Superstar Athletes Who Retired Too Soon
It doesn’t matter the sport or even the team, whenever we see a young talent blossom into a certified star, we want to soak up every last second of it. Even when that great happens to be on our favorite team’s bitter rival, we relish the opportunity to hate that evil incarnate of sports.
But what about when the athlete is done with the game? It often boils down to health concerns, sometimes a lost love for the game and other times it’s something else entirely.
Whatever the reason, watching the greats go never gets any easier. Let’s take a look at some of the all-timers who had years of greatness written in the stars before they decided to call it a career.
Ken Dryden, NHL
NHL fans know that Ken Dryden is, without a doubt, one of the greatest players to play the game. To the casual fan however, it’s all too common that the legendary goalie is little more than a familiar name.
Only in the league eight years, seven of which were full seasons, Dryden’s career with the Montreal Canadiens is among the most successful professional careers in all of sports.
Dryden was something special from the get-go.
In the 1970-71 season, the Canadiens called their rookie up very late in the season. After just regular season games, Montreal was so impressed that they stuck with the 23-year-old throughout the playoffs.
Their trust in the youngster paid off, as he played a pivotal role in leading the team to a Stanley Cup championship.
The winning didn’t stop there. Dryden was invaluable, an impenetrable wall that ensured the Canadiens could continue their dynasty. The conclusion of his eighth season (1978-79) marked his sixth Stanley Cup championship.
Though it seems unfathomable that a goalie who still holds the record for all-time save percentage (0.922) should hang up the gloves at age 31, Dryden was always a man bound for greatness far beyond the boundaries of his goalposts.
Drafted in 1964, Dryden instead chose to attend Cornell and earn a degree. During the 1973-74 season, Dryden dismissed a lowball contract offer, stepped away from the game and worked as a legal clerk while earning his law degree.
From political endeavors to leadership roles, Dryden’s magnitude is simply too grand for one stage. And then there was that hockey game he broadcast along with Al Michaels for ABC in 1980. An Olympic hockey game between the United States and the Soviets in Lake Placid, N.Y. Do you believe in iconic moments?
Patrick Willis, NFL
Sweet mother of sacks, football gods have mercy on the poor souls who are on the receiving end of a hit from the freight train that is Patrick Willis.
When the San Francisco 49ers selected Willis with the 11th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft, they landed every bit of the linebacker beast they hoped for and more.
Right off the bat, Willis asserted himself as one of the premier linebackers in his first year with an outstanding season that earned him Defensive Rookie of the Year, Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. Those Pro Bowl selections would remain a constant for seven straight years.
San Francisco’s lockdown defensive unit quickly rose to prominence and launched the Niners onto the national stage as one of the most dangerous teams in the league, with Willis front and center. Of Willis’ five All-Pro seasons, his efforts in 2010 brought out a nearly unanimous belief that San Fran had the linebacker of the future.
Willis and the Niners defense were integral in reaching the Super Bowl in 2012, but injuries were beginning to accumulate. It was 2014 that marked his downfall. A toe injury – a seemingly “minor” injury that has led to the demise of countless football players – forced Willis to the sidelines after six games and required season-ending surgery.
That was the final straw. In March 2015, Willis, only 30 at the time, saw the injuries piling up and knew it was not a trend that would change in the right direction.
The 49ers saw their team that had a Super Bowl championship in reach suddenly fall apart in the blink of an eye two short seasons later, as he was only one of a few big names to hang up his cleats for various health reasons.
Brandon Roy, NBA
Oh, what could have been.
The Portland Blazers absolutely nailed it when they selected the Pacific Northwest assassin out of the University of Washington, Brandon Roy, with the No. 6 pick of the 2006 NBA Draft.
The Blazers wasted no time inserting Roy into the starting lineup, and he thrived there.
A deft ballhandler and lights out shooter, Roy earned his nickname “The Natural” very quickly. By his sophomore season it was obvious that he was already one of the best offensive talents in the league, earning his first of three straight All-Star selections.
