Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.

Twitter Picks for NFL Championship Weekend

NFC Championship Game
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
Sunday, 3:05 pm ET, FOX
Green Bay:  12-6, def. Dallas 34-31 in Divisional Round
Atlanta:  12-5, def. Seattle 36-20 in Divisional Round
Favorite:  Falcons by 5

 

AFC Championship Game
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Sunday, 6:40 pm ET, CBS
Pittsburgh:  13-5, def. Kansas City 18-16 in Divisional Round
New England:  15-2, def. Houston 34-16 in Divisional Round
Favorite:  Patriots by 5

 

 

 

For what it’s worth…

Overall Record: 78-53-1
Last Week: 3-1
College Overall Record: 67-48
NFL Game of the Week: 11-5-1

Game of the Week: 10-5
Big Game Guarantee: 3-7
Upset of the Week: 4-6
Closer Than the Experts Think: 4-6
Not Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-3
Overhyped/Bad Spread Game: 5-5
Group of Five Game of the Week: 7-3
Is This Futbol?: 8-2
Is This Basketball?: 8-2
Toilet Bowl: 6-4
Miscellaneous: 5-5

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.

Twitter Picks for NFL Divisional Weekend

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons
Saturday, 4:35 pm ET, FOX
Seattle: 11-5-1, NFC West champion, def. Detroit 26-6 last week
Atlanta: 11-5, NFC South champion, first round bye
Favorite: Falcons by 5

 

Houston Texans at New England Patriots
Saturday, 8:15 pm ET, CBS
Houston: 10-7, AFC South champion, def. Oakland 27-14 last week
New England: 14-2, AFC East champion, first round bye
Favorite: Patriots by 16

 

Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
Sunday, 4:40 pm ET, FOX
Green Bay: 11-6, NFC North champion, def. N.Y. Giants 38-13 last week
Dallas: 14-2, NFC East champion, first round bye
Favorite: Cowboys by 5

 

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday, 8:20 pm ET*, NBC
Pittsburgh: 12-5, AFC North champion, def. Miami 30-12 last week
Kansas City: 12-4, AFC West champion, first round bye
Favorite: Chiefs by 1

*Game moved from original time of 1:05 pm ET due to weather conditions

 

 

 

For what it’s worth…

Overall Record: 75-52-1
Last Week: 4-0
College Overall Record: 67-48
NFL Game of the Week: 8-4-1

Game of the Week: 10-5
Big Game Guarantee: 3-7
Upset of the Week: 4-6
Closer Than the Experts Think: 4-6
Not Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-3
Overhyped/Bad Spread Game: 5-5
Group of Five Game of the Week: 7-3
Is This Futbol?: 8-2
Is This Basketball?: 8-2
Toilet Bowl: 6-4
Miscellaneous: 5-5

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.

Twitter Picks for NFL Wild Card Weekend

Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans
Saturday, 4:35 pm ET, ABC/ESPN
Oakland:  12-4, Wild Card, AFC #5 seed
Houston:  9-7, AFC South Champion, AFC #4 seed
Favorite:  Texans by 4

 

Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks
Saturday, 8:15 pm ET, NBC
Detroit:  9-7, Wild Card, NFC #6 seed
Seattle:  10-5-1, NFC West Champion, NFC #3 seed
Favorite:  Seahawks by 8

 

Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, 1:05 pm ET, CBS
Miami:  10-6, Wild Card, AFC #6 seed
Pittsburgh:  11-5, AFC North Champion, AFC #3 seed
Favorite:  Steelers by 11

 

New York Giants at Green Bay Packers
Sunday, 4:40 pm ET, FOX
N.Y. Giants:  11-5, Wild Card, NFC #5 seed
Green Bay:  10-6, NFC North Champion, NFC #4 seed
Favorite:  Packers by 5

 

 

For what it’s worth…

Overall Record: 71-52-1
Previous Week: 4-1
College Overall Record: 67-48
NFL Game of the Week: 4-4-1

Game of the Week: 10-5
Big Game Guarantee: 3-7
Upset of the Week: 4-6
Closer Than the Experts Think: 4-6
Not Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-3
Overhyped/Bad Spread Game: 5-5
Group of Five Game of the Week: 7-3
Is This Futbol?: 8-2
Is This Basketball?: 8-2
Toilet Bowl: 6-4
Miscellaneous: 5-5

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.

