Isaac Curtis knew he could play at least one more season in the National Football League. Maybe even two.
When the wide receiver began his professional career with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1973, he could cover 40 yards in 4.4 seconds. Twelve years and about 170 Bengals' games later, his time in the 40-yard dash was 4.5 seconds.
Surely, what Curtis had lost in speed, which wasn't much, could have been be made up with skill, knowledge and experience. The former football and track star at Santa Ana High School, the University of California and San Diego State could read defenses and anticipate coverages as good as any receiver in the league.
But Curtis also had been around the game long enough to know when it was time to get out.
Curtis, who played in four Pro Bowls and the 1982 Super Bowl, had been a starter since his rookie year at Cincinnati, and had played in all 16 of the Bengals' 1984 games, starting 12 of them.
But that statistic is deceiving. Instead of fazing defensive backs with his exceptional speed, Curtis was actually being phased out of the Bengals' offense.
Though he started 12 games, he had only 12 receptions for 135 yards and no touchdowns--third-rate statistics from a player who averaged 35 catches, 509 yards and 4 touchdowns a season for 12 years, and always seemed to dominate the NFL highlight films with his acrobatic catches.
Curtis may have started those games, but younger receivers, such as Steve Kreider, Mike Martin and David Verser, usually finished.
Curtis got the message. His career, at least in Cincinnati, seemed as if it was finished.
There was a strong chance that he would be released prior to the 1985 season, but Curtis, the Bengals' all-time leading receiver, decided to retire Monday rather than face that possibility.
He decided to go out gracefully, instead of hanging on. He didn't want to end up like boxer Joe Frazier, who extended his career well beyond his prime and was pummeled by George Foreman in one of his last fights.
"I've always said that I wouldn't want to hold on too long, start struggling and get traded," Curtis said by telephone from Cincinnati. "I wanted to go out on my own terms.
"No particular player influenced me, but I've seen a number of guys who didn't give it up and bounced around the league. Sometimes, you can physically hurt yourself. I'm all in one piece, and things are going very well here. It was my time to go."
Curtis has no hard feelings toward the Bengal coaching staff or organization. He knows football isn't a game, it's a business. Besides, Curtis, 34, has enough business of his own to worry about these days.
For the past three years, he has worked part time for Weingardner and Hammons, Inc., a Cincinnati-based firm that operates Holiday Inns in 30 cities. He oversees the athletic programs for the hotels.
He also is a partner with Bengal quarterback Ken Anderson in a beverage distributorship in Dayton, Ohio. Now that his playing days are through, he will concentrate solely on his business ventures and will remain in Cincinnati to work full time.
Whereas some professional athletes have a difficult time with the transition from successful athlete to the every day working world, Curtis stands a chance of not missing a beat. But he said he still will miss football, particularly the camaraderie among his teammates, the locker room banter and the training camp jokes, even the ones played on him.
One of Curtis' favorites occurred two years ago following the rookie show, an annual variety affair that coincides with the end of each training camp.
Curtis had a little too much to drink and went back to his dormitory room to sleep. When he woke up, someone was shaking him, and his room was filled with about 10 other players. Curtis, meanwhile, was completely covered with shaving cream.
That was good for a few laughs, as was the one Curtis and some teammates played on Anderson after the rookie show three years ago.
"We had another big party and after curfew, some of the guys snuck over to Wilmington, which is the corn and hog capital of Ohio," Curtis said. "We got a hog and put it in Ken's room for about three or four hours. He came in and it was a mess, a real pig pen, and he had to sleep in there."
And, of course, there were the forgettable moments.
"When you drop a ball in front of 70,000 fans, you feel like you want to crawl into a hole," Curtis said. "In 12 years, you're gonna drop some passes, and I've definitely had my share. Plus, we've had some bad years where we went 4-10 and finished in last place."
His most memorable year in Cincinnati was 1981, when the Bengals won the AFC Central Division championship and advanced to Super Bowl XVI against the San Francisco 49ers at the Pontiac (Mich.) Silverdome.
The Bengals trailed, 20-0, at halftime but staged a second-half rally that fell just short, Cincinnati losing, 26-21. Curtis caught four passes in the game.