If a professional athlete plays deep into their thirties, many fans consider them old. The reality is that most sports stars don’t even make it that far. The toll of playing a sport at an elite level is heavy on bodies, be it football, basketball, or combat sports. It doesn’t take long for deterioration to begin and then athletes face a difficult decision.
Even legends get old. So today, we’re going to take a look at 25 athletes who stuck around their sports for too long. Money is a motivating factor for most of these stars and that has to be respected. Yet many of them also loved their sport so much they didn’t want to leave it. But in many cases, it affected their legacy or even their long-term health. Check out the list below via Sportscasting.
35. Johnny Unitas
Unitas is an NFL icon and for good reason. With three NFL Championships to his name as well as a Super Bowl, he was the greatest player of his generation. But there’s no denying that he played for far too long during an era where football was even more brutal than it is now. While the athletes weren’t as big or as fast, they lacked the same understanding of sports science and brain trauma that are common knowledge today.
The Baltimore Colts’ legend could barely use his hand after his career was over due to significant damage during his prolonged stretch on the field. Furthermore, his artificial knees gave him years of pain and prevented him from pursuing any physical activities. It was unfortunate that he didn’t retire earlier because he could have alleviated some of the damage he suffered and ensured a better quality of life as he got older.
‘The Pacman’ first started boxing in 1995. The only eight-weight, four-decade champion in the history of the sport, the Filipino is one of the most famous and respected combat sports of all-time. But the big question is, why does he still fight? Pacquaio is also a state senator in his home country and combines politics with an athletic career. It’s a unique and some would say a strange set of circumstances.
With over 70 professional fights on his record, Pacquaio has enjoyed a ridiculously long career. He even held the WBA welterweight title into 2021. But with all of those fights comes a lot of physical miles. He’s incredibly rich but there’s no way he can replace the brain cells that he loses in the future. It’s a risky business when there is no real need to keep fighting into his forties.
Rivers spent 16 long seasons with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers before finally departing as a free agent. However, he arguably should have retired at the end of his 15th year because his form went into a downward spiral. This led to the sad result of many Chargers fans feeling relieved when he left instead of thankful for his many years of servitude. It’s harsh, but he was awful in his final year in L.A.
Furthermore, his time in Indianapolis has been a mixed bag. There were unbelievable lows as well as some great statistical milestones. But unfortunately, most people remember the former more than the latter. Rivers never received the same respect as many of his contemporaries like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, or Ben Roethlisberger. It’s also unlikely that he ever will.
A one-club man with Manchester United, Neville was one of the best fullbacks of his generation. Meanwhile, he enjoyed a long, trophy-laden career as he won eight Premier League winners’ medals and two Champions League titles amongst a host of other honors. Neville also captained the team for five years and was incredibly hard-working and intelligent. This was important because he lacked silky skills or exceptional athleticism.
However, he admits that he should have retired earlier because when he became older he slowed down substantially. This meant that he wasn’t able to use his gifts to the same effect and he believes that he cost his team valuable points. Neville wishes that he hung up his cleats when he was a bit younger so the team would have missed him more than they did.
When an NFL player makes eight consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, it’s easy to expect them to be brilliant forever. Carter was magnificent for the Minnesota Vikings, but his numbers dropped off significantly in his final season with the franchise. He was never the quickest wide receiver, but had remarkable in-game intelligence that he used to spectacular and devastating effect.
However, in his last year as a Viking, he caught just 73 balls for 871 yards and seven touchdowns. This was his lowest total in almost 10 seasons. Then, he moved to the Miami Dolphins. But he only started five games in Florida due to ineffectiveness. Carter averaged just 8.3 yards per catch at the age of 37. There comes a time when a player must admit they’ve been around for too long.
There was a time when ‘The Last Emperor’ was the most feared fighter on the planet. But after a long career, age finally caught up with Emelianenko. He never fought in the UFC, which arguably helped build up his mystique. After going undefeated for nine years, he ran into Fabricio Werdum in 2010 and went on a three-fight losing streak. But he rebounded and continued to fight into his forties.
