Farewell to a few more sports stars
As we get ready for 2010, we also look back at 2009 -- specifically the players, coaches and other sports figures who called it a career in the past calendar year.
On Monday, we said farewell to some NFL stars. On Tuesday, we paid tribute to several NBA fixtures. On Wednesday, it was Major League Baseball's turn. Now, we bid adieu to people from all the other sports out there.
This isn't a comprehensive list -- just a few of our favorites. The greats, and those you might already have forgotten.
Joe Calzaghe doesn't own a Bengal tiger like Mike Tyson. He doesn't roller-skate around his house like Floyd Mayweather Jr. He doesn't drink his own urine like Juan Manuel Marquez.
Calzaghe might not have been one of the most eccentric personalities in boxing, but he was certainly one of the best fighters.
Calzaghe is among an elite handful of boxing world champions to go undefeated in his professional career, compiling a 46-0 record with 32 TKOs. His decade-plus reign as the world super middleweight champ was one of the longest in the sport's modern era, and he continued that success as a light heavyweight.
In his 16-year professional career, the Welshman beat the likes of Chris Eubank, Jeff Lacy, Mikkel Kessler, Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr. Calzaghe co-starred with Jones in the third installment of HBO's "24/7" to hype what would be the final bout of his career -- although the most outrageous thing we learned about Calzaghe in the all-access series was that his father/trainer, Enzo, can play a mean guitar. Calzaghe never embodied the larger-than-life, bound-for-Vegas boxing superstar. He was confident, but not cocky.
The fighter was twice recognized by the queen of England, was named the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year, and is actively involved with the British charity Beatbullying. (If the threat of a beatdown from Calzaghe isn't enough to dissuade bullying, nothing is.)
Alas, the Pride of Wales has not been quite as successful in retirement as he was in the ring. His fancy footwork could get him only so far on the British version of "Dancing with the Stars," and he was the fifth contestant eliminated this season.
-- Maria Burns Ortiz
Like many of the world's greatest soccer stars, Luis Figo probably could walk down almost any street in the United States and go completely unrecognized. Of course, that might be a refreshing change for one of the greatest midfielders ever to play the beautiful game.
The 2000 European Footballer of the Year and 2001 World Player of the Year, Figo played on three of Europe's most storied clubs -- Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter Milan -- in a career that included four La Liga titles, four Serie A titles, a Champions League title and numerous other championships.
He was a key part of Real Madrid's Yankees-esque reign in the first half of this decade (even when the team wasn't winning the La Liga title outright, it was always contending -- aided in large part by a seemingly bottomless bank account).
The outrage regarding his move from Barcelona to Real Madrid in 2000 makes any animosity surrounding Johnny Damon's infamous jump from the Red Sox to the Yankees pale in comparison. (Case in point, did anyone ever throw a pig's head on the field while Damon was batting?)
Figo played 15 years for the Portuguese national team and served as its captain, but the level of success he experienced as a pro eluded him at the international level. Heavily favored Portugal lost to Greece in the 2004 Euro final, one of the most shocking upsets in soccer history. Again, so close, Portugal fell to France in the 2006 World Cup semifinals.
As has become the case with every aging big-name European player since David Beckham crossed the pond, there was speculation (maybe it was more like hope) that Figo might make the jump to MLS, but that doesn't look likely to happen.
For now, he'll just have to enjoy retirement, with his millions of dollars and his Swedish model wife. Whether Americans understand soccer or not, that's something they definitely can comprehend.
-- Maria Burns Ortiz
He might not be a household name, but Jay Heaps had a pretty neat athletic career.
While attending Duke University from 1995 to 1999, Heaps was a four-year starter for the Duke men's soccer team, winning first-team All-ACC honors all four years. In addition, he was a walk-on on the men's basketball team, getting to play under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Heaps then moved on to professional soccer. He was the second overall pick in the 1999 MLS draft by the Miami Fusion, and won the MLS Rookie of the Year award. In 2001, he was traded to the New England Revolution -- a trade he was delighted about since he was born and raised in New England.