It was prior to Roy’s third season that his knee first presented an issue when he needed cartilage removed from his left knee to alleviate discomfort. The following season it was his right knee that took damage – a meniscus tear – during the playoffs.
Then, constant knee pain through the 2010-11 season revealed that his ongoing ailment was serious. Both knees had suffered serious cartilage loss.
At the conclusion of the 2011, Roy had no choice but to retire, as the rapid deterioration of his cartilage in both knees was so bad there was essentially no cartilage (essentially, no padding) left. He was only 26.
After spending a year away from the game, recovering and rehabilitating to the best of his abilities (unfortunately, cartilage cannot grow back).
Following the lead of other top athletes who had turned to advancements in science, Roy hoped that PRP injections (platelet rich plasma) could help rejuvenate his knees. Roy returned to the hardwood with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the 2012-13 season, but after taking a hit during the preseason, only lasted five regular season games before he once again needed surgery.
After kicking off as promising of a young career as any, a 28-year-old Roy had already retired for a second time, this time for good.
Bo Jackson NFL/MLB
Oh. My. Muscle.
There may not be a better athlete in the world to suggest that demigods were a real thing back in ancient times than Bo “Built like Zeus” Jackson.
Jackson was the epitome of what every professional team hopes to land – athletically gifted and supremely talented.
In college, Jackson was a two-sport athlete, playing football and baseball at Auburn. Jackson exceled in both to the point that he was selected in the MLB and NFL drafts.
Rather than pour his efforts into one sports, Jackson decided that he would pursue both of his passions, leading to one of the most inspiring, mind-boggling careers in sports.
Jackson only played four NFL seasons as a running back on the Los Angeles Raiders, but he was a gridiron favorite in that time. In his fourth and final season, Jackson’s hard work paid off, earning a Pro Bowl selection and helping his team reach the playoffs.
The craziest part of these four years was the way he endured the physical punishment as a running back while his “home” team in the MLB was way out east in Kansas City with the Royals.
Thanks to Raiders owner Al Davis, who was enamored with such a unique talent, Jackson was allowed to miss the start of the NFL season to close out each MLB season.
Talented as Jackson was in a helmet and pads, there was good reason Davis had to settle for partial seasons, as the heavy hitter earned an All-Star selection in 1989 and actually won the All-Star Game MVP.
Jackson rapid rise to stardom was met with a similar fall when a dislocated hip in his first playoff game with the Raiders forced him to retire from football after the 1990 season. His retirement from baseball followed soon after. Cut from the Royals, Jackson played parts of three seasons with the White Sox and Angels before retiring in 1994.
One freak injury shut down two remarkable careers.
Bobby Orr, NHL
Through the 1960-70s, Bobby Orr was the heart and soul of the Boston Bruins. Often placed in the 10 greatest players in NHL history, Orr’s iconic career was defined by his aggressive nature – a reckless abandon that would both make and break him.
In a league that relegated defenseman to a “classic” security role with defensive positioning, Orr completely changed the game with his offensive prowess and play-making abilities. Having first learned the growing up as a forward, Orr’s speed and technical skills enabled him to dictate pace and play.
Orr still holds the record for defenseman as the single-season leader in points and assists. He won three straight Hart Trophies (MVP) and was the keystone during Boston’s two Stanley Cup championships.
Though he would have taken plenty of huge hits from opponents throughout his career anyways, being a left-handed shooter positioned on the right side did him in. Time and again, Orr would rush the puck and protect it with his left leg leading against any incoming opponent.
It may have been effective, but the punishment his left knee took as a result was overwhelming. Chipped bone, worn down cartilage and excessive ligament damage led to countless surgeries on his left knee (not to mention the array of injuries the rest of his body endured).
After just nine years in the league, Orr was barely able to take the ice, playing 10 games during his final season in Boston and a total of 26 games in his final two NHL seasons in Chicago.
At age 30, Orr’s heart proved to be too much for his body to handle. The Boston legend burned bright and fast, leaving a career that will forever be etched in fans’ memories.
