Fighting Father Time in the world of pro-athletics

Tom Brady’s post-retirement struggles are the norm; Fernando Alonso’s success is the exception

When Tom Brady first retired on Feb. 1, 2022, the veteran of 22 seasons was praised by competitors, pundits and athletes worldwide. His retirement marked the end of a legendary career that saw seven Super Bowl titles, among many other awards and honors. However, less than six weeks later, Brady announced that he would not be retiring — instead, he opted to return to Tampa Bay for the 2022-23 NFL season. It was a shocking reversal and left many wondering why.

Brady’s career return is surprising but not that uncommon. Three of the most notable Michaels in sports (Jordan, Schumacher and Phelps) announced retirement before returning to their respective sports later. Jordan, in particular, would become the poster child of post-retirement returns, leading the Bulls to three straight titles from 1996 to 1998 after retiring in 1993. Though Schumacher would not win any titles following his return to Formula One in 2010, he laid the groundwork for the Mercedes juggernaut that would propel Lewis Hamilton to earn six driver titles and win eight consecutive Constructors’ Championships. After announcing his retirement in 2012, Phelps returned to the 2016 Olympic Games to become the most decorated athlete of all time. On the other hand, Brady could not live up to his previously established standard of success.

Brady struggled in 2022, posting one of his worst seasons yet. His 8-9 season meant he finished with a losing record, the first occurrence in his long career. After losing in the Wild Card round to the Dallas Cowboys, Brady announced that he would be retiring “for good,” marking the end of a 23-year career.

The sour end to Brady’s career made many ask whether the extra year was worth it. Was an 8-9 record and playoff loss worth the cost? Though the additional year didn’t harm Brady’s legacy, it tarnished his reputation as an unstoppable force that not even time could touch. Many wondered, “Is it impossible for athletes to compete after retirement?” Yes, we’ve seen players in recent memory return to sports after a retirement: Jason Witten, Marshawn Lynch and Brett Favre to name a few. But, like Brady, they could not capture the form that made them elite in their prime. One man, nonetheless, has reversed that narrative and has continued to do so for the last two years.

Fernando Alonso is a Spanish Formula One driver and one of the greats in terms of raw talent. His preference for throwing his car into turns was (and still is) a driving style that hasn’t been replicated and one that drove him to two straight Drivers’ Championships in 2005 and 2006. In 2015, Alonso moved from the Scuderia Ferrari to McLaren, using a new engine powered by Honda. Unlike their roadgoing counterparts, Honda’s F1 program was marred by reliability and performance issues. Alonso famously proclaimed during the 2016 Japanese Grand Prix that the engine felt like “a GP2 engine,” referencing the feeder series of F1. Alonso has been the subject of criticism for years, mainly due to his moody radio messages and his rivalries with his teammates. By the end of 2018, at 37 years old, Alonso was upset by the performance of McLaren and opted to retire from Formula One.

In a surprising move just two years later, Alonso joined the Alpine F1 team. The French team had previously competed under the Renault title, with which Alonso had won two championships in his early years. Many saw this as a chance to say goodbye to F1 on his own terms by competing in competitive machinery for one last ride. That didn’t happen.

Alonso would put in some incredible performances in both 2021 and 2022, including helping his Alpine teammate Esteban Ocon to his first career win in Hungary in 2021. This was a new Alonso that fans had not seen in over a decade. The once-stern Alonso was now smiling and joking, happy to be a part of the sport for the first time in years. He was mentoring his young teammate, helping his team and putting in incredible results in a car that was a midfield runner at best. His P3 result in Qatar was his first podium since 2014, and his outstanding qualifying session for 2022’s Canadian Grand Prix was a sight to behold. After his contract expired, many thought that Alonso would hang up the helmet and call it quits, perhaps returning to endurance racing or leaving it all behind at 41. Instead, he is set to drive the 2023 Aston Martin AMR23. After a career that has spanned 19 years, Alonso seems just as fresh as he was nearly a decade ago.

Many are surprised that Brady’s return from retirement resulted in a struggle. However, as generations of athletes have shown us, success stories like Jordan and Alonso aren’t the norm. They’re the exception. And that’s what makes them even more special.