Twitter Picks for NFL Wild Card Weekend

Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans
Saturday, 4:30 pm ET, ESPN/ABC
Favorite: Chiefs by 3
Chiefs: 11-5, AFC 5th seed (Wild Card)
Texans:  9-7, AFC 4th seed (AFC West Champion)

 

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, CBS
Favorite: Steelers by 3
Steelers: 10-6, AFC 6th seed (Wild Card)
Bengals: 12-4, AFC 3rd seed (AFC North Champion)

 

Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings
Sunday, 1:00 pm ET, NBC
Favorite: Seahawks by 5
Seahawks: 10-6, NFC 6th seed (Wild Card)
Vikings: 11-5, NFC 3rd seed (NFC North Champion)

 

Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins
Sunday, 4:30 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: Redskins by 1
Packers: 10-6, NFC 5th seed (Wild Card)
Redskins: 9-7, NFC 4th seed (NFC East Champions)

 

 

And for my predictions for how the NFL Playoffs will play out…

 

Season to Date
Overall Record: 64-49
College Overall Record: 55-41
Game of the Week: 11-5
Big Game Guarantee: 31-17
Upset of the Week: 6-14
Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-6
NFL Game of the Week: 8-8

NFL Picks for Week 16

The new NFL logo went into use at the 2008 draft.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Game of the Week:  New Orleans Saints (10-4) at Carolina Panthers (10-4)
The Panthers are 3-point favorites at home in a battle that will likely be for the NFC South division title.  All the winner will have to do will be to win again next week, and both teams play opponents in Week 17 that are currently 4-10.  The Saints are coming off an embarrassing road loss against the Rams a week ago, and have lost 3 out of their last 4 road contests.  The Panthers have only lost once at home all year, and that was back in Week 1 against the 12-2 Seattle Seahawks.  That game may have been the Panthers best showing defensively, allowing just 12 points against Russell Wilson and company.  The Panthers have additionally won 9 out of 10 overall, although the one loss was a blowout to these Saints two weeks ago in New Orleans.  But the Saints aren’t the same team on the road as they are in the Superdome, and the Panthers should want ultimate payback, as winning would let them control their destiny to win the division and get a playoff bye.
Panthers 28, Saints 24.

Big Game Guarantee:  New England Patriots (10-4) at Baltimore Ravens (8-6)
The Ravens are 2-point home favorites, which means the oddsmakers see these teams as pretty even.  The Patriots are in good position heading towards the playoffs, although they haven’t clinched their division just yet, and are battling the Broncos, Bengals, and Chiefs to see who will get a playoff bye.  Those 4 losses, however, have come in their last 5 road games, and they will head into a tough environment this week in Baltimore.  The Ravens have won 4 straight, and have only lost once at home all year, to the Packers back when they still had Aaron Rodgers.  That loss was also part of a 3-5 start for the defending Super Bowl champions.  Since, they are 5-1, including an 18-16 win over Detroit, without scoring a touchdown in a defensive battle on Monday night.  Count on a close game, as the Ravens have played 9 games decided by 3 points or less, and the Patriots have played 9 games decided by 4 points or less.
Ravens 23, Patriots 20.

Another Big Game Guarantee:  Atlanta Falcons (4-10) at San Francisco 49ers (10-4)
The 49ers are favored by 14 in their final regular season game at Candlestick Park.  It will likely be the final game, as it is unlikely the 49ers will be able to host a playoff game, based on where they currently sit in the standings.  The game itself is almost an afterthought, as the Falcons, who were preseason playoff contenders, have struggled to a 4-10 record, and have not beaten a team with a winning record all season.  The 49ers have won 4 straight, including a win over the NFC-leading Seahawks two weeks ago, coming into this Monday Night Football contest.  The magnitude of this game is not as much in the game itself as it is in the farewell of one of the game’s great venues, based on both its unique design and its unequaled history.
49ers 30, Falcons 17.

Upset of the Week:  Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8) at Green Bay Packers (7-6-1)
Green Bay hosts this pivotal matchup that will affect the playoff race in both the AFC and the NFC, and is favored by 2.  The Packers, however, will play their 7th straight game without QB Aaron Rodgers, and are 1-4-1 in the first 6 games without him.  That hurts even more when considering the fact Rodgers is 2-0 with 687 yards, 6 TD, and no interceptions in his career against Pittsburgh, including his MVP performance in Super Bowl XLV.  The Steelers seemed to come alive last week against Cincinnati, upsetting the division-leading Bengals by 10 to keep their slim playoff chances alive.  While the Steelers need a lot of help to make the playoffs, the first thing that needs to happen is for them to win their final 2 games.  The Packers are in a similar situation, leaving this as almost an elimination game in the playoff pursuit.  The difference in these two teams is that one has their elite quarterback and the other does not.
Steelers 24, Packers 20.

Another Upset of the Week:  Chicago Bears (8-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (8-6)
The Eagles are 3-point home favorites in this week’s edition of Sunday Night Football, in a game between two teams both trying to win their respective divisions and make the playoffs in their first season under a new head coach.  The Bears, under coach Mark Trestman,  come into the game having won back-to-back games for just the second time all year, and just got QB Jay Cutler back from injury last week against Cleveland.  They control the NFC North, for now, and can clinch with 2 wins these final 2 weeks of the season (they could actually clinch Sunday, but need to win and have some help from the Steelers and the Giants, who play the Packers and Lions).  The Eagles are in a similar position, with this game and one against the Cowboys next week remaining in their quest to make the playoffs under Chip Kelly.  They are coming off an unexpected loss to the Vikings last week, and this game actually won’t mean a thing if the Cowboys beat the Redskins in the afternoon (because whether the Eagles win or lose, the game with Dallas next week would still be for the division title).  The Bears come in on more of a positive note, and in all likelihood will have more riding on this game.
Bears 37, Eagles 28.