In his eight seasons with the Revolution, Heaps played in a team-record 243 games. He led the Revolution to four MLS Cup finals, and helped them win the 2007 U.S. Open title and the 2008 SuperLiga championship. On Dec. 2, he announced his retirement from professional soccer.
Heaps had typical highs and lows over the course of his career. On the downside, his team lost all four of those MLS Cup finals -- in fact, it was his missed penalty kick that sealed New England's loss to Houston in the 2006 MLS Cup final. On the upside, after waiting for the opportunity for so many years, Heaps was finally called up to the U.S. national team for the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup, getting to play in four international games representing his home country.
I'm here with absolutely no regrets," Heaps said at his retirement news conference. "I can walk away from this game knowing that there is a huge love for it in my heart that will always remain."
Good job, Jay. And good luck in your next career.
-- Kieran Darcy
The movie "Precious" chronicles the heartbreaking story of Claireece Jones, a pregnant teen who, among many obstacles, has low self-esteem because she has dark skin. Although some outside the black community might not be aware of the internalized racism, the film painted an all too familiar -- and painful -- picture to me. The story takes place in the 1980s. I wonder how Precious would feel about her complexion if she had seen Lisa Leslie a decade later.
For all her amazing basketball accomplishments -- four Olympic gold medals, three WNBA MVPs, two championships, the dunk heard around the world -- I tend to believe Leslie's cultural impact was just as significant.
She was a role model for dark-skinned black girls who'd been taught lighter skin was better. She was a role model for all the girls who were the tallest in their class and hated it. She was a role model for young, female athletes who thought they had to choose between being strong and being a woman. From the moment she came into the national spotlight as a freshman at USC in 1990, Leslie carried herself with grace and confidence, never apologizing for being herself. Instead, in her 13-year professional career, she embodied the title of her autobiography: "Don't Let the Lipstick Fool You."
The first time I met the already 6-foot-5 Leslie, she was wearing an off-the-shoulder blouse and a pair of high heels -- showing off her muscular arms and flaunting her height, letting all the men in the room know she would not make any concessions for their insecurities. And let me tell you, she was a goddess
a beautiful, graceful goddess who challenged the concept of femininity simply by walking in her own truth. That kind of impact cannot be quantified, but it is certainly precious. And, like her presence on the basketball court, it will be missed.
-- LZ Granderson
Amelie Mauresmo is from France.
She first became interested in tennis when she saw Yannick Noah win the French Open on TV when she was 4 years old.
She turned pro in 1993.
She likes to surf and drink red wine.
She hates long voice mail messages.
One of her favorite books is "The Immortals" by René Barjavel.
She has 4,184 Facebook friends, and most of her posts are in French.
Her Western zodiac sign is Cancer.
Her Chinese zodiac sign is the Sheep.
She shares a birthday with fellow tennis pro Nicolas Kiefer. And RZA of Wu-Tang Clan.
She won an Olympic silver medal in 2004.
She is 30 years old.
She reached her first Grand Slam final at age 19.
She won her first major -- the Australian Open -- in 2006, at 27.
She opened the 1937 Château d'Yquem she had bought seven years before to celebrate.
Her second major title was Wimbledon the same year.
In both Slam finals, she defeated Justine Henin, who played in all four Slam finals that year.
Her father didn't get to see either win because he died of cancer in 2003.
She's a Scrabble geek and is not a great cook.
She won 25 career titles.
She choked away at least half as many more.
Her backhand is wicked and beautiful.
She came out of closet in 1999, but hoped her sexual orientation wouldn't define her or her career.
She got her wish.
-- LZ Granderson
Forget the All-Star nods, the Olympic roster spots, the staggering career point total (1,216), the mile-wide mouth. In real-life hockey, Roenick was a star, a surefire future Hall of Famer; in video game hockey, he was the best bet to make Wayne Gretzky's head bleed.
