Attending your own funeral, which is sort of what Reggie White did last week, is a risky business. It can be enjoyable, letting the eulogies wash over you, but there's the very real chance that the mourners, wallowing in their exquisite grief, won't be quite so happy to see you alive as they were to see you dead. Nobody likes being fooled.
This may be all the more true if your resurrection kicks in a $2.6 million paycheck. But that's more cynical than we mean to be.
The Green Bay Packers can probably always use another defensive lineman. (Although, would they have drafted two of them had they thought White was going to unretire?) The rest of us, however, might not be so forgiving. Just as mere mortals get one death apiece, we like the idea of our athletes' getting one retirement per career.
Anything beyond that strikes us as silly. In White's case, it couldn't have struck us as any sillier. Last week, after two days of listening to tributes to his Pro Bowl career while lingering in the back of the church, White couldn't restrain himself any longer. Rushing up to the empty casket—or at least an open microphone—he breathlessly exclaimed, "I'm alive!" God, whose work these days extends to personnel decisions in the NFL, had spoken to him, he said. Well, this is good for White, who might have gone a little more gently into that good night if a certain broadcasting opportunity hadn't dried up in the wake of his homophobic remarks to the Wisconsin State Assembly. But unretiring, even after only a couple of days, is hardly ever good for the sport. And if history is any guide, it probably won't be that good for White. The next time eulogies wash over him, the memorial service may be far less effusive.
Unretiring has been tried before and, with the exception of George Foreman, who completely reinvented himself 10 years after his first retirement, and Michael Jordan, who is, after all, Michael Jordan, it has almost always ended disastrously. Magic Johnson couldn't pull it off. Anybody remember Jim Palmer coming back after a six-year layoff, bouncing his pitches in front of the catcher? Or Mark Spitz trying to make the 1992 Olympic team? Or Bjorn Borg? Or Sugar Ray Leonard?
The real problem with these curtain calls is that they imply a distasteful arrogance. These guys are so good that they can make it on the strength of their history? They can't: The games they play are not that easy. The athlete who forgets that—who actually believes his eulogy—deserves at least what Tom Sawyer got from Aunt Polly upon being discovered at his own funeral: a good cuffing.