Certain sports legends maintain a mystique forever because we never saw them decline: Sandy Koufax's fastball will always be untouchable in our mind's eye and Bjorn Borg simultaneously dominated Wimbledon and the French Open in a way that is unlikely to ever be matched--but the definitive example of someone who retired at the top of his game is Jim Brown.
Brown won eight rushing titles in nine seasons while earning three MVPs and leading the Cleveland Browns to the 1964 NFL title. His 12,312 career rushing yards lapped the field (and stood as the all-time standard for two decades), his 106 rushing touchdowns and 126 total touchdowns remained NFL records for three decades after he retired and he is almost universally considered to be the greatest running back--if not the greatest player, period--in NFL history. In 1965, Brown led the league in rushing yards (1544, the second best total of his career), rushing attempts (289), rushing touchdowns (17), long rushing gain (67 yards), yards from scrimmage (1872) and total touchdowns (21, three more than his previous career-high). Brown carried Cleveland to the East Division title with an 11-3 record--best in the league--before Cleveland lost 23-12 to the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship Game.
At that point, Brown planned to play at least one more season. He went to Europe in the offseason to star in the now-classic film The Dirty Dozen but because of delays in the shooting schedule he was not able to make it back to the United States in time for training camp. Cleveland owner Art Modell publicly threatened to fine Brown, prompting Brown to write a letter to Modell stating his intention to retire. Brown recently read that letter, in its entirety, to Branson Wright of The Plain Dealer. Here are some excerpts:
I'm very sorry to see you make the statements that you did, because it was not a victory for you or I but for the newspapermen. Fortunately, I seem to have a little more faith in you than you have in me. I honestly like you and will be willing to help you in any way I can but I feel you must realize that both of us are men and that my manhood is just as important to me as yours is to you...
You must realize that your organization will make money and will remain successful whether I am there or not. The Cleveland Browns are an institution that will stand for a long, long time. I am taking on a few projects that are very important to me. I have many problems to solve at this time and I am sure you know a lot of them. So if we weigh this situation properly, the Browns have really nothing to lose but Jim Brown has a lot to lose. I am taking it for granted that I have your understanding and best wishes, for in my public approach to this matter this will be the attitude that I will prevail...
I will give you any assistance I can and hope your operation will be a success.
Brown told Wright: "I like the letter and it was a very important statement for me to make. It represented everything about me. I think it's fair. I think it's clear. I think it's considerate. I think it shows that I'm interested in my family and my career and I knew that when I wrote it that it could be 50 years later and it would still be me. I've always taken pride in the fact that my statements over the years, they always lasted, because I think that being truthful and representing yourself as a man will always stand up. So, I'm surprised that you had (a copy of) this but I am proud that as a young man I had the ability to articulate in this way and show the kind of fairness that's in this letter."
Regarding the general subject of when an athlete should retire, Brown added these thoughts: "Athletes usually stay too long. They stay past their peak. They hold on and they become, in some cases, not pathetic but you just can't outdo yourself. Old Jim Brown can't outdo a young Jim Brown and whenever you are compared to yourself you are always going to lose. So, in order to give the fans their money's worth I think that you should always leave on time so they can remember the best of you and you can remember the best of you and you will have that forever. They can never say that I was going downhill or they can never attach a negative to my career. So, it's not even complicated. It's the right thing to do to move out on time."