Ryan, Peyton, and Papi: Farewell to all that

Among the many story lines leading up to tomorrow’s Super Bowl, one that gained early traction was the “will he or won’t he” speculation about Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s possible retirement following the game, which was fueled by his “this could be my last rodeo” comment to Patriots coach Bill Belichick during the post-game handshake following the AFC championship.

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Whenever a legendary professional athlete like Manning calls it quits on a stellar career, it’s big news, and not just on ESPN and the sports talk radio shows. There’s the obligatory press conference, complete with thanks to everyone in the athlete’s career and often more than a few emotional moments of voice cracks and choking back of tears.

Track and field, and distance running in particular, seems to be an exception to that scenario. Elite runners usually don’t retire with a sudden finality; rather, MacArthur-like, they tend to merely fade, fade away. It’s often a gradual process, often unnoticeable but somewhat painful to watch when it is. A runner drops back from the winner’s circle, off the podium, and finally out of the elite results at all, finishing back in the pack among fast local runners.

Therefore it was both somewhat surprising and heartening to see that the announced retirements of Ryan Hall and Matt Tegenkamp garnered more than just a passing mention in the Briefs section of the sports pages.

The retirement of Hall, whose 2:04:58 on a wind-aided Boston course in 2011 remains the fastest marathon ever run by an American, got the most mainstream press. That’s not surprising, as Hall has been the cover boy for his shoe sponsor, ASICS, almost since he turned pro in 2005.

Neither the announcement nor its timing were completely unexpected; with the Olympic Trials marathon coming up next weekend in Los Angeles, and a string of subpar races in the past few years, Hall finally realized and announced that racing and training at such a high level had taken too much of a toll on his body for him to continue any longer. He’ll now turn his attention to raising the four Ethiopian girls he adopted with his wife Sara, another elite runner who will attempt to bring her middle distance success to the marathon in L.A. next Saturday.

The past few years must have been frustrating for Hall, just as this injury-abbreviated season has been for Manning. But unfortunately, there’s no possibility of a storybook “I’m going to Disneyworld” ending and walk into the sunset for the former.

It’s too bad Hall, Tegenkamp, and other distance runners who reach the end of long and accomplished careers couldn’t announce their retirements just a bit earlier, then go on one final farewell tour, like Derek Jeter did and David Ortiz will this baseball season.

Especially for runners who made their names on the road, there’d be the opportunity to meet fans at the pre-race expos, get called out at the starting line, and receive farewell gifts from the event organizers. Heck, they wouldn’t have to continue to compete at a high level like Ortiz will this summer; they could jog in the pack, or even ride in the pace car for a marathon.

Unfortunately, that’s just one more difference between running and the major sports, which tend to honor their stars before relegating them to the record books.

It’s probably too late for Hall and Tegenkamp to regroup and fashion such a tour, but there are other stars of our sport coming to the end of their careers who could, and should. Meb Keflezighi, the most decorated American long distance runner of the recent past, has been more successful than anyone in using his running accomplishments to promote himself and his sponsors, thanks in a large part to the acumen of his agent and brother, Merhawi. Hawi, if you’re reading this, start planning the Meb Farewell Race Tour now. El Capitan and Big Papi shouldn’t keep all the athletic gold watches to themselves.

 

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