It wouldn't have been fair for Jonathan Ogden to leave the game for good last year, when his left big toe seemed to be making the decision for him. Then again, it's not that much more fair for him to be leaving now, accompanied by the stench of a 5-11 season.

Of course, we're talking about the National Football League. "Fair" has nothing to do with it. Johnny Unitas' career ended as a San Diego Charger; several generations of superstars later, Jerry Rice's career ended just before being demoted to fourth receiver by the Denver Broncos in training camp. Steve Young's ended after an early-season concussion. Michael Irvin's ended on a stretcher, head and neck immobilized, as Philadelphia fans cheered his injury.

Heck, look at how Steve McNair's career ended - straining but failing to get in shape so that his last game would not be the turnover-filled monstrosity against Cincinnati.


In this league - and most of the others, but this one most of all - you end up getting either pushed out or carried out. You can go back decades and count on one hand the number of all-time great players who got to call their own retirement shots.

Ogden joins that exclusive club today.

He probably will be a little sore when he makes his retirement from the Ravens and the NFL official. Maybe he'll limp a tiny bit. Among the unique identifiers that told you on first sight who he was - his freak-of-nature build, his hands, sometimes his 'fro - was his walk last year, influenced by Fred Sanford, as he waited with near-infinite patience for his toe to heal.

He didn't want to have to say he stopped playing pro football after 12 marvelous years because his body made him. In September, as he sat in front of his locker after another very limited practice, he wondered whether he should have just given in before the season.

"With the decision I made, if I had known then, I don't know if I'd have done it. But I didn't know," he said. "But with the decisions you make in life, you've got to go with it."

Eventually, in the last game before the bye week, in Buffalo, he decided to get back on the field and finish the season. After the regular-season finale, he talked as if it were, in fact, all over for him. Turns out it was, for him and McNair and Brian Billick, too.

But McNair and Billick both went out the hard way, the cold, barely humane, bottom-line way, the way any player (and coach) with sense had better be prepared to go out. (Don't forget, in addition, how it ended between McNair and the team he led to the Super Bowl, the Tennessee Titans, who locked him out of their facility while deciding whether to release him for salary cap purposes.).

The players do think about it, even if only to make sure they're not conscious of it as they play. Mark Clayton acknowledged yesterday that it has been on his mind since the day in 2005 that the Ravens drafted him.

"A little after I got drafted, I was happy about it, then I wondered how it might end," he said. "Would it be injuries or would it be on my own terms? I mean, who knows then? I would like to play as long as I could, until the point where I can get up and go in and just say, `That's it.' Physically, I can still do it, but I can say, `I've done it.'

"Probably every one of us wants that," he continued, "but did anybody do it last year? It would be a tremendous blessing to be able to do that."

The closest from a year ago would be Tiki Barber, who, with all due respect, was no J.O. Again, so few ever have, the names come to mind almost instantly - John Elway, Barry Sanders, and if you want to go back far enough, Jim Brown.

This, however, has been a good offseason for future Hall of Famers departing on their own terms. Brett Favre did it - as far as we know right now. Michael Strahan joined him this week.

Now Ogden. Even though the shortsighted and coldhearted among the so-called faithful are already poking at the legend, one of the two greatest players to wear the purple and black, for not making up his mind earlier and more conveniently for the Ravens. He hurt the team, they say. He was selfish. He owes them more than that.

Wrong. Ogden owes no one in the NFL a thing. He owes himself a chance to say when he's leaving, not to let someone else tell him. He's doing it. Sad as it is to see him go, that makes this a happy ending.