Bjorn Borg, Tennis
Bjorn Borg was a maestro on the tennis court. He carried himself with a demeanor so cool, calm and collected that he was that he earned the nicknames “Ice Man” and “Ice-Borg.” No matter how grand the stage, Borg appeared unphased.
The Swedish assassin was born for greatness, appearing in his first Davis Cup in 1972 at age 15. The following year, Borg began his professional career. By year’s end, Borg had climbed the ladder at a dizzying pace, going from unranked to No. 18 in the world.
Borg continued to catapult past the competition, winning his first major, the French Open, in 1974. His success came at a staggering rate. The Grand Slam felt like more than an exhibition “Borg vs. The Other Guy.” From 1974-81, Borg won at least one French Open or Wimbledon title.
With such unrivaled success came unheralded attention. Borg’s three straight ITF World Championships (1978-80) and five consecutive ATP Player of the Year honors (1976-80) came at the cost of his mental health.
It was impossible to escape the ever-mounting pressure to outperform himself, and the constant media attention pushed Borg beyond his breaking point. At just 26 years old – still years from even hitting his prime – the greatest tennis player in the world stepped away from the game.
Calvin Johnson, NFL
At his worst, wide receiver Calvin Johnson was a beast. At his best, Megatron was an unstoppable machine.
This is a rough one for longtime Detroit Lions fans who endured the painful post-Barry Sanders years after he retired, enduring a decade of atrocious football (highlighted by an 0-16 season in ‘08) only to land Johnson with the No. 2 pick in 2007, another superstar to retire early.
The 6-foot-5 Johnson was there through the rough years, making it all the sweeter when quarterback Matt Stafford came in to help turn the team around in the right direction.
They made quite the tandem. By Stafford’s second year, they had established enough of a rapport to earn Megatron his first Pro Bowl selection.
Johnson developed into one of the most electric players in the league with freakish athleticism in play after play that continually left fans and players breathless. In 2011 and 2012, Megatron was in full effect, leading the league in receiving yards.
After his fifth straight Pro Bowl year in 2015, the enigma that was Megatron stepped away from the game. Just like that, one of the most unstoppable offensive forces in football had enough, and he was only 30.
Once again, the continually growing theme of the game’s physical toll was the reason. Johnson, especially with his size and physicality, made this decision surprising in some fans’ eyes, but it most likely resulted in a bigger target on his back that forced him out sooner than we were ready to see him go.
Mario Lemieux, NHL
It’s widely agreed upon that Mario Lemieux is firmly planted in the top-10 greatest NHL players of all time. Although the public’s opinion of his greatness would likely be identical to what it is today anyways, his career looked to have reached an end at age 31.
Lemieux was the face of the Penguins, playing the entirety of his career in Pittsburgh, making it all the more devastating to the city when he announced in 1993 that he was battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
While enduring aggressive radiation treatment that leaves even the fittest body ravaged, Lemieux managed to play portions of the 1993-94 season, even scoring a goal and assist in another city the same day as his final treatment.
Lemieux stepped away for one season to rehabilitate his body after the grueling trials of his radiation therapy. The two-time Stanley Cup champion thrived in his return, as the league was cracking down on its aggressive style of play, though the protective officiating was short-lived.
By the ’96 playoffs, obstructive fouls were once again in play, and it took a toll. Though he was convinced to return for another season, a collection of surgeries, chronic pain and battle with cancer had finally pushed the 31-year-old into an early retirement.
Lemieux then became a Pittsburgh hero by purchasing the bankrupt Penguins in ’99. At age 35, he did the unthinkable, returning to the ice to fulfill his son’s wishes of seeing him play. He remained on the team until 2006 when age and an atrial fibrillation diagnosis concluded his second NHL stint.
Justine Henin, Tennis
Justine Henin was a certified beast on the tennis court. As true of an all-court player as they come, finding a flaw in her game was like searching for a crack in unbreakable glass. Volley at the net or trade groundstrokes at the baseline, Henin did it better.
The Belgian’s ascent through the ranks was swift thanks in large part to her one-handed backhand, a technique she mastered like no other has.
