Leaving on top a great sports tradition

Leaving on top a great sports tradition

It is the ultimate walk-off homer.

Winning a championship at the end of a long career and then retiring.

Jerome Bettis has joined a very select group of elite professional athletes, including Joe DiMaggio, who have been able to walk off into the sunset while they are on top.

"I'm a champion. I think the Bus' last stop is here in Detroit," said Bettis after helping the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks Sunday night in Super Bowl XL.

In Bettis' case, it was especially sweet. This game was played in his hometown of Detroit, and how many of those athletes have been able to hit a walk-off homer quite like that?

In 1951, DiMaggio hit a big Game 4 homer to help the New York Yankees overcome a 2-1 deficit against the cross-borough Giants -- ultimately resulting in a six-game victory for the Bombers. It was the Yankee Clipper's 13th season in pinstripes, and he had plenty of greatness left in him. But DiMaggio announced his retirement after a phenomenal ninth world championship during that run.

In 1969, Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to another victory in their dynasty. Then he hung it up.

John Elway had 336 passing yards and was named Most Valuable Player in leading Denver to the Super Bowl XXXIII title. He rode off into the Rocky Mountain sunset.

Denver fans also celebrated a Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup title in 2001. Ray Borque was on that team, finishing a stellar National Hockey League career, spent mostly with Boston, in style.

David Robinson finished his magnificent career with an NBA title as the Spurs defeated the Nets in the 2003 Finals, giving the Admiral a fitting end to a classy career.

Also in 2003, Ken Daneyko took the ice for his final shift -- as the longtime Devils defenseman closed out his career with a Stanley Cup victory.

Some have come close, and some could not resist in coming back for more. Take Michael Jordan. He might have had the best walk-off homer ever in winning his sixth NBA title with the Chicago Bulls, hitting that title-clinching shot and leaving it up there for a majestic follow-through. Although Jordan returned to the court later on, the lasting image of his final championship is what most choose to remember about him.

Sandy Koufax won another pennant in 1966, but did not hang around to try to go out with another world championship. And Roger Clemens seemed to be in retirement after starting a World Series game for the Yankees at Florida in 2003, but he came back for more.

It does not happen often. There aren't many DiMaggios, Russells or Elways out there who leave their game on their terms and with a new championship ring. Now, apparently, there is one more.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.