There comes a time for every athlete when his or her body is no longer able to do what it used to. When that time arrives, the athlete should look back on past successes and leave the sport before creating too many present disappointments.

When Mario Lemieux returned from a three-year layoff last season, his presence energized the NHL. He struggled through injury at times, but the comeback was a success overall, as he racked up 76 points in just 43 games.

This season, however, has been a much different story.

Lemieux was only able to play in 11 of Pittsburgh’s first 19 games before injuries forced him to the sideline for two months.

He returned to play in 12 games before the Olympic break, but the injury was back when the Olympics started.

Lemieux was ineffective during Canada’s loss to Sweden and unable to play in Canada’s win over Germany.

I know it must be tough to turn your back on a sport when the talent is so clearly still there if only the body would let you play, but Lemieux must realize that he is not Super Mario anymore and should retire before tarnishing his image.

Lemieux is not the only player holding on too long. Rickey Henderson just signed a minor-league contract with the Red Sox at the age of 43.

While I’m thrilled to hear that there will be at least one more year of outrageous Rickey stories, I don’t know what else he has to do.

He has 3,000 career hits and the career records for stolen bases, runs scored and walks. He even has two World Series rings.

It’s clear that his skills are no longer there. Rickey’s average has topped .250 once in the last six seasons and 1999 was his only above average year in that span.

The only reason I can find for Rickey wanting to keep playing is that he doesn’t want to share a Hall of Fame ceremony with Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn and Mark McGwire. Rickey is the greatest, after all.

While Rickey looks like he might be 72 years old, there’s one actual 72-year-old who should get out of the public’s eye. Arnold Palmer is still hanging around on the senior tour, but he’s not doing anything there.

He finished last at the Verizon Open last weekend, 10 shots behind the next-worst player. Palmer didn’t finish in the top 70 in any of the eight official tournaments he played last year and he hasn’t won a tournament since 1988.

I know Palmer does not need the money he gets from being the 70th-best old golfer, and if he really wants to keep playing that much, I’m sure there are plenty of country clubs that would give him a free membership.

The only reason all of the great memories of Palmer’s career haven’t been replaced by images of his swing as a senior citizen is that nobody watches the senior tour.

Palmer is over 30 years removed from being the best in his sport, but it can be time to leave even if you were the best two short years ago.

Pete Sampras won his record 13th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2000, but he has not won a tournament since then. I know Sampras hopes to win a French Open title and I’m sure he wants to go out as a Grand Slam champion, but the more he hangs on the less we’ll remember how dominant he was.

Some players ? Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice come to mind ? have shown that they can defy the passing of time. Unfortunately, for most athletes, there comes a point when it’s all over.

Patrick Ewing, you’re going to have to accept the fact that you will never win an NBA title. It’s time to go.

Jacobs can be reached at

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