The career of an elite athlete is very short. That’s why most of them try to maximize their time in the spotlight before their inevitable retirement. But some stars take a different path. They come back and compete again after everyone thought they were finished.
Perhaps they fell out of love with their sport in their prime. Or they can’t resist the allure of being under the glittering lights. Whatever the reasons, many athletes come out of retirement to varying degrees of success. Check out 30 individuals who did exactly that via Sports Illustrated.
30. Randall Cunningham
Cunningham was one of the Eagles’ greatest-ever quarterbacks. He spent 11 seasons with the franchise before he lost his starting job in 1995. This didn’t please the QB and he left the sport to focus on his construction business. But his retirement didn’t last long (via UPI).
He returned to the NFL after a season away from football. The Minnesota Vikings sent representatives to his construction yard to lure him back. It was a surreal revival but he fell back in love with football. In the end, he played for another five seasons between the Vikings, Dallas, and the Ravens.
Davis was a former first-round pick in 2010. The offensive lineman spent his entire career with the 49ers. However, this came in two spells after he took a hiatus from the sport in 2015. Football players received a lot of damage to their bodies. Davis wanted to allow his body to heal.
Then he returned to the sport with the Niners and played for another season. But he quit again after this and it looked like he was done for good. In 2019, he attempted to come out of retirement but no one was interested. The game had left him behind after three years (via CBS Sports).
Johnson is one of the greatest NBA players ever. However, he’s equally important for his role off the court. In 1991, he rocked the world when he announced his sudden retirement. The Lakers icon admitted that he suffered from HIV and this forced him to leave his beloved sport behind (via History).
But Johnson wanted to quit basketball on his terms. He famously made a comeback in 1995-96 in an emotional season for the franchise. Some opponents like Karl Malone didn’t want to play against him. Nonetheless, Johnson changed perceptions of this taboo disease.
Emanuel spent his entire rookie contract with the Chargers after arriving as a fifth-round pick. However, the linebacker became a starter and it looked like he was on course for a comfortable NFL career. Then he retired abruptly in 2019 (via USA Today Sports).
His retirement came out of nowhere but it didn’t last for long. After a year on the sidelines, Emanuel returned to the NFL with the Raiders. There are many reasons why athletes quit their sports. Sometimes it’s because their body is letting them down or that they no longer love competition.
Everybody knows Ali because he transcended the sport of boxing. He broke onto the scene as the brash Cassius Clay. Then, he became a global superstar. However, the Vietnam War cost him four years of his prime. After this, his style changed and he began to absorb more damage.
After defeating Leon Spinks to become a three-time heavyweight champion, Ali retired in 1979. Unfortunately, he couldn’t stay away from the sport. He came out of retirement and fought Larry Holmes in a harrowing defeat. This also had devastating implications for his long-term health (via Ring TV).
Riggins is one of the Redskins’ greatest-ever players. However, a contract dispute in 1980 made him unhappy. The Washington Post reported that he said ‘football wasn’t fun anymore.’ He sat out for the entire season and the Redskins put him on their retirement list.
This made him ineligible to play for another team that year. In the end, it wasn’t the last that fans saw of Diesel. He came back after a year away from the sport and continued to contribute. Riggins even won a Super Bowl with Washington in 1983.
Bard had a great start to life with the Boston Red Sox but mental issues took their toll. He posted 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings in his first 197 innings with a 2.88 ERA. However, he inexplicably lost his confidence and left the sport for a remarkable seven years (via WCVB).
The pitcher believed that his time in the Major Leagues was over. Instead, he moved into coaching because he wanted to contribute to baseball in another way. However, his performances in practice stunned the players he worked with. He came out of retirement with the Rockies and won the Comeback Player of the Year award.
Major League athletes rarely face active Hall of Famers in their sports. That’s because they must retire before they are eligible for enshrinement. Lemieux became a Penguins’ icon but quit the sport after seven years. The Hockey Hall of Fame made the rare step of instantly making a HOF’er.
Then, Lemieux became the third active Hall of Famer in NHL history when he came out of retirement in 2000. After three years off the ice, he returned to Pittsburgh. Lemieux continued to score goals at a prolific rate despite everything his body endured including cancer.
A two-time Super Bowl winner, Sanders was an excellent cornerback. He spent the bulk of his career with the Falcons and the Cowboys. In 2000, Washington signed him to a mega-money, long-term contract. However, Sanders retired after just one season (via AllSport).
That wasn’t the end of his time in the NFL because he came out of retirement. He played for two years in Baltimore with mixed success. Yes, he played in 16 games in his final season. But the team didn’t make playoffs in either of his seasons with them.
Donavon has the most caps in USMNT history. He’s also the greatest U.S. player ever because of his longevity and contribution to the team. The forward spent most of his career with the L.A. Galaxy. But he also made brief forays on loan into Europe (via Bleacher Report).
