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Sports Authority

O’Connell: Changing of the superstar guard

| Thursday, February 4, 2016

Perhaps it is too early say, but this year certainly feels like a transition between eras in the American sporting world. The old guard that has represented the sporting interests of the American public for so long are, after what feels like an eternity for any 20-something-year-old sports fan like myself, are preparing their retirement speeches, and their roles as the faces of their respective franchises and leagues are being reclaimed by a new generation of sports heroes.

Conversation surrounding Peyton Manning’s future in the NFL has arguably overshadowed talk of the impending Super Bowl that the legendary quarterback is meant to play in.

NBA stalwart Kobe Bryant looks to be on his way out after a, frankly, difficult-to-watch final season at the helm of a Lakers team that once flew higher than most but now struggles to stay above water.

Derek Jeter said goodbye to baseball not too long ago, and beloved East Coast bruiser David Ortiz is likely to follow suit in the near future.

Names that had become synonymous with sporting success for thousands of American fans are stepping back from the spotlight, and it feels downright strange to think about any of these games without the seemingly permanent presence of their respective shepherds, guiding the states of their sports further still into the future.

When I was a much younger sports fan, the retirements of players like Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan sent ripples across sporting media. I can’t recall being terribly invested in any single storyline as the careers of some of the best to ever play came to a close. Now, though, I feel that I am old enough to have gained some perspective on what these players have meant for their leagues. It is a melancholy thing, to see legends retire — but luckily, the state of the American sporting world is falling into well-prepared hands indeed.

Perhaps the second most common plot line of this year’s Super Bowl, behind Manning’s imminent retirement, is the meteoric rise of presumptive NFL MVP Cam Newton. Charismatic, hugely popular and almost impossibly talented, the former dual-threat cornerback at Auburn has taken the NFL by storm — and has contributed a great deal to the somewhat surprising rise of the Carolina Panthers into the pantheon of the NFL’s consistently good teams. Newton’s game is not Manning’s game — the Georgia native’s blistering speed and power, both in his arm and through his legs, contribute to a very different style of quarterback play than one has come to expect from Manning and his contemporaries. That is not to say that one is better — both are great, but each is undeniably unique. So too go their personalities on the sideline and outside of the stadium. Whereas Manning’s game has always been one of quiet assurance and almost cerebral swagger, Newton’s attitude is full of energy and mirth.

This year’s Super Bowl may or may not be a good match-up. That will depend on far more than the playstyles and personalities of the two men lining up under center this coming Sunday. Still, there is a more symbolic element to the game that transcends its outcome. Sunday’s Super Bowl represents a passing of the torch from one bona fide legend to a superstar in the making. We have seen similar emergences in other sports — Stephen Curry is single-handedly reinventing pro basketball, while the likes of Bryce Harper, P.K. Subban and Jordan Spieth are occupying vacancies left by former greats in their respective sports.

There is no shortage of great athletes in the world, and this changing of the guard will likely not mean sweeping changes to the sports in which they participate. Still, every league craves a champion, a paragon of the values and talents required to succeed within their ranks. This year, several new superstars are finally coming into their own and claiming their titles as the faces of North American sport.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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