Oscar's classy exit prompts football memories
By Lyle Fitzsimmons,
Contributing Boxing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
I thought of Jim Kelly on Tuesday evening.
As I sat listening in on the question-and-answer session that followed Oscar De La Hoya's announcement he'd decided to retire from boxing, I heard a little bit of the ex-Buffalo Bills quarterback's voice in my head.
It didn't seem all that long ago - although in reality it's been more than 12 years - since I was sitting in the fieldhouse alongside what used to be known as Rich Stadium, hearing the multi-time Pro Bowl selection choke back emotion as he made his own exit.
I was at Kelly's first NFL game in 1986 as a fan; then came full circle years later while covering the Bills as a beat writer for the Batavia Daily News.
In Oscar's case, I watched him win Olympic gold in Barcelona in 1992; then critiqued him frequently in my own later incarnations as a print and online columnist.
And in either setting - press row or bleacher seats - both were among my favorites.
Oscar De La Hoya retired from boxing on Tuesday.
"To leave and not be a part of this team is something that will be very difficult to swallow," Kelly said back then, unsuccessfully stemming the moist flow from his eyes. "I also know, in my stomach and in my heart, it's time to move on."
And though De La Hoya wasn't as outwardly poignant with his responses as the heart-on-his-sleeve Kelly always seemed to be, there nonetheless seemed a common chord between two 36-year-olds walking away from athletic passions.
For those who think money and fame make it trivial...think again.
"It's not easy to talk about it," De La Hoya said. "Every time I think about it and mention it, I remember that it's been my life for the last 32 years. But I know that every time I step in the ring now it's not me. It's not the fighter people grew up watching."
Beaten in four of his last seven fights, including a shockingly decisive TKO loss to underdog Manny Pacquiao in December, De La Hoya seemed far removed from the form that had netted him legitimate claims to kingpin status in four weight classes.
Still, there had been talk of even more matches to be made, among them a third go-round with opponent-turned-business partner Shane Mosley or a bout with another J.C. Chavez, this time the son of the man be beat in 1996 and 1998.
As Richard Schaefer, CEO of De La Hoya's promotional company, pointed out, its Golden Boy namesake was the "pound-for-pound king of pay-per-view boxing," having generated more than $696 million from 14.1 million buys on 19 fights.
But it was the specter of past champions, who'd hung around too long and paid a heavy physical price for stubbornness, that helped tip the needle toward "walk away" for De La Hoya, who claimed the decision process extended all the way to Tuesday morning.
"My wife asked me. She looked into my eyes and asked me, 'Are you sure you want to retire,'" he said, "and when she opened the door for me to come back and fight again, I didn't take it. I felt right then, 'This is it. I'm not going to fall into that trap. Because once you fall into that trap, there's no way out.'"
Kelly, upon retiring, was just five weeks removed from his own inglorious finale, a 30-27 upset playoff loss to the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 28, 1996, from which he exited before the final whistle with a concussion.
Yet he, too, had several opportunities to continue, both with the Bills for the 1997 season and later when other teams - the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, most notably - tried to lure him back on the field in 1998.
But, as with De La Hoya after him, past was also prologue for his own exit.
"I don't want to go out the way some other quarterbacks went out," he said. "I want to go out with some dignity, with respect from my peers, respect from my teammates. I wanted to retire a Buffalo Bill."
Ironically, history might remember the two on similar planes as well.
In spite of four Pro Bowl selections, multiple franchise records and several seasons leading his league's most prolific offensive unit, Kelly is most often recalled as the only signal-caller to lose the Super Bowl four consecutive times.
Even so, he was a 2002 Hall of Fame inductee - in year one of eligibility.
De La Hoya, meanwhile, in spite of title belts in six weight classes and defeats of champions named Chavez, Whitaker, Camacho, Gatti, Vargas and Mayorga, is frequently derided for his six losses and jeered for being more an "attraction" than a "fighter."
To those critics on Tuesday, however, there was gratitude...with just a dash of venom.
"My satisfaction is that at least I tried to accomplish the impossible, and not too many people do that," he said. "So if people want to remember me more as an attraction, then I'm glad I could provide that much entertainment over the years."
I just hope he saved some good stuff for his Canastota speech, too.
See ya in 2014, Oscar.
Lyle Fitzsimmons is a 20-year veteran of sports journalism, a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and a periodic contributor to "The Drive with Dave Smith" on KLAA radio (am830klaa.com) and "Cold Hard Sports" on the MVN network (coldhardsports.com). Reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.