Really, what else do you need to know?
The pantheon of greatest video game athletes generally is thought to consist of Bo Jackson from "Tecmo Super Bowl" and everybody else. Au contraire. Roenick from "NHL 94" belongs on the same pedestal -- a puck-stealing, opponent-crushing, goal-scoring destroyer of worlds. No pixilated athlete has been responsible for more dorm-room and frat-house money changing hands. And no digital jock came by his godlike status more honestly. Roenick wasn't unstoppable because of a programming glitch, a la dunk-from-the-3-point-line Tom Chambers in "Lakers vs. Celtics"; he didn't thrive because of high ratings in a couple of categories that were overvalued by his particular game (unlike speedy peer Pavel Bure); he couldn't dominate via CPU-controlled, can't-press-a-button-that-fast ginning-up like Mike Tyson in "Punch-Out!"
Nope. Roenick simply thrived as an all-around stud, sans weakness. He could flatten an opposing wing with a head-on open-ice crosscheck, seize the puck in the same motion, outskate defenders the other way and blast a fake-middle, shoot-post wrister past the goalie with the same ease he won fights.
Oh, and Tecmo Bo? Only played one way.
Double-Down Trent from "Swingers" was right -- it was never about us, always about Roenick. He really was that good. And so, I bid him adieu. But not goodbye. As long as there are Sega Genesis emulators, his greatness will live on.
-- Patrick Hruby
Charismatic, underachieving head case. Such is the tennis epitaph for Marat Safin, a two-time Grand Slam winner who -- to put it bluntly -- could have won so much more. The towering Russian had a concussive serve to rival anyone else's, powerful strokes as clean as a Hemingway sentence, startling mobility for a 6-foot-4 player and the good looks to be a crossover star. When Safin shredded Pete Sampras in the 2000 U.S. Open, he looked like the future of men's tennis.
Only the future never happened.
Instead, Safin went on to smash rackets, date hotties, curse himself on the court, tease fans with occasionally beautiful play, give outrageously entertaining news conferences and generally flame out at inopportune moments -- never more so than when he lost to undersized, overmatched Thomas Johansson in the 2002 Australian Open final, appearing more interested in the gaggle of fembot-looking babes sitting in his friends box. (A smirking Safin dubbed the group his "cousins.")
Was Safin's career disappointing? Perhaps. But perhaps not. The very tempestuousness that prevented him from being a consistent winner made him enormously entertaining, always intriguing and endearingly human. Besides, would Roger Federer ever drop trou to celebrate a rousing point, as Safin did to wild applause at Roland Garros? Not every sports story has to end with lessons learned and fulfilled potential; not every life is a Hallmark movie of the week.
-- Patrick Hruby
Fierce competitor. Instrumental leader. Winner.
That will be Brendan Shanahan's career legacy.
Shanahan will be remembered as the final piece of the puzzle when the Detroit Red Wings ended a 42-year championship drought in 1997. But his contribution to hockey as a whole runs far deeper. When the NHL was mired in one of the ugliest work stoppages in sports history -- a conflict that caused the 2004-05 season to be canceled -- it was Shanahan who spearheaded a meeting between influential players and members of management to discuss ways to improve the game.
The "Shanahan Summit," as it came to be known, helped pave the way for rule changes that dramatically opened up the game. Not surprisingly, Shanahan's expertise was tapped quickly after he announced his retirement this November when the NHL named him the league's vice president for hockey and business development.
Shanahan was selected No. 2 overall by the New Jersey Devils in the 1987 NHL draft and became a legitimate scoring threat by his third season. He became an elite scorer in four years in St. Louis, spent a season in Hartford and later joined the New York Rangers before ending his career back in New Jersey.
It was his trade to Detroit two games into the 1996-97 season, however, that changed Shanahan's career. He had yet to win a Stanley Cup, and the Red Wings hadn't won a championship since 1955. He led the league with 20 power-play goals that season and fortified the toughness of a Detroit team that had set an NHL record with 62 wins the previous season, only to be stunned by Colorado in the Western Conference finals.
