Posted by: mdegeorge | January 6, 2011

Remembering a true legend: The retirement of Kristine Lilly

When Brett Favre announced his retirement (again) over the weekend, the disinterest of the media was palpable. But 50-some starts and three broken retirements ago, the end of Favre’s time in Green Bay was enough to launch SportsCenter specials and mourning from an entire region of the U.S.

Now imagine, if you will, the response had Favre’s streak lasted some 400 or so games, surpassing his nearest rivals by about a third. His retirement meant the youngest quarterback ever to throw a touchdown and the oldest quarterback ever to throw a touchdown all rolled into one was riding off into the sunset at the culmination of a brilliant career.

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

But in this scenario, Favre doesn’t stand alone. He’s part of a glorious generation of Packers who transformed the sport of football from a marginalized hobby of an occasionally ostracized segment of athletes to a staple in the lives of millions of American children. Green Bay and its franchise was barely on the map before his arrival, but is now, as are he and his teammates, a household name emulated by millions of adoring fans for over two decades.

The career just described isn’t that of Favre. It belongs to an athlete every bit as decorated but whose retirement earns a passing mention on “The Bottom Line” under the generic “News” category rather than its own banner and hour-long highlight special.

That athlete is Kristine Lilly, one of the most decorated and illustrious women’s soccer players in the history of the American program, who announced her retirement from the sport Wednesday at the ripe old age of 39.

Lilly’s stats are mind-blowing. Her 352 caps are a soccer record; for some perspective, the men’s record is held by Saudi Arabian goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Deayea with 181, and he’s a goalkeeper. The lack of consistency in women’s leagues makes this hardly an apples-to-apples comparison since many women use the national team as their primary squad to train and play with, but the number is still utterly striking.

She also ranks second in the team’s history with 130 goals, behind only Mia Hamm. Landon Donovan, the much-ballyhooed U.S. men’s national leader, has 45 in 128 caps.

Lilly was a mainstay for years across several generations of footballers. She made her debut in 1987 and became the youngest goal-scorer in the program’s history at age 16. Alongside Hamm, she earned four straight NCAA national championships at North Carolina.

Her professional honors include World Cup triumphs 1991 and the iconic 1999 victory on home soil, in which she scored two goals and netted a penalty kick in the final two kicks ahead of Brandi Chastain’s legendary winner.

She’s one of only four players, male or female, to play in five World Cups (1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007), winning two and taking home bronze in the other three. Lilly also took part in three Olympic tournaments, capturing gold in 1996 and 2004 and silver in 2000. Her goal in May of 2010 at the age of 38 made her the oldest woman ever to score an international goal.

But most important was the bridge she represented between two generations of soccer players. She was as integral a part as any to the core of that 1999 team that included Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Michelle Akers, Chastain, Tiffeny Milbrett, and others. When that generation of groundbreakers called it quits though, Lilly remained on the pitch with the next crop of players, those like Abby Wambach and Heather O’Reilly, who grew up idolizing the generation of players that Lilly came from.

Lilly may have lost a step or two over the years, though at 39 you can hardly blame her. Her departure from the game, trickle though it elicited from the media, is a major milestone, the last goodbye of a generation of greats.

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