Erik Brady, USA TODAY Sports
Ray Lewis wants a storybook ending in Sunday's Super Bowl. Win the big game, two-step one last glorious dance and saunter slowly into the sunset - or, as Saturday Night Live suggested, ascend into heaven from the 50-yard line.
It's the American dream, dressed up in shiny helmet and shoulder pads: Make your last act a dramatic victory, preferably in the final, frantic moments, and exit stage right from the game's grandest stage.
Lewis, 37, emerged over 17 seasons as one of the NFL's all-time great linebackers. If his Baltimore Ravens win, he'd muscle his way into an exclusive club of sports heroes who memorably won championships in their last go-rounds. They include the likes of Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling and Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug.
"It's everybody's dream," Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin says, "to ride off on a white horse after winning" the Big One. The very notion of it promises a gauzy blend of slow-mo endings from feel-good sports movies and the happily ever after of fairy tales.
"What makes the narrative trajectory of going out a champion so appealing is it gives the impression of going out on your own terms," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
"Not because you were too old, not because your skills were beginning to wane, not because you didn't still have game. You stopped because you decided to, leaving behind the implied promise of other great chapters that could have been."
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Should the San Francisco 49ers win, maybe wide receiver Randy Moss, two weeks shy of 36, could join the club. So much hype has surrounded Lewis' curtain call that some 49ers want equal time for Moss, though he waves that off.
"That's not me," Moss says. "I'm not a celebrator. I love to do my work and go home." Such modesty doesn't gibe with his valedictory claim that he's history's greatest wide receiver.
"If this is his last season," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis says, "I want to make sure he goes out with a bang."
The trouble is Moss hasn't said if this really is his last rodeo. He told news reporters this week he'd like to come back for a 15th season, whereas Lewis announced to great fanfare before the playoffs that this would be his parting shot.
That's how it works for superstars. Lesser players and coaches are often told when to leave the game. Superstars more typically get to call their own shots.
Even so, the roll call of greats who've gone out with their hair smelling of celebratory champagne is not as long as you might think. Here is but a sampling:
Michael Strahan hung up his cleats after the New York Giants won Super Bowl XLII in 2008.
Pete Sampras won the 2002 U.S. Open, his 14th Grand Slam tennis title, and retired his racket.
Quarterback Otto Graham rode off after his Cleveland Browns won the 1955 NFL championship.
Bill Russell won the NBA title in 1969 as a player-coach. Then again, he was likely to retire a champ, given that his Boston Celtics won 11 championships in 13 seasons.
John Wooden retired after 27seasons as UCLA men's basketball coach in 1975 with his 10th NCAA tournament title in 12 years. His odds of going out on top were about as good as Russell's.
Some sports figures, like Lewis, tell the world they're going. "I believe that you should give everybody a fair chance to say their goodbyes," Lewis says.
Others, like Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman, tell no one. He announced his retirement on the ice after Detroit won the 2002 Stanley Cup, Bowman's ninth as a coach.
"I had decided in February, (but) I thought if I told anyone, it would get out. And I didn't want any ceremonies," he said.
He considered retiring a couple of years earlier, but the Red Wings sputtered to the finish that season. "When you lose, you think, 'I'd like to try it again,'" Bowman says.
There is a special category of going out a winner reserved for those who'd never won before their last chance - and that makes Al McGuire's swan song one of the sweetest in sports history.
McGuire famously wept on the Marquette bench as the final seconds of the 1977 men's basketball national championship game counted down the final seconds of his coaching career and an upset against Dean Smith's North Carolina Tar Heels.
No one was more surprised than McGuire himself. "I've always been the bridesmaid," he said then. "I never thought I'd really win."
Ray Bourque won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001 after 21 seasons and no happy endings. Boston Bruins fans celebrated his Cup as if it were their own.
"I couldn't breathe," Bourque said at the time. "I was trying to hold off the tears." It was the one thing he failed at that night.
More often, superstars, like their journeymen counterparts, end their careers with a loss. Lisa Leslie won two WNBA titles, three WNBA MVPs and four Olympic gold medals, but she ended her Los Angeles Sparks career in the 2009 WNBA conference finals. Don Shula won the most games in NFL history, but his coaching career ended with a desultory loss to the Bills in Buffalo in a 1995 playoff game that his Miami Dolphins trailed 27-0 entering the fourth quarter.