This amount of brain trauma isn’t good for anybody and when a fighter is as rich and successful as Fedor, it begs the question of why he continued for so long. Nobody likes to see a legend suffer knockout losses. Also, these late defeats can affect their legacy as well. The bad memories often replace the old ones and change the narrative about their careers.
Roethlisberger missed the entire 2019 season after a devastating elbow injury where he tore multiple ligaments. Recuperation was difficult because of his age, but he worked hard and returned the following season. Then the Steelers went on an insane 11-game winning streak, but it was a mirage because the reality was that they weren’t as good as their form suggested. Furthermore, Roethlisberger’s form was incredibly patchy.
Steelers fans love ‘Big Ben,’ but at some point, the Steelers will have to make a difficult decision. Nobody wants to see them drop him but they may have to soon. In one game against the Bengals, Roethlisberger posted the worst numbers of his entire career. Meanwhile, his body continues to let him down. Unfortunately, the veteran QB is in danger of playing for too long.
Former WBA and IBF super-middleweight champion Khan fought in three weight classes with great success. During his prime, he was an elite talent and won his first major title at the age of just 22. However, a faithful meeting with Danny Garcia changed his career. Khan won the first few rounds of his 2012 fight against the WBC champion before Garcia knocked him out in the fourth.
The British boxer rebounded and set up a clash with Canelo Alvarez. Once again, Khan built up an early lead before Alvarez brutally KO’ed him in the sixth. Finally, Khan suffered the third knockout loss of his defeat against Terence Crawford in 2019. Even though he has the skills, the reality is that his chin just isn’t the same. Despite this, Khan continues to box and refuses to give up fighting, but he can’t keep this up for long.
A phenomenal safety for the Baltimore Ravens, he helped the franchise to win a Super Bowl. He even entered the Hall of Fame at the tender age of 42 after a magnificent career. A nine-time Pro Bowler, Reed was also the 2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. This shows how consistently brilliant he was, but like all athletes, he became old. Reed waited too long to retire.
Reed spent 11 seasons with the Ravens but continued to play up until the age of 35. Unfortunately, he fell into decline and tried to keep on going instead of retiring with dignity in Baltimore. His final season was split between Houston and New York but he failed to make a significant impact for either franchise. It’s by no means the worst entry on this list, but it was a shame to see him deteriorate.
After his NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings fell apart, Sapp entered the world of combat sports. This hulking 329-pound monster became a cult figure on the Japanese scene. However, Sapp was not a brilliant MMA fighter and went seven years and 14 fights between wins from 2011 to 2017. Meanwhile, he suffered a total of 27 knockout losses from his combined MMA and kickboxing records.
Sapp continued to fight at the age of 47 despite enduring ridiculous damage and a lack of prospects. However, after a long career, he didn’t have anything else he wanted to do. It’s a strange story because nobody really wants to see him compete anymore. But Sapp refuses to hang up his gloves and continues to put his body on the line. This definitely isn’t good for his long-term health.
The only athlete to play in a Super Bowl and a World Series, Sanders was a truly phenomenal talent. The cornerback spent 14 seasons in the NFL and was most successful during his time with the Dallas Cowboys. Following a year with the Washington Redskins, he finally retired in 2000. When players decide to come back, it’s usually after about six months or a year. But Sanders returned to the NFL after a four-year hiatus.
He joined the Baltimore Ravens and played with them for two seasons. It’s definitely a fun story because few players can accomplish that. However, at the same time, he wasn’t his same brilliant self even if he did produce in flashes. Of course, it would have been crazy to expect him to return as though he never left. Players don’t stop aging just because they’ve stopped playing. But he shouldn’t have come back after so long.
Unfortunately, not everyone can be Gordie Howe. Chelios found this out the hard way during an ill-fated seven-game spell with the Atlanta Thrashers. The 11-time NHL All-Star joined Atlanta at the tender age of 47. While he shares the record for most seasons with Howe, he didn’t share the Canadian’s impact on the ice as an elder statesman. In sum, he looked his age.
