Martina Navratilova was never fully appreciated, either, until the twilight of her career.
No matter how many championships she collected, or clutch performances she turned in at the majors, there was always somebody younger and sexier the fans and media liked better.
But year after year, until well after the calendar said she was supposed to be done, Navratilova blended excellence with accomplishment until her body of work could no longer be ignored. Only then did the masses step back and marvel at her remarkable career.
And only now, as 42-year-old Damon Allen returns to Edmonton as the CFL's all-time leading passer, third all-time leading rusher and 2004 Grey Cup MVP, is the football world truly appreciating his remarkable 21-year run.
"The first time I met him, I bowed," said Argos head coach Pinball Clemons. "And I still do that today. He's just a phenomenal player, a phenomenal athlete. I think it's maybe time we stop stressing his age and start talking about how good a football player he is.''
Indeed. This isn't Mark Messier, content to hang around in a diminished, supporting role, this is a guy with two titles in the last four seasons and the second-best completion percentage (67.7) in the CFL today.
"That's the thing that gets me," said Eskimos coach Danny Maciocia. "People were impressed with him last year and they haven't seen anything yet. I watch him on film and it's frustrating, this can't be happening. He keeps drives alive, he's not afraid of running, he'll throw the ball underneath, he's extremely patient, he's exciting. I'm glad he's out east.''
Allen, who broke into the CFL when Ricky Ray was five, credits those early, formative years for his bewildering longevity.
"Coming to the Eskimos gave me a great foundation,'' he said. "I was taught to prepare well, I was taught the game very early in my career by (offensive co-ordinator) Steve Goldman. That set a tremendous foundation that a lot of quarterbacks don't get nowadays.
"If I would have went to another team and became a starter and wasn't taught the league, I might have been out of the league in my first or second year.''
Instead, it's been 21, and his body of work is almost staggering. His teams have made the playoffs 17 times. He's been to five Grey Cups (where he's 4-1 with two MVPs, one outstanding offensive player award and a 63.5 completion percentage). He's No.2 on pro football's all-time passing yards list with 66,254, well within striking distance of Warren Moon's 70,553.
Yet Allen, for all his rings and numbers, never won a Most Outstanding Player award and only twice in two decades was he a first team all-star. The knock was always that he was a superior athlete masquerading as a quarterback. More legs than arm or brain. So it's ironic that only now, after he's slowed a step, is he getting the credit he deserves.
"I could read coverages back then,'' he laughed. "But so often you're labelled. Early in your career you're a runner. Then all of a sudden you've thrown for more yards than anybody who's ever played here.
"So what is he now? Is he still a runner? I'm still third on the list of all the running backs who ever played here. I'm not sure what I am. I guess I'm a player who uses all his abilities. The only thing I find different is early in my career I could run a 40- or 50-yard touchdown. Can I do that now? I don't know. I don't think so. But I can still make a 20, 25-yarder look good.''
Allen is understandably tired with the 42-year-old questions.
Not because he isn't proud of what he's accomplished, but because he doesn't have an answer.
"So often what I'm getting now is 'How are you able to do it? How do you answer that question?' I'm just doing what I can do. I'm on the field playing the game I had a desire to play since I was a kid, five years old. The fact that I'm still doing it at 40-something doesn't indicate the reality.
"I'm much younger than 42.''