He also returned from retirement on two occasions. The first time he came back to his beloved Galaxy after two years out of the game. Then he left the sport again but came back for a spell in Mexico with Leon. Finally, he moved into coaching and soccer franchise ownership.
For years, Mayweather dominated the Forbes Richest Athlete List. He is one of the best defensive boxers ever and retired officially after beating Conor McGregor in 2017, leaving him with an undefeated record of 50-0. However, his first retirement came back in 2007 (via AS).
This came after he defeated Oscar De La Hoya by split decision. Most people agree that it was a brilliant marketing ploy. Soon he was back in action against the U.K’s Ricky Hatton. Then Mayweather dominated the boxing scene for the next decade and became disgustingly rich.
Howe’s longevity remains the stuff of legend. He played for so long that he was even teammates with two of his sons. The Red Wings icon retired for the first time in 1971. But he returned after a brief period away from hockey. Then he continued into his fifties with the Whalers.
It’s safe to say that his first return from retirement was a success. Then Howe came back again with the Detroit Vipers in 1981. This wasn’t the highest level or a serious appearance. However, it made him the first player to feature for six decades in professional hockey (via ESPN).
Everybody knows that Armstrong is one of the most infamous athletes in history. The cyclist became a figure of shame after his notorious doping scandal. The cancer survivor left the sport behind in 2005 (via Reuters). However, Armstrong returned from retirement in 2009.
He continued to race until 2011 before leaving cycling behind for good. However, he didn’t enjoy it for long because a USADA investigation confirmed his rampant PED use. This was a major scandal and destroyed his reputation in front of the world.
Usually when NFL players return from retirement, they don’t last long. That’s exactly the case in Moss’s situation. The legendary wideout was outstanding for the Vikings and probably should have a Super Bowl ring. He quit the Titans in 2010 and sat out for a year.
But Ross couldn’t resist the temptation to return for a final adventure. He joined the Niners in 2012 and featured in 16 games. He broke records along the way and played in a Super Bowl. However, the Ravens narrowly defeated San Francisco in his last chance of glory (via N.Y. Times).
In the end, he only sat out for a season. That’s because he felt revived after a hiatus away from the sport. Pettite rejoined the Yankees the following year and continued until 2013. Then, he left the sport permanently because he was happy with what he had achieved (via The Guardian).
Phelps enjoyed a stellar Olympic career. The swimmer is the most successful Olympian ever with an amazing 28 medals. However, he left the sport in 2012 because he didn’t feel he had anything left to give. After years of total dedication, it’s no surprise that he wanted to live life without pressure.
Nonetheless, his retirement didn’t last for long. Unlike many athletes, his return was very successful. He competed at the next Olympics in Rio and won five more medals. Phelps had a unique ability to win and remains an inspiration to many elite athletes (via Sportscasting).
When Leonard retired for the first time, in 1982, he said he was done and that was it. He also insisted that an anticipated bout against Marvin Hagler would never happen. However, this proved not to be true in both cases. Leonard came out of retirement, not once but twice in his career (via New York Times).
The first comeback was the most successful because he won a plethora of titles. He also defeated rivals like Hagler and Roberto Duran. But his second return was less successful. Unfortunately, like many aging athletes, he was past his prime. In the end, he lost his final two fights.
Schumacher dominated the world of Formula 1 throughout his era. Ferrari signed him from Benetton after he won two world titles. Then he became the most successful driver in the long and storied history of Ferrari. He retired in 2006 with nothing left to prove.
But his retirement didn’t last forever. In 2010, Mercedes lured away from his chalet and he hopped back into the cockpit. Unfortunately, his comeback wasn’t very successful because he only had a single podium finish in three seasons. Nonetheless, he remained a legend (via The Guardian).
It’s a sad reality that many elite combat sports athletes are incapable of staying retired. Often it’s a financial decision if they suffer from monetary problems. However, sometimes they have an existential crisis. That’s because they crave the glamour of being the star that everybody wants to see. But it never ends well.
Liddell retired in 2010 after losing six of his last seven fights including four straight knockout defeats. Then, he came back in 2018 at the age of 48 to fight Tito Ortiz. It was terrible to watch because Liddell was slow, old, and out of shape. In the end, he suffered a brutal KO.
Now everybody knows Kapler as the manager of the Giants. But he had a distinguished baseball-playing career before this. It saw him travel the world from MLB to Japan. In 2007, the World Series winner announced his retirement from the sport (via NBC Sports).
However, he came back after just a season of managing the Greenville Drive. Kapler enjoyed another four seasons in the Major Leagues before he retired again for good. Then, he dedicated himself to coaching and management. These days, he’s one of the league’s most dynamic personalities.
