Athletes Who Had the Most Memorable Final Seasons

December 21, 2018 by Grant Suneson

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For sports fans, watching a superstar athlete in the twilight of their career can sometimes be difficult. As they age, players who were once dominant can struggle to maintain the same level of fitness, energy, and effectiveness, and their production often slides.

Yet some special athletes are able to have one last great season before they leave the game for good. These players are able to turn back the clock and put up terrific individual statistics, and in some instances help their teams win a title.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed the last years of notable American pro athletes to determine the most memorable final seasons ever.

Hall of Fame players like Ray Bourque and Michael Strahan were dominant defenders for decades, but playoff success had always eluded them — until their final season. Both players were able to ride off into the sunset as champions.

Not every pro athlete gets a storybook ending, but some are able to play well and give their fans a few more fond memories before hanging up their cleats, sneakers, or skates for good.

To determine the most memorable final seasons ever, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the final seasons in the careers of notable athletes in the four major U.S. sports leagues — the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB — on the Sports Reference family of sites. Players were selected based on their statistical and postseason success. The player’s age refers to how old they were at the beginning of the season.

Click here to see the athletes who had most memorable final seasons.

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20. Mike Mussina
> League: MLB
> Position, team: Pitcher, New York Yankees
> Final season: 2008, age 39
> Key stats and accomplishments: 20-9 record, 3.37 ERA, Gold Glove

Mike Mussina ended his 18-year pitching career with one of his best seasons. Moose won 20 games with a 3.37 ERA while also earning a Gold Glove. Even though he was 39, Mussina led the American League in starts with 34, racking up 200 innings in his final season.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

19. Bob Pettit
> League: NBA
> Position, team: Power forward, St. Louis Hawks
> Final season: 1964-1965, age 32
> Key stats and accomplishments: 22.5 points per game, 12.4 rebounds per game

An early NBA star, Bob Pettit went out on top. In his 11th and final season, he averaged 22.5 points and 12.4 rebounds per game, earning an 11th consecutive All-star appearance. His 22.5 points per game is still the NBA record for highest scoring average for a player in his final season.

Source: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images

18. David Ortiz
> League: MLB
> Position, team: Designated Hitter, Boston Red Sox
> Final season: 2016, age 40
> Key stats and accomplishments: 127 RBIs, 38 home runs, All-star

By the time his 20th season rolled around, David Ortiz had already accomplished a lot in his career, winning three World Series and making nine All-Star teams. In 2016, at age 40, Big Papi proved he could still play, batting .315 with 38 home runs and a MLB-leading 48 doubles. He also earned his 10th All-Star spot that season.

Source: Al Bello / Getty Images

17. Ray Lewis
> League: NFL
> Position, team: Linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
> Final season: 2012, age 37
> Key stats and accomplishments: 57 tackles, Super Bowl

Through the first six games of the 2012 season, linebacker Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens were rolling with a 5-1 record. But Lewis tore his triceps, and the team struggled, limping into the playoffs. Lewis made it back for the playoffs and led the Ravens in postseason tackles, providing the lift they needed to win their second Super Bowl during Lewis’s career and send him out on top.

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Source: Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

16. Peyton Manning
> League: NFL
> Position, team: Quarterback, Denver Broncos
> Final season: 2015, age 39
> Key stats and accomplishments: Super Bowl

Peyton Manning’s final season was far from his most statistically impressive. Manning battled foot, rib, and shoulder injuries, missing six games. But the five-time MVP gutted out the injuries and made it back for the playoffs, leading the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl title in his final season, making him the oldest QB to ever hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

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15. Shoeless Joe Jackson
> League: MLB
> Position, team: Outfield, Chicago White Sox
> Final season: 1920, age 32
> Key stats and accomplishments: .382 batting average, 20 triples

Shoeless Joe Jackson’s .382 batting average is by far the highest of any player in their final season. Jackson, who was just 32, would likely have had many more productive seasons, but his involvement in the infamous World Series fixing “Black Sox Scandal” earned him a lifetime ban from baseball. Still, Jackson’s talent and skill were undeniable.

