The 49ers traded Isaac Bruce back to the Rams today so he could retire with the team that gave him his start and made him a star. Despite having played the past two seasons with San Francisco after the Rams let him go via free agency, Bruce will always be considered a "lifer" to Rams fans who will forever appreciate the contribution that Bruce and other great offensive players made to put the Rams on the map. They were perennial contenders, rarer and rarer in football as the years go by. Fans will salute one of their leaders on Wednesday when Bruce will make his retirement official.
Bruce is just the latest in a series of players to head back to his former team, the one where he gained prominence, for such an announcement. (Joe Horn is looking to do the same with the Saints after a similar failed resurgence with the Falcons.) Players do it in other sports - Garciaparra, Snow, Luis Gonzalez, and Conine in baseball, Fleury in hockey - but the practice is more typically done in football. Here's a rundown of some of the recent players to sign one-day contracts that enabled them to retire with their fan bases close by:
In May, Zach Thomas retired a Dolphin; in March, Jason Elam hung it up as a Bronco; in 2008, John Lynch left as a Buccaneer; that same year, Larry Allen walked away as a Cowboy; in 2007, Jesse Armstead left the game as a Giant; in 2006, Jerry Rice exited as a 49er; that same year, Tony Boselli headed out as a Jaguar; in 2005, Brian Mitchell bid farewell as a Redskin; and, that year Emmitt Smith said goodbye as a Cowboy.
This practice is intended to be a way for players to have one last hurrah with the teams and fans that loved them the most through the years. With football more than other sports, fans take to players unconditionally, forgiving them for their fumbles and emphasizing their triumphs. Generally speaking, if a player is worth holding onto, the fans will develop an undying affinity for him that remains into his retirement if not long after. It's a practice that ideally would be left for the All-Pros like Rice and Smith. But, on the flip side, those players will be able to get their honor when they enter the Hall as members of their squads; it's the other players who won't make it to Canton who could use these forms of celebration and acknowledgment from their fans.
The problem that's arisen, though, is that if players rebuff the chance to return home, it shows a lack of...something in them. Take, for instance, a 2008 editorial in the St. Petersburg Times that calls out Warren Sapp for not coming home to Tampa for his retirement announcement:
No matter how you feel about Sapp, there is a sadness there. It has been said a thousand times, but the guy could have owned this town. He was funny enough, smart enough and charismatic enough to pull it off. He could have been our Michael Jordan. He could have been our Joe Montana. He could have been beloved.
In Sapp's case, he left more quietly, not requiring his old team to toast him and resurrect old memories as part of a fond farewell. Sure, Sapp was a good enough player deserving of whatever accolade the team would bestow on him upon his retirement. But that's not the path he chose, and he wound up catching flak for seemingly disrespecting his fans and choosing a different way for himself.
I think we can all agree it's up to the veteran player to determine what he wants when he leaves after a decade or more, having spent most of his career in one place where he's achieved fame and notoriety. Nevertheless, it's not fair for us to criticize those who opt out of this growing practice. Isaac Bruce gets what he deserves from the Rams, the same way Boselli did the Jaguars fans justice by leaving with them. Athletes mean a lot to their franchises - just look at the reaction Griffey got when he walked away as a Mariner last week. And the teams mean something to the players, too, even if they turn down the festivities that have long awaited them upon their return.
This piece originally ran on The Sports Nook blog.
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