Commentary

Terrell Owens, Ken Griffey, Shaq at end

Every athletic career comes to a conclusion; how stars confront that reality varies

Updated: May 18, 2010, 9:10 AM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

They should have seen it coming; they probably didn't.

Terrell Owens probably had no clue -- even as it began to stare him down last season, like a frothing young cornerback at the line of scrimmage.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Owens
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesTerrell Owens was in high spirits as his season ended in Buffalo.

Shaq probably thought he could run from it, leaving it behind in Phoenix as he escaped to Cleveland.

Ken Griffey Jr.? He might have simply slept as it crept up on him in Seattle.

I call "it" the End Game, and it's a scary, unrelenting beast. Especially to players who have been among the best in their sport. Stars whose light is dimming. It's the athlete's ultimate reality check, when he (or, yes, she) must begin to admit that playing is no longer feasible.

Not at the ultimate level. Not anymore.

Ultimately, every athlete plays the End Game. Some handle it better than others -- though too many have at it like clueless rookies or bumbling benchwarmers. It's deny, deny, deny, until the athlete becomes the last one in the room who doesn't know the End is upon him. Or is very close by.

It unfolds in myriad ways. Sometimes it happens in a heart-sickening instant when an aging athlete suffers a grisly injury that prompts everyone who witnesses it to think: The End. (See: Joe Theismann or Charles Barkley.)

Conversely, it can happen when athletes "play" the End Game rather than letting it play them. They know their own once-unquenchable desire has waned so much that the monumental (and usually painful) effort and sacrifice required to just show up is no longer worth it, even for the outsized paycheck.

They know their body just can't do it any longer. They can't keep up, get up or withstand yet another morning when their brain says "Move" while their body says "Stay." (See: Emmitt Smith.)

But for most athletes, the End Game isn't as "easy" as a quick, painful exit or a personal realization that their time is done.

Those athletes might discover they simply are no longer needed by their current team, usually by being cut for the first time in their lives. Then they might learn there are no suitors.

Not a one.

[+] EnlargeShaquille O'Neal
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty ImagesShaquille O'Neal is no longer the centerpiece of a team.

It's especially painful for high-profile athletes such as T.O. It's akin to a public flogging, this being told one is no longer "good enough" or, even worse, no longer "worth the trouble."

For Griffey and Shaq, the End Game revelation is happening as they're still in the game. The recent brouhaha over whether the certain Hall of Fame slugger slept through a pinch-hit opportunity in Seattle only shed light on the more pertinent fact that his once-wondrous game isn't even sleepwalking these days.

In 26 games, 41-year-old Griffey is batting a paltry .200 with nary a home run. Now there are rumblings that the Mariners might cut him.

Many pundits still describe Shaquille O'Neal as a "force." And at 7-foot-1 and 325 monstrous pounds, it's hard to disagree with that. Except that after 18 seasons, the force has been hard to muster. Shaq was acquired by the Cavs last summer as a very big cog in the machine driven by LeBron James. Like when he helped Dwyane Wade and Miami win the title in '06, Shaq was supposed to be Tonto and Robin rolled into one tattooed force. Instead, he's heading home after the second round, with next season's options open-ended.

He missed 29 games this season and affected the playoffs only by grumbling about a lack of playing time as beleaguered coach Mike Brown struggled to juggle a herd of big men, two of whom (the other being Zydrunas Ilgauskas) were largely absent down the stretch of the regular season. Shaq averaged 13.5 points and 5.0 rebounds against Boston in the conference semis, fewer boards than 6-1 Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (6.3).

Clearly, no athlete is exempt from the End Game. None is spared the day he removes his jersey for the final time, nor the hurt knowing the sport he played for most of his life will thrive without him.

[+] EnlargeKen Griffey Jr.
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesQuestions about Ken Griffey Jr.'s value to the Mariners have intensified in recent weeks.

It's humbling. It's humiliating. It's even harrowing. And it can be worse.

It puts the athlete on the precipice of the unknown, pushing him toward a life he probably isn't prepared for -- emotionally, intellectually or, especially, financially.

Sure, there are numerous success stories of former athletes who created thriving second careers in business: Roger Staubach, Magic Johnson and former NBAer Junior Bridgeman -- who owns several restaurants in Memphis -- to name a few.

Broadcasting serves as another lifeline for many former athletes. You cannot turn on the TV and watch a sports event without seeing an ex-jock, often in a loud suit, waxing on about former teammates and competitors.

By contrast, though, the headlines are filled with All-Stars who stumble through the End Game. Many, such as former NBA stars Latrell Sprewell and Antoine Walker, and countless others from every sport, in the U.S. and abroad, suffer financially.

Eight in 10 NFL players are divorced, bankrupt or languishing for work two years after leaving football, Ken Ruettgers told USA Today in 2006. Ruettgers is a former player and current advocate for NFL players transitioning from professional sports. The Toronto Star reported two years ago that 60 percent of NBA players were in the financial toilet five years after they stopped bouncing a basketball and began bouncing checks.

I might be a bit premature when it comes to T.O., a free agent who played last year in Buffalo. He could very well be signing with an NFL team as you read this. (Although a potential reunion in Washington with his former teammate, QB Donovan McNabb, would be just absurd.) Or T.O. might receive a call in the midst of training camp when a team loses a key wideout, extending his tabloid-reality show of a career to its 15th season.

But I doubt it. The End Game is upon him, too.

Once one of the most fearsome weapons in the game, Owens scarcely commands a double-team anymore. Yet his reps reportedly are touting his 43-yard touchdown against Tampa Bay corner Aqib Talib in Week 2 as evidence that he's worth $5 million next season.

End Game truth: T.O. caught 55 passes last season, his fewest since playing only seven games in 2005 for the Philadelphia Eagles. And he scored only six touchdowns, the same as in that suspension-shortened season.

The End Game doesn't play. It might grant an athlete a short reprieve, allowing him a final season or two with some sucker of a team, performing as a shell of his former greatness. But once it shows up, it hangs on like a nasty virus.

And it eventually wins, beating even those with T.O's and Shaq's super-sized bravado. Most athletes fight it off for a bit with the well-honed twin talents of Ego and Deniability. But they ultimately succumb to the older, slower, no-longer-dominant image in the mirror.

The kind of image T.O., Griffey and Shaq now stare at every day.

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com