There are three "departures" in sports history that actually had an emotional impact on me. I'm a little ashamed of it, but it's true.
The first was the announcement that Magic Johnson was retiring because he was HIV-positive. Not only was I sad because Magic was leaving the game, but I also feared for his life.
The second was the retirement of Michael Jordan in 1993. Once again, I hated to think of Jordan leaving the game. But I felt terrible that he had endured the brutal and foolish murder of his father.
And then, there was March 1, 2012. That was not the day of a retirement or a tragedy, at least not one in the truest sense of the word. That was the date that the Pittsburgh Steelers released wide receiver Hines Ward.
Let's set aside the fact that my wife purchased me an authentic Hines Ward jersey for our 18th anniversary, and that I'm now facing the prospect of re-thinking my game day attire. It's just not right that a life-long contributor to the Pittsburgh Steelers had to be cut.
And yes, for the good of the team, he did have to be cut. Ward is a Steeler on par with names like Stautner, Dial, Ham, Webster, Swann, Stallworth, Green, Webster, Bradshaw, and Bettis. But most of those players stayed in the 'Burgh because there was no salary cap to drive them out. Ward did not have that luxury.
Ward leaving the Steelers isn't exactly the same as Joe Montana or Jerry Rice departing from San Francisco. But it's pretty close. And it's made me a believer in finding a way to allow lifetime legends to stay with their teams.
The NFLPA and the league need to create a loophole in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Teams should be allowed to keep one offensive and one defensive player under a "Lifetime Achievement" category. They should be able to pay those players whatever they choose, without any hit to their salary cap number.
The criteria would be simple:
1. The player has spent his entire career with the team.
2. Player has 10 years of experience.
3. Player must show evidence of outstanding service to the team AND the community.
The "Lifetime Achievement" designation would give teams the freedom to reward players for outstanding service above and beyond the norm. It would allow the greatest of the great to finish their career with loyalty to the team and organization.
And it would prevent us from ever having to see Joe Montana in a Kansas City Chiefs uniform. That would be more than worth it.