Syracuse's Thompson figures all that's OK, since we remember the biggest stars more for the entirety of their careers than their last stands. Winning in the final frame is more grace note than legacy builder.
"It fits a traditional storytelling pattern of a happy ending," Thompson says, "but we continue to have a sense of the greatness of Wilt Chamberlain and Arnold Palmer and Mickey Mantle" even if they didn't bow out on high notes.
Willie Mays had a chance to go out a winner, but the New York Mets lost the 1973 World Series to the Oakland Athletics in seven games. Mays lost a fly ball in the sun during one game and stumbled ingloriously, wistful counterpoint to the fly ball he chased down for the New York Giants in their 1954 Series sweep of the heavily favored Cleveland Indians with a legendary over-the-shoulder catch.
ONE BOUT TOO MANY
Michael Jordan retired as an NBA champion - twice. The first came months after the 1993 Finals, when he left to try his hand at baseball. The second came months after the 1998 Finals, where he hit a silky jumper with 5.2 seconds left to beat the Utah Jazz and give the Chicago Bulls their sixth NBA title.
That was to be our last image of him - and then he decided to mount yet another comeback, this time in Washington, where his Wizards finished 37-45 in consecutive seasons.
"That makes perfect emotional sense to me," Thompson says. "If you had a skill set like Michael Jordan, could you stay retired?"
Rocky Marciano managed it. He bowed out as heavyweight boxing champ in 1956 with a career record of 49-0. Marciano considered a bout against Ingemar Johansson in 1959, even training for a month, but ultimately thought better of it.
A more familiar tale is a boxer who always seems to come back for one bout, or several, too many. Muhammad Ali is Exhibit A.
He retired as champ in 1979 only to return in 1980, when Larry Holmes knocked him out in a beat-down. In 1981, plodding and slow and a month shy of 40, Ali lost his last fight by decision to less-than-immortal Trevor Berbick.
"I think I'm too old," Ali said after. "I was slow. I was weak, nothing but Father Time."
Only Marciano, and Father Time, win them all.
REALIZATION THAT ITS OVER
Jerome "The Bus" Bettis stood on the victory stand in 2006, the Lombardi Trophy held high, as he offered a formal retirement speech. "I'm a champion," he said, "and I think The Bus' last stop is here in Detroit."
His last days as a Pittsburgh Steelers running back were a matter of rampant speculation before Super Bowl XL, but only he knew for sure.
"It was a different vibe for me," Bettis says. "The way I approached the week, the actual game itself, I did everything in slow motion because I so wanted to soak it all in and experience everything for the last time. I wanted to take mental snapshots of everything."
Lewis, by contrast, says he is approaching this game the same as he always does.
"I don't think that's possible," Bettis says. "You say that, but deep down, in quiet moments, there's the realization that this is over."
Bettis was beloved. Lewis is a polarizing figure, beloved in Baltimore but scorned by many fans elsewhere. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the wake of a double murder at an Atlanta nightclub after a Super Bowl party in 2000 - and won Super Bowl MVP with the Ravens a year later.
This week, Lewis' last hurrah is a focal point with its potent mix of redemption, retirement and deer antlers. (He denied a Sports Illustrated report linking him to antler velvet extract containing a banned substance.)
Tony La Russa, who called it a career after the his St. Louis Cardinals won a miracle World Series in 2011, thinks there's way too much emphasis on Lewis.
"I can't disagree with that more, putting one person anywhere near the top as far as story line," La Russa says. "I really think it's a mistake to focus on one individual. It's about team vs. team and all of the players who have a stake in it."
La Russa told Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak privately in August 2011 that he would retire at the end of the season.
"It was one of those deals that it didn't look like it was going to end well," he says. "I was really dreading that feeling. Then, we got into contention, and we started competing. Then, when we got into the playoffs, I'm thinking, 'Man, this is a gift.'"
The Cardinals beat the Texas Rangers in seven games, twice coming down to their final strike in a Game 6 for the ages.
"There were a couple of times we faced elimination and, hell, I wondered if this is it," La Russa says. "But it was never a dominant thought. Things just fell in place, and I was very fortunate."
Contributing: Kevin Allen in Detroit, Bob Nightengale in St. Louis and Robert Klemko and Kevin Manahan in New Orleans.