It’s always strange when a player close to 50 is in the same team as athletes half their age. Chelios was old enough to be the father of most of his teammates in Atlanta. How he related to them in the locker room is definitely strange. Chelios’s longevity must be respect because he was brilliant until suddenly age caught up with him. There’s no shame in that, but his time in Atlanta kept him in the NHL for a bit too long.
When a player unretires they should ask themselves why they retired in the first place. ‘Gronk’ is an NFL legend, and even fans who hate the Patriots can’t dislike him. After returning to football, the Super Bowl winner joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he has run hot and cold alongside Tom Brady. However, this isn’t just about his deteriorating influence on the field, but also the effect on his body.
Gronkowski is one of the smartest players in the league when it comes to money. He doesn’t need anymore, because he effectively saved all of his salaries and lived off of sponsorships. However, during his career, he suffered at least 20 concussions including five blackouts. In sum, he doesn’t need to play anymore and is risking his long-term health to do so. A long NFL career can destroy a man.
It’s a recurring theme throughout this list, but some players should just quit after leaving the franchise where they built their name. Surely they must know that they’re not at the same level anymore and that they will struggle to work alongside new teammates and a new playbook? Such was the case for Dallas Cowboys legend Smith, who joined the Arizona Cardinals in 2003 instead of retiring.
As one of the best running backs in the league with ‘America’s Team,’ it was extremely strange to see him in a Cardinals’ uniform. But it was even weirder to see him play extremely poorly as he only rushed for an average of 48 yards per game. There is a loss of dignity when a legendary player underperforms with a new team. It would have been nice to see the Hall of Famer walk away with his head held high.
Toney had 92 professional boxing matches. In the end, he lost to 40-year-old journeymen like Charles Ellis and Jason Gavern. No-namers without any future in the sport defeated a legend. ‘The Dark Emperor’ should have retired years before the age of 49, but finally quit the sport in 2017. His toughness was his own worst enemy. In 10 defeats he was never knocked out.
However, a boxer can’t take that many fights and expect to walk away unscathed. It’s not just the matches that cause damage but also sparring in the gym during training. Now, Toney shows signs of CTE which is very sad. When it comes to combat sports athletes, the people around them have a responsibility to try and talk them out of punishing their bodies even more. Toney unquestionably fought on for too long.
Ronaldinho was one of the most exciting players of the twenty-first century. The World Cup winner also lit up Europe with Barcelona during an exciting playing career. After an injury-riddled period with AC Milan, he returned to his native Brazil with Flamengo for one last hurrah. Except it wasn’t, because he ended up playing for three Brazilian teams either side of a spell in Mexico.
It’s easy to argue that Ronaldinho simply loved the game and didn’t want to leave it while he could still compete. Indeed, there is something to admire about his tenacity in playing with lesser teams. However, if he looked after his body better instead of partying his way through his career, he would surely have lasted longer at the top. In the end, he hung around for so long everybody forgot that he was still playing.
The quarterback hater was one of the best wide receivers in the NFL during his prime. But like all superstar athletes, he eventually slowed down. Then he went on an NFL merry-go-round after he left the San Francisco 49ers. Owens played for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys, the Bills, and the Bengals. Owens’ decline was swift and unforgiving.
After he left the Eagles following a dispute, he actually played reasonably well for the Cowboys up until his release. But that’s when he should have retired. Instead, he hung around the league for too long and played poorly for Buffalo where he averaged just 52 yards per game. Finally, the less said about his time in Cincinnati, the better. At least he got a few nice jerseys out of it.
The only boxer in history to start off as a welterweight and win a heavyweight championship, Jones was phenomenal in his heyday. He used his superb athleticism, movement, and dynamism to great effect against the likes of Bernard Hopkins and James Toney. Jones had incredible hand speed and was just too sharp for all of his opponents. That was until the years began to wear him down.