Henin made her professional debut in May 1999 at the Belgian Open, which she would go on to win. The statement beginning to her pro career was a telling sign of what was to come.
By 2003, Henin had established herself as one of the top talents in the world, defeating top ranked opponents again and again until finally earning a world No. 1 ranking.
Fast-forward to 2008 and Henin still stood atop her competition as the world No. 1. With seven singles Grand Slam titles to her name, her success was a constant.
During that time, however, various injuries had accrued.
After losing a third-round match at the German Open, Henin, still ranked No. 1, blindsided the tennis world with the announcement of her retirement.
Only 25, the injury bug had taken its toll.
There was an attempted comeback in 2010 that started in spectacular fashion at the Brisbane International, defeating three top 10 seeds to reach the finals. She quickly re-established a world rank, though once again it was injury that proved to be her fiercest opponent and, in January 2011, the 28-year-old star had officially played her last match.
Jim Brown, NFL
At his peak, no one could slow down Cleveland Browns running back Jiim Brown. Unfortunately for opposing defenses throughout the NFL, essentially every single one of his nine years in the league looked like his peak.
Drafted sixth overall in the 1957 NFL Draft, a 21-year-old Brown wasted no time letting the world know who’s top dog. In his first season, Brown earned both Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. He would go on to be a Pro Bowler all nine seasons and only miss All-Pro honors once.
Brown’s case for being the greatest player of his generation didn’t stop there, he also led Cleveland to a championship in 1964 and was named the league MVP three times! It was after his third MVP selection in 1965 that Brown suddenly decided to retire on top to pursue other endeavors.
It seemed crazy to the sports world, but Brown’s heart was in Hollywood. The Hall of Fame fullback turned his talents to the acting world where he would star in numerous films from the late ‘60s to early ‘80s.
Brown starred in an array of action movies, notably leading in blaxploitation films in the ‘70s before the genre tapered off after the ’70s.
What may have shaped up to be the greatest NFL career by a landslide instead saw a 29-year-old in his prime leave for something else entirely. If that’s not the Cleveland way, nothing is.
Barry Sanders, NFL
The Detroit Lions had landed a monster in the making when they drafted running back Barry Sanders third overall in 1989.
Sanders hit the ground running, tearing up defenses on his way to a dazzling rookie season that earned him Pro Bowl, All-Pro and Rookie of the Year honors.
There was no rookie wall and there certainly wouldn’t be a sophomore slump… or any slump for that matter.
Fast forward to the end of the 1997 season and Sanders was standing on top of the world after rushing for a mind-boggling 2,053 yards! Sanders’ ungodly numbers earned him the coveted MVP award.
A Pro Bowl season for the 30-year-old back the following season put him 1,457 yards shy of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record.
Sanders was destined to shatter this record but, out of the blue, he instead decided to hang up his cleats and call it a career. The decision devastated Detroit fans and shocked the NFL.
Blindsided as everyone was by Sanders’ decision to leave while at the top of his game and easily on track to become the all-time leader in rushing yards, Sanders had good reason. It became glaringly obvious that, despite Sanders supreme talent, the front office seemed unwilling to supply a supporting cast capable of leading the team to a Super Bowl.
Sanders was fed up with sacrificing his body for a front office unwilling to sacrifice what’s in their wallets. Sanders’ early exit did bring him something invaluable – he left the league with a clean bill of health.
Michael Jordan, NBA
Michael Jordan is something of an outlier on this list. For the most part, it was one severe injury or the piling on of various ailments that led to an early exit. For others, the emotional strain of media and fans constantly wanting and expecting more.
For MJ, leaving basketball stemmed from another reason(s) entirely.
What Jordan did for the Chicago Bulls, NBA and game of basketball is indescribable. He single-handedly drove its popularity through the roof – don’t forget, the ceiling is the roof – around the world.
From his rookie season, Michael Jordan was an All-Star, earning nine straight selections as he built the Bulls into a world-famous dynasty. The 1990-91 season marked the first of three consecutive championships.
Then out of nowhere, while hitting his prime, a 30-year-old MJ announced that he had accomplished all he could and was retiring from the game.
