first played at Tennessee. He treated everyone right, made us all laugh on SNL, studied harder than anybody before. But four neck surgeries and two long seasons later, here we are, the great Peyton Manning benched for a kid from Montana[3]…and Brock Osweiler is doing everything Peyton is still expected to do but can’t. Reports say that Manning is fuming and originally wouldn’t help Osweiler in practice. He watches games from a suite. What happened to the old Peyton Manning? To everyone’s favorite uncle? To Mr. All American?

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For years, the narrative spun about Kobe was that he obsessed over winning. That’s why he worked for hours, yelled at teammates, batted heads with coaches. He needed to win. Now, with Kobe’s retirement poem and his Showtime documentary, we see that, yes, Kobe needs to win. But we finally see why: he wants to be loved. He was lonely as a kid growing up in Italy, lonely as a 19-year-old playing with an NBA team, lonely flying back and forth from Colorado. Basketball, as he says, was his only friend back then. He’s scared of life without it, of what people will think of him when he isn’t the Black Mamba anymore.

Contributing as an analyst for Fox this postseason, A-Rod was a natural behind the camera. He was smooth and charming. He could be a politician. We learned the effect of his years living behind the lie of steroids: he knows just what people want to hear, who they want to see. On Fox, he was playing a role, just like he had played since, allegedly, he was a teenager.

 

Duncan, Garnett and Pierce aren’t fighting the end. They still play to be around it all: the locker rooms, the attention, the strategy. But they aren’t hogging it now, giving post-game interviews, playing big minutes. Duncan helped lure LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs big-man-in-waiting to command the next era in San Antonio. Garnett is playing with a bunch of 20-year-olds on a team whose coach died right before the season. He’s the one those rookies turn to. He’s there to help them realize their potential. Last week, Clippers coach Doc Rivers got a technical, and when it got called, Paul Pierce, the player, yelled at Doc Rivers, the coach. There’s respect that comes with age, but more than that, there’s the wisdom to know what the other 10 guys on the bench are thinking. Pierce wanted to teach them they needed to know when to keep their cool. That’s what all three of these guys want. They want to leave their game in a better place.

Derek Jeter went out exactly how he always played: big. In his final game last year, the one thing we could have hoped to happen did: the man blessed by baseball gods, it turns out, was. He miraculously found his way into the batters’ box able to win the game, and of course, he saw it through. Of course.

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

You might learn something new or confirm what you’ve always believed, but you will discover something genuine during an athletes’ winter. Those discoveries are what you will remember when you think back on this time in a players’ career. You’ll remember their body language, their exchanges with teammates, their farewell. You’ll look to their peak to recall their skill, their valley to recall their nature. That’s why you should watch these guys before their time ends. That’s the point.


 

[1] I’m including him on the list but not writing any further about him because 2016 will be his final season. Stay tuned…

[2] Hell yeah I included Grantland! And look! I’m using a footnote too. I wonder where I learned that one. RIP G-Land. We miss you.

[3] The Broncos will tell you Peyton Manning is injured but who are they kidding?

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