Jones lost just one fight in his first 50. But after this, the losses came thick and fast. Soon he was fighting for WBU titles and people with names nobody ever heard of. By the time he retired he was 49. Overall, it was about 14 years too late. The Russian citizen continued to risk his health for very little reward. We’re not counting his recent exhibition against Mike Tyson here because that was just for fun.
Former Manchester United forward Rooney was one of the best players of his generation. The problem is that he’s still playing and not very well for Derby County in the English Championship. Meanwhile, he is also the head coach of the former Premier League team. He is not doing that very well either. Rooney is a natural striker but age robbed him of his pace. Now he drops deeper into a midfield role.
However, the former England international is not a natural midfielder and looks like a square in a round hole. Furthermore, he has no previous experience as a head coach so this is a disaster waiting to happen. In short, Rooney’s career has gone on too long and he’s no longer the same player. Combining this with becoming a manager seems like too much to do at once.
Manning is a New York Giants’ icon. However, ironically, the Giants’ current condition is partially a symptom of his lengthy career. If he had retired a couple of seasons earlier then his team’s fans could be looking at a very different franchise in 2020. Before the Giants finally benched Manning for Daniel Jones, his gameplay plummeted dramatically as he threw interceptions.
It’s fair to say that the arrival of Ben McAdoo coincided with Manning’s decline. But age was also a factor. Unfortunately, the two combined signaled the beginning of the end of his career. His final Super Bowl win was way back in 2012, 8 years before he retired. After this, the Giants and Manning went into a slow but stark decline. He stayed with his franchise for 16 seasons, a great achievement. But it was arguably too long.
The dream turned into a nightmare for Olajuwon by the time he retired. After spending almost two decades with the Houston Rockets, he moved to the Toronto Raptors for a couple of seasons. But the Nigerian-born basketball legend failed to make any kind of meaningful impression on the team. It was disappointing but after so long of playing at the highest level, it was unsurprising.
The best thing about an old legend joining a new team is that they sell shirts. Cleveland fans probably never thought that Shaquille O’Neal would play for them. It was the same for the Raptors with Olajuwon. However, ‘The Dream’ posted career lows in every category during his time in Toronto. The former MVP became one of the NBA’s most fading players by the time he finally retired.
‘The Spider’ changed mixed martial arts when he entered the UFC in 2006 and proceeded to dismantle Chris Leben. From there, he went on the longest winning streak in UFC middleweight history with 10 incredible title defenses. However, his back-to-back losses against Chris Weidman changed the course of his career. Overall, Silva’s tenure in the UFC went on far too long. He left the promotion at the age of 45 and still refused to retire.
In fairness, it’s his body and that has to be respected. But at the same time, he won just one of his last nine fights in the promotion with one no-contest. There are few things sadder than seeing a former superstar suffer a beating at the hands of a lesser talent who wouldn’t have stood a chance against him in his prime. However, in combat sports, this is exactly what will happen if fighters continue to fight for too long.
Rivers is a brilliant quarterback in a golden era for quarterbacks. Because he was never the outstanding number one, he has never received the same credit as his counterparts like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Drew Brees. But for 18 seasons, he was up there with the Chargers. However, his numbers plummeted in a dire final year with the Chargers and he finally departed in 2020 with a stain on his reputation.
If he retired then and there, Chargers fans would have given him all of the love in the world. He wasn’t the same player anymore, but he was a long-serving servant. Instead, he went to the Indianapolis Colts on a $20 million contract. Since then, Rivers has experienced massive highs and lows. There were some good performances but also some shambolic cringeworthy moments. In sum, he can’t have long left.
The definition of a boxer who couldn’t stay away from the sport. Obsessed by the pursuit of glory and burdened with massive expenses, Holyfield fought on for a long time. The only undisputed two-weight champion in boxing history, it’s also indisputable that he should have retired earlier. At the age of 48, Holyfield finally stepped down from the fight game. He wanted to become a five-time world champion but fell short in that pursuit.
