LOS ANGELES — There aren’t two more iconic figures in their respective sports than Derek Jeter and Ray Lewis. Consistent staples in a business overrun by constant changes, where players trade hats and jerseys like children exchange … what do kids trade these days? It’s not baseball cards anymore, is it? Emoji messages? STDs?
Jeter and Lewis are legends, and that’s an understatement. First-ballot Hall of Famers, who five years after their retirement will be rightfully celebrated in Cooperstown and Canton. And the best part about the festivities is there won’t be a debate as to what cap or jersey the two will be recognized in. For this generation of sports fans, you can’t think of the Yankees without the dignitary of the dugout, or the Ravens without the gargantuan of the gridiron, coming to mind. Literal faces of their respective franchises.
Both were taken from their teams and sports fans over the weekend in the form of potential career-ending injuries; Jeter with a broken ankle and Lewis in the form of torn triceps muscles. Jeter, already hobbled in the post season, suffered his injury in extra innings of Game 1 of the ALCS diving for a Jhonny Peralta groundball which proved to be the game-winner for the Tigers. Lewis, who was declared lost for the year on Monday, meanwhile, went to the infirmary doing what he’s always done: chasing down a would-be touchdown maker.
The duo are the last of their breed. Superstar athletes who’ve played their entire career with one franchise and did so at the highest possible level; the championship stratosphere. Jeter was the backbone of five Yankees World Series titles; Lewis was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV, the Ravens 35-7 victory over the Giants.
While some have said Lewis’ play has slipped in recent years, he’s still been the unquestioned leader of a perennially top-ranked defense, and showed no signs of slowing down this season. He was on a 152-tackle pace at the time of his injury, which would’ve been his highest since 2003.
Jeter had a spectacular 2012 season in leading the Yankees to another AL East division crown. He played in all but 3 games while going to bat the most times in his most career; his 216 hits were his most since 1999. Jeter was 9-for-27 in the postseason at the time of his injury.
On the field, with a combined 35 years of professional experience in two cities, Jeter and Lewis share adjectives that define their playing style: warrior, leader, charismatic, gamer, clutch. They’re quintessential plays are also quick to come to mind: Jeter’s postseason flip against Oakland, diving into the stands against Boston, a home run for his 3,000th hit, the jump throw and his arms raised in victory; Lewis’ pregame dance, the rousing sideline speeches, punishing hits, his Super Bowl interception and playoff sacks of Tom Brady.
Off the field, their lives couldn’t be more different. Jeter’s bachelorhood is the stuff of legends, the idolization of wannabe teens and playboys everywhere (even A-Rod). The New York penthouse apartment, wooing of Hollywood’s biggest stars and of course, the gift basket. Lewis has several children, is big in his South Florida community and preaches in his spare time. His transformation from potential inmate to pillar of faith and inner strength is what personal redemption is all about.
Phenomenal players and better men. The debate will rage in the coming weeks and into their sports offseasons as to what their futures hold. “Should they retire?” is the question you’ll see on NFL and MLB Networks, on ESPN and in magazines and online articles. I told anyone who would listen I thought Peyton Manning should’ve retired this past summer rather than risk further injury to his neck by playing another football season, but the case for Jeter and Lewis are different. Surely, a broken foot will heal and doesn’t affect the shortstop’s ability to hit a baseball, such torn triceps can be repaired and won’t slow the linebacker’s path to the running back.
Do I think they should come back? Both are playing at a high level, so sure, give it one last go. Major League Baseball and the National Football League are better with those two men in them, competing, representing all they have to offer. But don’t drag it out. Announce at the beginning this is it, a la Chipper Jones and let the fans pay their respects throughout the season. Then walk away gracefully. Like icons.