Since announcing his retirement, Ray Lewis has made one of the greatest curtain calls in history by winning three straight games to help take the Ravens to the Superbowl. The fact that the last two games were against his toughest two peers on the other side of the football – Tom Brady and Peyton Manning – as underdogs on the road puts him in a rare class.
Where exactly does he now rank among the few sports figures who have gone out on top rather than give us the more common scene of a sports figure competing well past his prime? My thanks to Steve Thomas from our team for researching many seasons to help find the greatest curtain calls on the biggest stages.
10. Wayne Gretzky, NY Rangers, 1999.
The Great One needed no further accomplishment in a career that had Stanley Cups, scoring titles, MVPs, and nearly every award available to a hockey player. However, doing it in the small media market of Edmonton for most of his life made it key to the league to get him to Los Angeles and then New York to build the NHL fan base. In his last game with the New York Rangers, a 2-2 tie against the Senators, Gretzky was the only NHL player ever to be all three “Stars of the Game”.
9. Dean Smith, North Carolina Tar Heels, 1997.
For years Dean Smith was hit for “not winning the big one,” which usually meant he had won three or four big ones before finally losing last in the NCAA tournament. Smith was the man with his name on the building, a classy embodiment of all that was right in college basketball. In his last season at the helm in 1997, he took the Tar Heels to the Final Four for the 11th time in his remarkable tenure, leaving with the all-time record for Division 1 wins.
8. Ray Bourque, Colorado Avalanche, 2001.
Bourque was iconic in Boston for his years with the Bruins, which spanned from 1979 to 2000 without a Stanley Cup. He was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in 2000 and won his only Stanley Cup in his only year in Colorado before retirement. The ability to get the first championship at the end of a career is perhaps the most joyous in sports.
7. Babe Ruth, Boston Braves, 1935.
The greatest player in any sport, Ruth often hit more home runs than entire opposing teams through his domination of the American League. His trade to the Boston Braves seemed to be the worst of all endings, but Babe decided to go out on his own terms. He decided he had had enough. Hitting below .200, he decided he would go out and be Babe Ruth one more time. He chose a game in massive Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, a much tougher home run shot that today’s modern tiny parks, and stroked three home runs in his final game to go out on top.
6. Al McGuire, Marquette Warriors, 1977.
Admitting bias here as a Marquette grade, you still must acknowledge another sports figure who did not win it all until his last game was Marquette Warriors coach Al McGuire. In fact, while his teams were second only to UCLA in overall record in the 1970s, Al finally decided that his decade-long war on referees was making it impossible for his teams to ever win the title, particularly after he was thrown out of the NCAA title game against NC State in 1974. He announced his retirement before the 1977 season, and then coached what looked like his worst team in a decade. Only a series of road wins at the end of the season made Marquette the last team selected to the 1977 NCAA tournament. In the first game of the tournament he had a fight with a player in the locker room at half time, and suddenly the team was unbeatable, going all the way to the title. McGuire went from ruthless attacker of referees to lovable commentator for many more NCAA title games.
5. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, 1998.
We have to fudge a little with Michael Jordan, because the fact is he came back to play with the Washington Wizards and was just an average player at the end. However, the fact is he retired three times, and in his case the other two were so great that had he not come back for the third run at the end, he would rate as No. 1 on this list. In 1998, he sent Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz to the golf course for a second straight year with a game winner was another storybook ending to end his second retirement. In 1993, he hit the game winning shot in Game 6 against the Phoenix Suns- who featured the best record in the NBA and MVP Charles Barkley- was a coup de grace that became a storybook ending. He did not go out on top at the very end, but he went out on top twice in retirement.
4. Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens, 2012-13
After Ray Lewis went down early in the season, everyone gave up on him ever returning to the field or the Ravens making the playoffs this year. The spirit of Ray Lewis was always as big as his dominant defensive play calling. When the Ravens rallied to make then playoffs, and he announced he would return for one last ride, most thought he could beat the Colts, but very few though the Ravens could go any further. The fact that he went into Mile High Stadium, on a short week, and beat Peyton Manning – once again the top-ranked quarterback in the league, was amazing in and of itself. The fact that Tom Brady looked effortless in dismantling the Houston Texans that same week still made today’s matchup in New England look hopeless. To shut out Brady for the second half of a dominant 28-13 win today puts Lewis in the arena of icons.
3. Lou Gehrig, NYY, 1938-39.
Gehrig actually performed at a very high level right up until the year he retired; he was an All-Star in 1938 and a World Series Champion to boot. But in 1939 it was clear the disease that would eventually bear his name had robbed him of his abilities, to the point where he could barely swing a bat and field a ball. Gehrig takes the top spot for his “Tonight I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech, which has become iconic.
2. John Elway, Denver Broncos, 1998.
The knock on Elway? Great QB, but couldn’t win the Big One. It got so bad for Elway that in one episode of “The Simpson’s,” Homer dreams that he is John Elway trying to punch the ball in at the end of the Superbowl against the 49ers. Homer/Elway scores, the gun sounds, and it is revealed that his touchdown merely cut the 49ers final winning margin to 56-6. Broncos fans were interviewed saying they hoped the Broncos lost the AFC Championship so they would not be humiliated again in the Superbowl. When Elways stunned the Packers everyone assumed he would retire on top. Instead, he decided to announce he would play one more year – and went ahead and won another Superbowl.
1. Rocky Marciano, Boxing, 1956.
For some reason, boxers seem to have the toughest time hanging it up. Even the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali, subjected us to watching him as an out-of-shape shell of himself for way too many fights. That is what sets Rocky Marciano apart as the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated. Marciano was so good that it was feared boxing could never draw big tickets to the prized heavyweight division because no one thought Marciano would ever lose. At 49-0, the closest he came was when he was knocked down by Jersey Joe Walcott, only to come back and deliver the unbelievable blow in pictured in the 13th round. He knocked out Joe Louis and all the other greats of his time and on September 21, 1955, the Brockton Blockbuster walked off into the sunset as perhaps the best boxer ever in the golden age of boxing, defeating Archie Moore with a KO in the 9th to retire a champ. Years later Ali was probably even greater, as Joe Frazier was a very similar fighter to Marciano and Ali defeated him twice, but no one ever left on as high a spot as Marciano.