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Source: Sport Magazine Archives / Wikimedia Commons

14. Wilt Chamberlain
> League: NBA, age
> Position, team: Center, Los Angeles Lakers
> Final season: 1972-1973, age 36
> Key stats and accomplishments: 13.2 points per game, 18.6 rebounds per game, .727 field goal percentage

Wilt Chamberlain was an unstoppable scorer and rebounder in his prime, so his final season averages of 13.2 points and 18.6 rebounds per game may not seem that impressive in comparison to his previous work. What made his 14th season impressive was his efficiency. Chamberlain hit 72.7% of his shots in his last season — the highest percentage of anyone with significant playing time in NBA history. Though it was his lowest full season average, Chamberlain’s 18.6 rebounds per game led the NBA that season. He also played in all 82 games.

Source: Ethan Miller / Getty Images

13. Jean Beliveau
> League: NHL
> Position, team: Center, Montreal Canadiens
> Final season: 1970-1971, age 39
> Key stats and accomplishments: 76 points, Stanley Cup

Jean Beliveau played 20 seasons for the Montreal Canadiens. He won 10 Stanley Cups, with the final one coming in his last season. Beliveau turned back the clock at age 39, when he had one of his best statistical seasons with 76 points. He left it all on the ice, scoring 22 points in the playoffs and leading the NHL that season in playoff assists with 16.

Source: Jason Miller / Getty Images

12. Michael Strahan
> League: NFL
> Position, team: Defensive end, New York Giants
> Final season: 2007, age 36
> Key stats and accomplishments: 9 sacks, Super Bowl

By his final NFL season, Michael Strahan had accomplished everything a defensive end could. He was named a Pro Bowler, All-pro, and 2001’s Defensive Player of the Year when he set the NFL’s single-season sack record. All that was missing was a Super Bowl. Strahan recorded two sacks, two forced fumbles, and three tackles for loss in the playoffs, helping the Giants upset the undefeated New England Patriots and go out a champion.

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Source: Jay Publishing / Wikimedia Commons

11. Roberto Clemente
> Position, team: Outfield, Pittsburgh Pirates
> Final season: 1972, age 37
> Key stats and accomplishments: .312 batting average, Gold Glove, All-star

Roberto Clemente was remarkably consistent throughout his career. He hit over .300, won 12 straight gold gloves, and made the All-Star team in 12 of his final 13 seasons. Even in his final season, at age 37, he maintained his high level of play. Clemente hit .312, won a Gold Glove, and made the All-Star team. He also won 12 straight Gold Gloves to round out his career. Though he played until age 38, his career ended too soon. Clemente was tragically killed in a plane crash while on his way to assist in earthquake relief efforts in Nicaragua.

Source: Sport Magazine Archives / Wikimedia Commons

10. Dave DeBusschere
> League: NBA
> Position, team: Power forward, New York Knicks
> Final season: 1973-1974, age 33
> Key stats and accomplishments: 18.1 points per game, 10.7 rebounds per game

Dave DeBusschere capped off his Hall of Fame career with one of his best statistical seasons. The two-time champion with the Knicks had his second best scoring year with 18.1 points per game while shooting a career-high 46.1% from the field. He was also named to his eighth All-Star team and sixth All-Defensive team.

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Source: Hockey Hall of Fame / Wikimedia Commons

9. Charlie Gardiner
> League: NHL
> Position, team: Goaltender, Chicago Black Hawks
> Final season: 1933-1934, age 29
> Key stats and accomplishments: All-Star, Vezina Trophy, Stanley Cup, 1.63 goals against average

Goalie Charlie Gardiner was the force behind the Chicago Black Hawks’ first-ever Stanley Cup. He allowed a league-low 83 goals in the 1933-1934 season, posting 10 shutouts. Gardiner continued his stellar play in the Stanley Cup Finals, allowing just seven goals in four games to propel Chicago to the title. For his efforts, Gardiner was named an All-Star and won the Vezina Trophy. Tragically, he died just two months after winning the Cup from a brain hemorrhage.

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8. Bill Russell
> League: NBA
> Position, team: Center, Boston Celtics
> Final season: 1968-1969, age 34
> Key stats and accomplishments: 9.9 points per game, 19.3 rebounds per game, NBA Championship

Bill Russell’s final season may not be his most statistically impressive, scoring 9.9 points per game. But considering he was also coaching the Boston Celtics in addition to playing for them, the final season becomes much more notable. Russell took over as coach after Red Auerbach retired in 1966, then led Boston to two straight championships in 1968 and 1969, his final season. His 19.3 rebounds per game were the third highest in the NBA that season.

