Five-time MVP Peyton Manning quieted the whispers of his demise Sunday night when the 39-year-old went 31/42 for 324 yards and a pair of TDs in the Broncos’ 24–12 win at Detroit to move the Broncos to 3–0.
Although Manning hasn’t said publicly when he’ll finally retire, this year feels like it could be his final one, following last year’s end-of-year struggles and a slow start to 2015. If it is, it’d be nice to see him go out on top. After all, Manning, who is first in career TD passes (535), second in career passing yards (70,446) and completions (6,008), and third all-time in passer rating (97.3), is the greatest regular-season quarterback in NFL history.
A Super Bowl win to end his career would be a Hollywood ending. Other star players have gone out on similar high notes. Here are some of the more memorable ones.
John Elway: Named Super Bowl MVP
This is the script Manning would like to star in. Elway lost his first three Super Bowls early in his career only to come back with a revamped Broncos team to win Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII during his final two seasons, in 1997–98. The latter game saw him at age 38, pass for 336 yards and a TD, while being named MVP of the big game, which Denver won easily 34–19. Elway eventually announced his retirement in the offseason and the Broncos didn’t return to the Super Bowl until the 2013 season.
Pete Sampras: Wins US Open Title
The great Sampras had taken a step back in the rankings in 2002, having tumbled all the way to 17th by the time the US Open started in late August—this was the same guy who spent more weeks at No. 1 than anyone else in history, until Roger Federer came along. But his serve was still there, and he improbably rode it the whole way through the US Open with impressive wins over Andy Roddick in the quarters and then Andre Agassi in the finals for the last of his 14 major championships—the most in the Open era, at the time.
Although it wasn’t known at the time, it would be the last Sampras match; he wasn’t sure himself until the following summer that he was done playing.
Ray Bourque: Finally Lifts the Stanley Cup
Longtime Bruins All-Star defenseman Ray Bourque watched year after year as other stars lifted the Stanley Cup, yet the Bruins had never done it under his watch. Finally, in his next-to-last season, Bourque was traded to the contending Avalanche. The next year, in the 2000–01 season—Bourque’s final one—he finally lifted the Cup as Colorado defeated the Devils in seven games to end his career.
Michael Jordan: Makes Jumper Against Utah (Second Retirement)
OK, Jordan messed up this perfect ending when he came back three years later with a less-than-stellar Washington squad, but we’ll still include the second of his three retirements here.
In Game 6 of the ’98 Finals, points against Utah were hard to come by, but in the final minute the always-clutch Jordan was at his best.
Down 86–83 with just 36 seconds left, Jordan scored on a drive to the rim to cut the lead to one. Then on the other end, he made a daring defensive play in not following his man in the lane after circling Karl Malone—who was just fed the ball in the post. Instead, he hung out behind Malone for an instant, and as soon as Malone—who didn’t see Jordan—pivoted, Jordan was right there to knock the ball out of his hands and steal it.
He then came down to the other end with the ball and ran the clock down in the corner before coming out, brushing back Bryon Russell just inside the 3-point circle and nailing the game-winning jumper to complete the whirlwind final minute. Just like that, Jordan’s heroics gave the Bulls their third straight title and sealed his sixth Finals MVP honors.
Initially, Jordan didn’t give the impression that he was done playing. But when Phil Jackson left the Bulls that summer and with Scottie Pippen wanting out—he would be traded to Houston—it was clear that the Bulls were done and so Jordan left the game, for a second time.
Derek Jeter: Hits Walk-Off RBI Single
While a sixth World Series title would have been better, this was still pretty thrilling. Jeter upstaged his own retirement send-off at Yankee Stadium when he won the contest with a thrilling, walk-off RBI single in his final home at-bat against Baltimore. Although he technically played two more games (as DH) in Boston after that, it’s the last time he took the field as shortstop, and the sight of Jeter jumping in celebration on the base-paths remains one of the lasting images of the Yankee captain.