Most players retire once, but Lynch did so on three occasions. He starred for the Seahawks after playing for the Bills. The running back has an incredible highlight real and was also popular for his personality. His first retirement came in 2016 but he came back to join the Raiders (via Bleacher Report).
Then after a couple of seasons, he quit the NFL for a second time. Or at least that’s what everybody thought. But the veteran running back rejoined the Seahawks in 2019 and made a single appearance. It wasn’t the return everybody hoped for but he remained popular.
Everybody loves ‘Gronk’ because he is a lovable lunatic. The Bucs’ star is a party animal and won the hearts of the entire NFL. This is remarkable because he spent the bulk of his career with the Patriots. Most people outside of Boston despise the franchise (via Sportscasting).
The tight end retired after nine seasons in the NFL because of the toll it took on his body. However, his retirement only lasted for a single year. That’s because he rejoined Tom Brady when the quarterback moved to Tampa Bay. It was amazing because the dream team won another Super Bowl together.
It’s rare for basketball players to come out of retirement but that’s exactly what Wallace did when he rejoined the NBA in 2012. This came after his initial departure from the sport two years earlier. Wallace starred for the Hawks but fell out of love with basketball in Boston.
However, the Knicks lured him out of retirement and he spent a season in New York. It wasn’t the most electrifying comeback ever because he only played in 21 games. Meanwhile, he was a backup for that entire period. Then he retired from the sport for good (via CBC).
Scholes was one of England’s finest midfielders. He had the passing range of an NFL quarterback and was a true fan favorite. But he never courted attention away from the soccer field. The former Manchester United star was a brilliant player and a great servant (via The Independent).
It’s rare for a soccer player to leave retirement. However, that’s exactly what Scholes did in January 2012. He retired the previous summer but an injury crisis at his former club tempted him back. Despite his advancing years, Scholes continued to perform at a high level.
Brady retired in 2022 at the grand age of 44. The amazing aspect was that he was still at the peak of his powers. He was playing as well as he did in his early 20s. After 20 legendary seasons with the Patriots, he joined the Bucs in 2020 and won another Super Bowl (via CBS Sports).
However, Tampa Bay fell short in the playoffs the following season. This led Brady to reconsider his future and he called time on his career. Then, he had a change of heart and announced his return. He would play until the age of 45. But spare a thought for the man who spent $500,000 on Brady’s ‘final touchdown’ ball.
Jordan’s first retirement is one of the most unusual on this list. The Bulls’ star was at peak stardom and performing brilliantly when he called time on his career in 1993. Naturally, the murder of his father had a profound impact on him and he wanted a change of pace.
So he played minor league baseball for a season before returning to Chicago. Then he helped revive the Bulls’ dynasty and reached even greater levels of superstardom. Jordan retired again for good in 1998. However, he remains one of the greatest figures in sports history (via Sporting News).
McGregor is the UFC’s most famous athlete. The Irishman won the promotion’s featherweight and lightweight titles. He also had a mega-money clash with Floyd Mayweather. However, his relationship with the UFC hasn’t always been the coziest (via The Guardian).
‘The Notorious’ has retired on three occasions. The first one only lasted for a day after a fallout with Dana White ahead of UFC 200. He refused to do media duties so the UFC pulled him from the fight. Then, McGregor retired as a negotiation tactic to extort the UFC.
Before he lent his name to a grill, Foreman was a magnificent boxer. However, a shocking loss against Muhammad Ali caused him to become disillusioned with boxing. But he continued to fight before another defeat. He then retired and became a pastor (via History).
10 years later, Foreman came out of retirement. It was one of the most glorious returns ever because he became the oldest heavyweight champion ever. This was a remarkable journey because it was so unlikely. In the end, Foreman became an all-time great.
Many MMA fans consider St-Pierre the greatest UFC fighter ever. The former two-time welterweight champion defended his title a record number of times. He also avenged every loss he suffered. However, in 2013, he hung up his gloves after a brutal bout against Johnny Hendricks (via Sportscasting).
GSP won a controversial split decision and left the sport behind. Nobody saw him for four years before he announced he was coming back. It’s true that he never officially declared his retirement, but it seemed unlikely that he’d return. Then, in 2017, he submitted Michael Bisping to win the middleweight championship.
Green Bay has enjoyed some brilliant quarterbacks and Favre is no exception. He won a Super Bowl with the Packers and spent the bulk of his career with the franchise. However, he retired multiple times. Ultimately, this ended his tenure with the team in acrimonious circumstances (via Bleacher Report).
Favre retired and the Packers decided to make Aaron Rodgers their starter. Then, Favre decided he wanted to continue but it was too late. He left Green Bay with a bitter taste. Finally, he played for the Jets and the Vikings. But everybody prefers to forget that chapter of that career.