After his controversial WBA Championship loss to Nikolai Valuev, the door finally shut on his title hopes. But he still fought several more times after this point. As boxers get older, their reflexes slow down, and the risk of sustaining damage increases. Every match enhances the possibility of life-changing consequences. That’s what makes it so compelling for fans but also is why fighters shouldn’t stay in the game too long.
By the time he retired, ‘Diesel’ looked like a totally different player from the one who ignited the NBA with the L.A. Lakers. After his relationship with Kobe Bryant soured to the extent the Lakers cut him loose, he moved to Miami where he won another championship with the Heat. However, after this his body steadily declined. That massive frame no longer resembled a charging bear but instead a lumbering tractor.
It’s possible to argue that he should have retired anytime after his season with Phoenix. But he definitely was a shadow of his former self by the time he left Cleveland for the Boston Celtics. Sometimes an athlete has to find for themselves the right time to stop and try not to hang onto their former glories for too long. It’s better to go out when they still matter instead of when everybody says that they’re a liability.
We’re not talking about his November 2020 comeback against Roy Jones Jr. because that was just for fun. However, ‘Iron Mike’s’ actual professional career did go on too long. It was ludicrous to see him lose against Irish journeyman Kevin McBride in 2005 after Danny Williams knocked him out the year before. The legendary heavyweight was no longer a force of nature and fell out of love with the sport.
He definitely stuck around for too long and should have retired after losing against Lennox Lewis or even Evander Holyfield five years earlier. The truth is that McBride didn’t beat Tyson, Tyson beat Tyson. In short, the feared ‘Iron Mike’ was a broken man. It’s easy to say he should have quit earlier for the sake of his legacy and his health. But Tyson knew nothing else and couldn’t pull himself away.
There was simply no need for M.J. to join the Washington Wizards. He was already super-rich and his legacy speaks for itself. Meanwhile, Jordan and the Chicago Bulls go hand-in-hand. While you can admire the fact that he loved the sport enough to stick around a bit longer to play with a rubbish franchise, there isn’t much to say about his time there.
Sure, he still averaged over 20 points per season during his two years in the capital but he didn’t look like the old M.J. That’s because he was now old. He never was going to perform to the same level as before but fans always have unrealistic expectations. Did he play too long? While the long-term physical consequences on his body definitely weren’t the same as football players or boxers, it didn’t enhance his legacy anyway.
Many believe Brady is the greatest quarterback of all-time. However, there’s no doubt he’s a fading force. After 20 seasons with the New England Patriots, he finally walked away with his head held high. Then he joined the Tampa Bay Buccanneers as a free agent. While he hasn’t been terrible, he is nowhere near his previous standard. Of course, this is natural, but it does feel a bit like Brady has nothing left to prove.
First of all, we know about Florida’s tax situation and a two-year contract with $20 million guaranteed is exciting. But in terms of legacy, 20 seasons would have been the perfect number to quit the NFL. Meanwhile, there would be no risk of tarnishing his legacy and it would have been perfect to retire as a Patriot. Furthermore, it would have forced Bill Belichick to sing his praises. Who wouldn’t have wanted to see that?
There was a time when ‘The Prodigy’ was one of the most exciting fighters on the planet. However, the former king of the UFC welterweight and lightweight divisions saw one of the worst deteriorations in combat sports history. After breaking multiple records, Penn entered the Hall of Fame. But he is no longer the same fighter or person. The once-feared champion lost his last eight fights in the UFC.
The turning point was back-t0-back defeats against Frankie Edgar. He did bounce back to beat Matt Hughes but failed to win a single fight between 2011 and 2019. Meanwhile, he endured problems outside the cage including multiple street fights. There comes a time when promotions should take responsibility for an athlete. Unfortunately, the UFC should accept some blame for booking Penn so many times despite his evident downfall.
