Last week, Donovan McNabb retired as a Philadelphia Eagle, after spending his final two seasons in Washington and Minnesota. He is just the latest example of an athlete retiring with a team after spending the final years away, and it has become commonplace for teams to now offer for an athlete to return for a day.
Where did it begin? As it turns out, the one day retirement contract began with another athlete who, like McNabb, played his final football snap in Minnesota. Roger Craig was the first football player that turns up in an archive search, back in 1994, when he returned to San Francisco in August to sign a one day contract and retire as a San Francisco 49er.
On August 21st, Rick Gosselin wrote in his Pro Football Report in the Dallas Morning News:
In a wave of sentimentality, former Pro Bowl running back Roger Craig signed a one-day contract with San Francisco this summer so he could retire from the 49ers. He left the 49ers in free agency in 1991 when he signed with the Raiders, then signed as a free agent with Minnesota in 1992. But Craig wanted to finish up where he started.Don’t look for Joe Montana to be overcome with the same wave of emotion. When he saw himself being phased out of the offense in favor of Steve Young, the NFL’s all-time leading passer asked for a trade and the 49ers accommodated him by sending him to Kansas City in 1993.”If I wanted to retire from the 49ers,” Montana said, “I could have.”
Prior to that, the references to one day contracts in sport involved baseball, and players wanting to return on short term deals to meet milestones for playing in the most decades. For example, Minnie Minoso tried to come back and play a game for the White Sox in 1990 (after Bill Veeck had already brought him in to play in 1976 and 1980 to extend his decades streak) but commissioner Fay Vincent vetoed the idea. Ozzie Smith returned to the Cardinals on a one day managerial contract on the final day of the 1990 season. The oldest reference I could find was to Hub Kittle, a minor league player and pitching coach, who signed a one day, $1 contract in 1980, and retired all three batters he faced in a minor league game.
All of those, though, involved a player coming back and performing on a short term deal. Craig’s was the first I could find for the sole purpose of retiring, something that has now become commonplace in all American sports. I contacted Roger Craig to see if he was the first, and what went in to developing that idea.
Roger Craig accomplished a lot in his NFL career. He was the first to go for both 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in 1985, something only matched by Marshall Faulk in 1999. He was the first to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl, in January of 1985 against Miami. He is also proud to be the first to come up with the one day retirement contract, and to get star players back to the teams where they starred during most of their careers.
“I’m always thinking outside the box,” said Craig, who is now working with TIBCO, the company that has developed the new Oakland Raiders mobile app. “I noticed when players are not playing with the team they started with, and they end up with another team, you kind of get lost in the shuffle when you retire, with the team you are playing with. The fans get kind of left off. The fans–I’m all about fan experiences, giving back to the fans, because they are so just beautiful people, they support you through good and bad, at games when it is freezing cold and at games when it is blazing hot. When you have icons that have done well for an organization, I wanted to figure out a way I can come back and re-live those days, with those fans, in front of those fans. Make the organization kind of, not so much to make them look good, but let them do something that is really positive for guys that have made impacts with the organization.”
Craig talked to his agent, Jim Steiner, about the idea of returning to retire in San Francisco. They contacted Eddie DeBartolo and Carmen Policy, who were immediately receptive.
According to Craig, that initial one day contract had no ones, only zeroes. “I wanted them to put a dollar in front of all those zeros I had,” Craig said, chuckling. “It was a blank contract, but it was affiliated with the organization that I was part of the team, and so, it was brilliant that I came up with that. After I did it, it spread virally.”
The team held a press conference, attended by many of his teammates, including Tom Rathman and Jerry Rice. Even though he received no compensation that day (unlike the $1 contract now used) Craig says he was part of the team that 1994 season, the team had to clear roster space and he got benefits as a player who signed with the team that season and retired. He also got a letter from then commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who unlike Fay Vincent’s opposal to Minnie Minoso’s attempt to comeback, embraced the concept. “What a great gesture for the NFL’,” Tagliabue told Craig.
I asked Craig if he had any regrets, though he returned to retire, about leaving San Francisco to play in Oakland (with teammate Ronnie Lott) and then Minnesota for two seasons after he turned 31. “Business is business, and icons, they do that, they play for other teams. I had a great experience with the Raiders, we made the playoffs, I never missed the playoffs my whole career.”
Craig, who was a finalist in 2010, is still waiting for the Hall of Fame to call, and is incredulous that he has not been selected despite finishing on the All-Decade Team of the 1980′s, along with three other backs who are in Canton. He had a versatile career, playing fullback and tailback, as a runner and receiver, and also as someone who spawned the explosion of retiring athletes returning home. Thanks to Roger Craig, icons everywhere can return for one last day.
[photo from sfgate.com; Additional Sources: END IS PAINFUL FOR CARDS, COLLINS, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri) October 4, 1990; COMMENTARY;MINOSO COMPROMISES THE INTEGRITY OF THE GAME, Los Angeles Times April 16, 1991; SPORTS WORLD SPECIALS;Long Reliever, The New York Times November 24, 1980]