Source: Getty Images

7. Ted Williams
> League: MLB
> Position, team: Outfield, Boston Red Sox
> Final season: 1960, age 41
> Key stats and accomplishments: .316 batting average, 29 home runs

Even at 41, Ted Williams was still one of the best hitters in baseball. Though he typically hit much better, his .316 average in 1960 was still one of the best in baseball that year. He also hit 29 home runs in 113 games and was named an All-Star for the 17th time in his career.

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Source: Malcolm W. Emmons / The Sporting News Archives / Wikimedia Commons

6. Jim Brown
> League: NFL
> Position, team: Running back, Cleveland Browns
> Final season: 1965, age 29
> Key stats and accomplishments: 1,544 rushing yards, 21 touchdowns, All-pro

In his last season, Jim Brown was by far the best running back in the NFL. He led the NFL in rush yards with 1,544 and total touchdowns with 21. This was one of Brown’s best statistical seasons, and he likely could have kept playing at a high level. However, Brown butted heads with Browns owner Art Modell when he missed training camp to shoot the movie “The Dirty Dozen,” and decided he would rather stick with the film than be fined for missing camp, so he retired.

Source: Dan4th Nicholas / Wikimedia Commons

5. Dominik Hasek
> League: NHL
> Position, team: Goaltender, Detroit Red Wings
> Final season: 2007-2008, age 43
> Key stats and accomplishments: Jennings Trophy, Stanley Cup

Dominik Hasek is the only athlete on this list to retire after winning a championship twice. After helping the Detroit Red Wings hoist the Stanley Cup in 2002, the goalie hung up his skates. He came back after a season away and ended up playing four more seasons. In his actual final season, at age 43, he allowed the fewest goals of any NHL netminder to play at least 25 games and led the Red Wings to another Cup.

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4. Ray Bourque
> League: NHL
> Position, team: Defenseman, Colorado Avalanche
> Final season: 2000-2001, age 40
> Key stats and accomplishments: 59 points, All-Star, Stanley Cup

Ray Bourque’s career spanned four decades, beginning in 1979. During 20 seasons with the Boston Bruins, he made 18 All-Star teams and won five Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman, but he never won a Cup. In 2000, he was traded to Colorado and finally was able to win a championship, helping the Avalanche hoist the 2001 Stanley Cup a year later at age 40.

Source: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

3. Michael Jordan
> League: NBA
> Position, team: Small forward, Washington Wizards
> Final season: 2002-2003, age 39
> Key stats and accomplishments: 20 points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game, All-Star

Though he will always be remembered as a Chicago Bull, Michael Jordan’s time as a Wizard was still impressive. While Jordan had already retired twice before, he was able to come back and perform at an All-Star level in his late 30s during his two seasons in Washington. At 39, Jordan was the oldest player to average 20 points in a season.

Source: N.Y. Public Library Picture Collection / Wikimedia Commons

2. Sandy Koufax
> League: MLB
> Position, team: Pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers
> Final season: 1966, age 30
> Key stats and accomplishments: 1.73 ERA, 317 strikeouts, 27-9 record

Sandy Koufax was easily the most dominant pitcher of the 1960s before an arthritic elbow forced him to retire in his prime. Despite battling the ailment, which nearly cost him proper function of his left arm, Koufax’s final season was one for the ages. He led the MLB with a 1.73 ERA, 27 wins, 323 innings pitched, 317 strikeouts, and 27 complete games.

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1. John Elway
> League: NFL
> Position, team: Quarterback, Denver Broncos
> Final season: 1998, age 38
> Key stats and accomplishments: Super Bowl MVP, Pro Bowl, 10-2 record

After years of being dogged with playoff failures, John Elway broke through in his final two seasons. Elway led the Denver Broncos to two straight Super Bowls at age 37 and 38. In his final season, Elway posted a career-best 93.0 quarterback rating and equaled a career-low 10 interceptions. He guided the Broncos past an outmatched Atlanta Falcons team to win his second straight Super Bowl and retired as a champion.