To be fair, Jordan literally had pretty much nailed every individual and team accolade there was, but his decision to leave basketball to go pursue a career in minor league baseball sure didn’t add up.
There were some notable conspiracies, but it really boiled down to one: His well-known (and infamous) proclivity for gambling got him in hot water with the league so, rather than soil his and the NBA’s reputation, it was thought to be a mutual decision behind closed doors that he temporarily step away from the league.
Some consider it farfetched, but many have theorized the popular conspiracy goes a step further, believing unpaid debts from his gambling addiction actually resulted in his father’s death in ’93, when he stepped away.
Whatever the true reason for Jordan’s leave from the game, he returned shortly after his ’93 retirement at age 31. After collecting another three championships, MJ hung up his jersey again in ’99 at age 34… only to return AGAIN at age 38 to play two more seasons with the Washington Wizards.
In 2003, there wasn’t much doubt that the 40-year-old Jordan’s third retirement was indeed his last.
Sandy Koufax, MLB
Arguably the greatest left-hander in Major League Baseball history, and on the short list for greatest pitcher overall, Sandy Koufax dominated the first half of the 1960s for the Los Angeles Dodgers, baffling hitters at a rate rarely seen before or since.
Between 1961-66, Koufax won three Cy Young Awards (1963, ’65, ’66), three pitching Triple Crowns (Wins, strikeouts, ERA), two World Series titles and MVP awards (1963, ’65), an NL MVP award (1963) and was an All-Star each season. He threw four no-hitters, including a perfect game in 1965.
After six lackluster seasons after joining the Dodgers in 1955 at age 20, a change in his delivery – and the counter-intuitive realization that he didn’t need to over-throw to have success — before the 1961 season unleashed the beast that Koufax became to National League hitters for the rest of his career.
In that 1961 season, Koufax broke Christy Mathewson’s 58-year-old NL single-season strikeout record with 269. The true greatness came in 1963, when he won the league MVP by posting a 25-5 record with a 1.88 ERA and 306 strikeouts. Perhaps his greatest season came in 1965, when he recorded 382 (!) strikeouts in 335 innings, going 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA, leading the Dodgers to their second World Series title in three years.
But after another Cy Young season at age 31 in 1966, Koufax suddenly announced his retirement. A contract dispute with the Dodgers in the era before free agency partly soured Koufax on extending his career, but his reason to step aside was more urgent. Arthritis was already starting to debilitate his left arm, and continued pitching would only worsen his prognosis. At his retirement press conference, Koufax explained that no amount of money was worth losing the use of his arm. Because of his early retirement, Koufax became the youngest player ever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, at age 36 in 1972.
Tiki Barber, NFL
It took years for New York Giants running back Tiki Barber to establish himself as one of the top talents in the NFL, but it seemed like right when he was finally reaching his peak, he stepped away from the game.
Barber spent his first few years in New York playing second and even third fiddle on the Giants’ running back committee, getting a real chance to stand out returning punts and receiving.
In his fourth year in the league, Barber finally got his shot as lead back in 2000 and showed the Giants their decision was the right move with his first 1,000+ yard rushing season while helping push Big Blue to the Super Bowl.
Though the G-Men were bested by the Baltimore Ravens, Barber earned himself a six-year deal to be the Giants’ feature back through 2006. Barber came to be a focal point of New York’s offense and, in 2004, earned his first Pro Bowl selection thanks to an impressive 2,000+ yards from scrimmage.
This marked his first of three consecutive Pro Bowl selections and one All-Pro honor (2005). Barber had signed a two-year extension in 2005 that would take him through the 2008 season.
Despite finally hitting his stride and being part of a team that was clearly improving, Barber announced at the start of the 2006 season that he intended on retiring after the season.
The story was that of so many other feature running backs. The physical toll the game took on his body was simply too taxing.
The following year, the 31-year-old running back hung up the cleats to pursue a broadcasting career… just in time to watch the Giants pull of the greatest upset in Super Bowl history, as the underdog G-Men toppled the undefeated Patriots to become world champs.