Shanahan helped the Red Wings capture the Cup that year, and again in 1998 and 2002. He played in eight NHL All-Star Games, six of them during his nine seasons with the Wings. He won a gold medal with Canada at the 2002 Winter Olympics, and he's the only player in NHL history with more than 600 career goals and 2,000 penalty minutes.
Fierce competitor. Instrumental leader. Winner.
-- Thomas Neumann
Sometimes, you don't know how good you have it until the familiar old thing you're weary of gets up and goes away. It's true in romance (how many affairs end in second divorces?), true in politics (were the Clinton years really so unbearably tawdry?), true in retirement planning (401(k)s don't look so sexy anymore) and especially true of Dick Tomey.
Before Tomey finished his career at San Jose State, he was the football coach at the University of Arizona, back when I lived in Tucson and kinda sorta cared about Wildcats football. (Remember: The U of A is a basketball school). With Tomey at the helm, Arizona was solid but unspectacular, consistently good but never quite good enough to reach the elusive Rose Bowl. The Wildcats' defense was always fearsome, never more so than in a 1994 Fiesta Bowl bushwhacking of Miami; their passing offense was eternally anemic, never more so than in that same game. The Cats were, in a word, boring -- college football's answer to the Brian Billick era Baltimore Ravens.
So I wanted more.
I wanted bombs. I wanted touchdowns. I wanted a spread offense before I knew what a spread offense was. I wanted Arizona to at least be mildly competent in "Bill Walsh College Football '95." I took the team's Desert Swarm defense for granted, surveyed the Pac-10 landscape, and concluded that the grass was far greener at pass-happy schools such as Washington State and USC. I left Tucson for college on the East Coast and saw my fandom wither; still, when Tomey resigned in 2000, I figured it was for the best. Bring on modern football!
And then the Aughts happened.
Replacement coach John Mackovic ran the Arizona football program into the ground and was fired after a player mutiny. Successor Mike Stoops has slowly, painfully brought the team back to respectability, but 10-win seasons, finishing in the top 10 and playing in major bowl games -- all accomplished under Tomey -- seem as unlikely as ever. Meanwhile, Tomey helped Texas win a Rose Bowl, took lowly San Jose State to a bowl game, and was named president of the American Football Coaches Association, a fitting coda to a successful -- if decidedly dull -- career.
As for me? I learned that dull can be as good as it gets.
-- Patrick Hruby
And now we must bid farewell to another great female athlete as she hangs up her shoes to start a family.
In her five years on four legs, the undefeated Zenyatta put on quite a show, earning more than $5.4 million before retiring after the 2009 season.
Zenyatta rode off into the sunset on a wave of popularity, making a break for breeding just after beating the boys in November's Breeders' Cup Classic with a performance for the ages. Her owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, along with trainer John Shirreffs, decided to enter her into North America's richest race -- against an all-male field -- for a shot at the $2.7 million winner's share. Zenyatta went from last to first in the 1¼-mile contest to become the first female to win the Classic. (Three had tried and failed.) If Rosie the Riveter had had an equine partner in crime, it most certainly would have been this mare.
Her legendary finale at Santa Anita showcased synthetic-track prowess and her signature come-from-behind burst. But these days, not even a pristine 14-0 body of work comes without its critics. Some stick an asterisk next to the record of Southern California's belle, claiming her path to perfection could have included a little more resistance.
The 2009 Horse of the Year announcement won't come until Jan. 18, and Zenyatta's biggest competition is filly Rachel Alexandra -- whom she noticeably never faced. The all-femme fray sets up an intriguing debate and, opinions notwithstanding, a most appropriate heir apparent to Zenyatta's throne.
Whether or not she gets the nod for Horse of the Year, there's no denying Zenyatta is leaving some pretty big horseshoes to fill.
-- Mary Buckheit