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IN AMERICA, you do not quit at the top. You do not quit when you're the leading rusher in the NFL. You do not quit when there's millions left on the table. But Tiki Barber, a 31 year-old Giants running back, is retiring at the end of this season, his 10th in pro football—and the country wants to sue.
Meet Earl Campbell. Heisman-winning running back at Texas and 1979 NFL MVP with the Oilers. His back is shot. Two months ago, at his old college stadium, a statue depicting a strong and virile Campbell from his playing days was unveiled. The man himself, though, had to be helped out of a golf cart and to the podium so he could speak to the crowd. He is 51.
Meet Jim Plunkett. Played quarterback for 15 NFL seasons. Yesterday was a very bad day for Plunkett. What happened? "I woke up," he says. Plunkett doesn't seize the day. It seizes him. He has constant throbbing in his back and neck. He's got arthritis in one hip and both knees. He can't raise his left arm past his shoulder. His spine is so curved, he tilts like a sinking oil tanker. The pain wakes him up at night. He's 58.
"I tell my kids, 'Pretty soon, you're going to be wheeling me around,'" says Plunkett. He's not laughing when he says it.
"I don't quite know why Tiki is quitting. Maybe being a Super Bowl champion isn't that important to him."
It meant a helluva lot to Otto, who never won a Super Bowl in 15 seasons with the Raiders but nearly destroyed his body trying. He's had nearly 60 operations—48 on his knees, three on his nose, three on his shoulders, three on his back and one on each elbow. His ankle looks like a science project. He's got rods up and down his spine. Arthritis in his feet and neck tortures him. He is 68.
"He could be leaving 3,000 yards on the field, which could put him on the wrong side of the Hall of Fame bubble."
At the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony every year, we see the price of greatness. It gouges. Anvil-jawed heroes teeter across the stage as if it's their first time on stilts. It takes them longer to sit down than many drive-through transactions take.