Knowing when to walk away from a sport can’t be easy.  Some athlete’s do it too soon, while others stay to long.

Professional athletes sacrifice a lot to be able to compete at a high level. Their training includes countless hours of practice, strict diets and determination that most of us non-athletes would probably consider crazy.

For them, walking away from the game has to feel like giving away a vital organ.

Yet, for Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith, it just may be that time. The team is coming off a 12-5 season in which it won its division and made the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Next season, there are already tons of expectations and General Manager Dave Gettlemen is“evaluating” the team.

The Panthers have 21 unrestricted free agents to sign, including All Pro defensive end Greg Hardy. Up to this point, the Panthers haven’t given their 13-year veteran receiver any indication as to what their plans are going forward.

Smith is not the only athlete that finds himself in this boat, but to me, his career represents the crossroad every athlete comes to at some point.

Smith is now faced with the question of, should he stay in the game he loves or should he go out on top? To be honest, neither answer is wrong to me.

I wasn’t ever bothered by the way future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre waffled before every season as to whether he’d return or not. When Michael Jordan returned with the Washington Wizards it bothered me a little. Not because he came back again, rather because he wasn’t playing for the Chicago Bulls. His return in itself wasn’t that big of a deal to me.

Do I think the Panthers owe Smith an ongoing dialogue about his future with the team? Yes. Whether it’s with the Panthers or not, Smith should play if he still has the desire to.

Even though his production has dropped off in the last few seasons, Smith could be a viable slot or number two receiver on almost any team in the NFL.

Now is not the time for Smith to retire and even if it was, I wouldn’t be the one to decide for him. Some athletes stay in the games they love far too long and it’s painful to watch. There may not be anything worse than watching a sports figure I once loved, overstay his ability.

I wouldn’t want to tell any athlete who has sacrificed all the things they did to get into professional sports that they can no longer play the game.

Athletes deserve the right to decide when playing sports is no longer a viable option to them. I have not seen one athlete yet who’s beaten Father Time.