RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Sunday, Super Bowl 50, the Carolina Panthers against the Denver Broncos, and pregame headlines say it could be Peyton Manning's last game. The Broncos quarterback turns 40 next month and has had a tough season. This got NPR's Tom Goldman wondering, when do athletes know it's time to go?
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Mostly never, that's actually Leigh Steinberg talking. He's been one of the most prominent sports agents for more than four decades. When I asked him about athletes exiting gracefully, he said this. They can't do it.
LEIGH STEINBERG: When I think that they're too injured or there's a diminution of their skills and talk to them about retiring, it's like I just committed heresy.
GOLDMAN: Why so hard to leave, certainly the obvious reasons, no more cheering crowds, special treatment, gobs of money. Retiring in your 30s may seem young, but if you're leaving something you've been doing exclusively for 25, 30 years, that's tough in any profession. And then, Steinberg says, top athletes are stubborn by nature.
STEINBERG: They've always had a trust in their body's amazing output. So there's a certain I know better than you part of this.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Joe Namath, leaving the field, banged around, did not throw the ball well and took quite a pounding.
GOLDMAN: Sports history is littered with examples of the star athlete who hung on too long, from one-time Super Bowl hero Joe Namath to boxing icon Muhammad Ali. It is very, very rare, Steinberg says, to go out well but not impossible.
Do you want to put him down and then should we talk, or what do you want to do?
LORENA OCHOA: No, no, it's OK. It's OK. I'm OK. I'm OK.
GOLDMAN: It was nap time for Lorena Ochoa's newborn son, Diego. But like any good mom, she has learned to multitask. So my interview this week went on with the former number one female golfer. Ochoa shocked the sports world in 2010 when she retired. She was 28, number one in the women's game, winner of two major titles and millions in prize money.
OCHOA: When I look back and I see, you know, what I did, I just feel even luckier because I made the right decision at the perfect time.
GOLDMAN: Ochoa knew early on in her career she wanted to marry and raise a family without golf. She gave herself about 10 years on the LPGA Tour and says knowing there'd be an end actually helped her game.
OCHOA: When I was in a difficult position and I was either upset or tired or angry or disappointed, you know, I keep saying, OK, you know, I have three or four years left. I'm going to do it, and I'm going to continue, and I'm going to put everything into it.
GOLDMAN: With three kids now all under the age of 5, Ochoa insists she doesn't have days pining for the relative simplicity of high-stakes tour golf. Most athletes, says Leigh Steinberg, do have pangs after they leave, sometimes more than pangs, like the frantic post-retirement phone calls he often gets.
STEINBERG: This is agonizing and excruciating. I can't watch these games and not play. I made the wrong decision. I shouldn't have retired.
GOLDMAN: Steinberg says his clients who do best have a next thing, often a second career into which they can pour all their energy and competitiveness. Sunday, Peyton Manning will pour all that into a football game. His last, a victory and then retirement would be the perfect Hollywood ending. But even that might not be enough. Manning's boss, Denver general manager John Elway, finished a stellar career quarterbacking the Broncos to consecutive Super Bowl wins in the late 1990s, Hollywood times two. Although, when Elway retired, he wept, still not ready. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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