“Fading youth is everybody’s problem but for great athletes it is a kind of little death that turns some into nostalgic ghosts of what they were, forever loitering wistfully in the wings at arenas and events where they once held centre stage.” – Hugh McIlvanney.
McIlvanney, the late, great, Scottish sportswriter interviewed his fair share of sporting icons including Muhammad Ali, Pelé and George Best, to name but a few. As McIlvanney beautifully describes, great athletes, irrespective of their sport, coming to terms with saying goodbye to the very thing that gave their lives meaning is never straightforward.
Tom Brady is a case in point.
Legendary NFL quarterback, unprecedented seven-time SuperBowl winner and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr’s impromptu retirement social media clip reminded me of that Hugh McIlvanney quote.
It is only a year since the former New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback announced his first retirement only to perform a complete U-turn 40 days later.
Waking up one morning and realising you were never going to be part of a dressing room environment, collectively pushing yourself to the limit or hunting down another SuperBowl must have felt like asking Brady to stop breathing.
Struggling to step away from the sport you love is not confined to professional athletes. Ask any former inter-county player.
As part of my book, I had an opportunity to ask 25 current and former Cork footballers about the thorny subject of retirement.
Answers varied but each player’s response shared one common denominator, how they would miss the sanctity and camaraderie of the dressing room.
“Once you retire, it’s the friends you’ve made and see at training two or three times a week that you miss the most,” former Cork senior goalkeeper Elaine Harte admitted.
“Munster and All-Ireland championships come and go, but the craic and messing in the dressing room are hard to let go of. It was time for me to move on with my life though. The decision wasn’t being forced on me.
Fellow Cork stalwart Norita Kelly was as honest as former inter-county goalkeeper Elaine Harte when pressed on making the decision to finally step away.
“Once I made the decision to retire, at no time after that did I ever want to go back,” Kelly said.
“Don’t get me wrong, it was very hard looking on from the stands and watching the girls line out for Cork. It wasn’t like I was kicked out either; it was just I couldn’t do the things I used to before all the injuries. I couldn’t run and move the way I would have needed to.
“A lot of the other players retired because things were happening in their own personal lives whereas, as a senior footballer, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Too many miles on the clock, but they were some miles."
"I look back fondly on my career now,” former Cork All-Ireland winner and All-star Nollaig Cleary commented.
“Award ceremonies were lovely for my family, but the time I spent with the players in that Cork dressing room throughout all those years was the greatest reward I could have asked for."
Clearly, walking away from a professional or amateur sports career is never easy no matter what the era.
Tom Brady’s voice cracking as he finished off that short and to-the-point retirement social media post said more than a thousand NFL PR statements.
“My family, my friends, my teammates, my competitors – I could go on forever, there’s too many.
"Love you all,” were Tom Brady’s final words as an active NFL quarterback whilst sitting on a deserted beach.
Cynics will point to a 10-year guaranteed 375 million dollar contract with FOX Sports to become the media monster’s number one NFL analyst as a nice cushion for Brady to have heading into retirement.
Maybe that’s true. Yet not one cent of Brady’s millions will replace the adrenaline rush of 23 years of game-day preparation, the roar of the crowd or, like the aforementioned Cork players, sharing a dressing room with fellow warriors through good times and bad.
So, whether you are a player, coach, mentor or just a supporter, cherish every sporting moment that comes your way. They go by in a flash and become distant memories before you know it.
Just ask Tom Brady.