Time isn’t kind to any sports star, not even franchise legends. Howard spent the entirety of his career in MLB with the Philadelphia Phillies, but by the end of his time there he was a liability. It’s difficult for an athlete to recognize their physical decline and even worse when a franchise has to cut them loose. But that’s exactly what the Phillies did after choosing not to take up an extension option after his poor final two seasons with the team.
In Howard’s case, one of MLB’s greatest players deteriorated into one of the worst. His batting average became one of the worst in the entire league and fans cringed to watch him play. It was a sad state of affairs because he was phenomenal in his prime. Then he went to the Atlanta Braves on a minor league contract but failed to make any kind of impact. After hanging around too long, his career fizzled out.
Ewing prolonged his career to an unnecessary degree. It’s true that elite athletes will spend the majority of their life retired from the sport they love. So it’s impossible to hate on Ewing for wanting to milk his time as a superstar. But a look at the cold, hard numbers paints a grim picture. Ewing could have retired earlier and made the Hall of Fame quickly. An 11-time All-Star, he found it almost impossible to walk away.
But he could have done so easily after 15 seasons with the New York Knicks. He was a legendary figure for the franchise and it would have been perfect to end things there. However, he continued to play another two pointless seasons with the Seattle Supersonics and Orlando Magic. While he made the playoffs with the latter, he didn’t do much otherwise. Ewing is a hero but he hung around for too long.
According to Chron.com, the average length of an NFL wide receiver’s career is just three years. However, Rice played for an insane 20. His decline began in 1999 and continued into 2000. Then Terell Owens broke out as a leading talent in San Francisco and he departed for pastures new. After setting more records than any other player, Rice did prove he could play outside of the 49ers.
After two strong seasons with the Oakland Raiders, he moved to Seattle where he didn’t do much. There was still time to join the Denver Broncos, but he didn’t make their final roster. In the end, he was clutching for the memories of his previous brilliance. Nobody can take his career away from him, but nobody thinks of his latter days either. He would have served his legacy and body better if he didn’t play for so long.
Before Conor McGregor came along, the likes of ‘The Iceman’ and Randy Couture helped to make the UFC the world’s most popular MMA promotion. Liddell had a savage, relentless style that helped him to win the UFC light-heavyweight championship. However, he failed to evolve and when the losing streak started it all turned nasty. Liddell won one of his last six fights with the UFC. Even worse, four of those defeats were by knockout.
Then, after eight years on the sidelines, Oscar De La Hoya convinced the 48-year-old to return against the active Tito Ortiz. It was terrible to watch as Ortiz won by KO. Liddell looked old and it was grim viewing. Overall, ‘The Iceman’ stayed around too long and should never have returned for the sake of his own health. There were no winners from this event because it just left a bad taste.
The irony is that Favre retired for the second time at the perfect time in 2008. The 11-time Pro Bowler departed Green Bay as one of the greatest in history. But then he decided that he wanted back in. The Packers said no because they had a young gun named Aaron Rodgers ready to go. Then the three-time NFL MVP joined the New York Jets before a spell with the Minnesota Vikings. However, he definitely should have stayed retired.
Favre hung around too long for two reasons. Firstly, his numbers rapidly declined, apart from interceptions which skyrocketed. The sad truth is that people have very short memories and it’s easy to forget success when you don’t see it. Meanwhile, it also undoubtedly had an effect on his long-term health. Favre received multiple concussions throughout his career and only time will tell what effect they have upon him.
The greatest boxer ever to step into a ring, you have to wonder what his last couple of fights did to his health. Ali endured classic wars and took incredible punishment against the likes of Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Meanwhile, he had three years on the sidelines after refusing to go to Vietnam. But this could have contributed to him staying in the sport longer than he should have.
We all know about his sad battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He absorbed a lot of damage before his last few fights, but unfortunate matchups against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick only stung fans’ hearts. This twentieth-century icon definitely stayed around too long. Legendary Boxers often struggle to resist the lure of the ring, the fame, and the glory. ‘The Greatest’ was no exception.