The life and career of a star athlete may be glamorous on the surface. Indeed much of it is, as athletes make millions of dollars to compete in games they’ve loved since they were young children. But that doesn’t mean their lifestyle doesn’t come without a certain amount of hardship.
Indeed, some star athletes are forced – or decide on their own – to retire far before their career was expected to be over. The motivation to do so usually comes in the form of mounting injuries over the course of many years. Some athletes decide to retire early for other reasons.
In the context of what we’ll be discussing today, we’ve seen many at the top of their game retire early. These retirements brought a shocking reaction from fans and media members of the sports world. Some retirements lasted; others did not. Overall, one thing remains certain: they were all surprising when the athletes announced them. Read on to see the biggest sports stars who retired early via New Arena.
28. Patrick Willis:
Willis was a star linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers who legitimately could have ended up as one of the best the NFL had ever seen at the position. That’s apparent when you realize he made seven Pro Bowls in eight years. He also made an incredible five First-team All-Pros in those eight years. Indeed, the former Ole Miss product was a one-man wrecking crew on the NFL field.
But injuries mounted up over his career despite the elite playing level he maintained. After dealing with nagging hamstring and hand issues, Willis was forced to miss the final 10 games of the 2014 season with a toe injury. Toe injuries are notoriously hard to shake. As a result, Willis decided he had had enough. He retired from the NFL in March 2015 and hasn’t been seen again. It’s a shame we never got to see him fulfill his career, but his best was undoubtedly great.
Russian tennis star Dementieva was on top of the proverbial tennis world after storming to a silver medal in singles at the 200 Olympic Games. She followed that up with a gold medal in the same event at the 2008 Olympic Games.
Dementieva went on to win 16 WTA singles titles. She also made the 2004 French Open finals and the 2004 US Open finals. In 2009, she reached her peak in terms of world ranking at No. 3. Despite all of this success, however, Dementieva grew tired of the endless grind of professional sports. She announced her retirement at only 29 years old following a loss in the 2010 WTA Championships. She later married and had a child. To this day, she’s considered one of the greatest female tennis players to have never hoisted a Grand Slam Trophy. Perhaps that could have changed if she played well into her 30s.
Barber was a Pro Bowl running back who played all 10 of his years in the NFL for the New York Giants. He ended his career with an impressive 10,449 rushing yards and 55 touchdowns. Barber also added an additional 586 receptions for 5,183 more yards and 12 touchdowns. Barber was at the top of his game during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, rushing for 1,860 and 1,622 rushing yards, respectively. Despite those lofty totals, he decided to retire after the 2006 season.
Barber was met with a large amount of criticism for his decision to step down. He claimed he wanted to pursue a career in broadcasting. Barber also said he ‘couldn’t take it anymore’ when discussing the incredible physical grind of the NFL. His play was so elite for a running back his age that the Giants reportedly offered him an exorbitant two-year, $50 million contract. That’s a sum most elite running backs of even today would clamor to sign for. Barber turned it down and retired regardless. The Giants still won the Super Bowl the following season. Barber later attempted a comeback in 2011, but no team was interested in signing him.
Neely was an unstoppable force on the ice for a time. He’s Boston Bruins legend who was just as feared for his hard-hitting, physical style as he was his goal-scoring. He could certainly score, as he’s still the Bruins’ all-time playoff goals leader with 55 postseason goals.
Neely dealt with multiple injuries throughout his decorated career. It was ultimately a degenerative hip condition that forced him to retire after the 1995-1996 season. Neely was only 31, hardly an age when he would have had to retire if healthy. He fought injuries for years and years but ultimately had to step down. Neely was immortalized when the Bruins retired his number.
To this day. Only 10 NHL players in the league’s history have a better goals scored per game average than Neely does. He’s currently the President of the Bruins, where he continues to impact the NHL.
Kiner’s Major League career began with an impressive run. Throughout his 10-season career, he made six All-Star appearances. Perhaps more impressively, he led the National League in home runs for the first seven seasons of his career. All told, he hit 369 home runs and had 1,015 runs batted in.
But many baseball fanatics and historians feel it could have been so much more for Kiner. He was forced into retirement early at the age of 32 due to a back injury. He later became a successful broadcaster. Kiner’s impact on the game of baseball was later validated by the fact the Pittsburgh Pirates retired his No. 4. He’s also a member of the New York Mets Hall of Fame.
Playing offensive line, Boselli didn’t necessarily garner the attention of more high-profile football players such as quarterbacks and wide receivers. But make no mistake; he was one of the greats during his playing years. Boselli was selected as the No. 2 pick in the 1995 NFL draft, making him the first-ever draft choice of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
He immediately paid dividends on that high draft investment, becoming one of the most effective offensive tackles in the NFL. His accomplishments in the NFL are many; he made five Pro Bowls and was thrice named a First-team All-Pro. Boselli was well-known for rarely allowing his quarterback to be sacked – he allowed only 15.5 such plays his entire career. Unfortunately, Boselli was forced into retirement when serious shoulder injuries derailed his otherwise illustrious career. He soon became a colorful commentator on TV, drawing high praise for his work as a play-by-play commentator for Jacksonville.
Henin was as dominant a woman’s tennis player to ever compete. From 2002 to 2007, she ruled over the sport with peerless efficiency. She spent an alarming 117 weeks ranked as the world No. 1 during that time period, winning seven Grand Slam titles. Henin won four French Opens, two US Opens, and one Australian Open. She ended the 2003, 2006, and 2007 years as the world’s top-ranked player as well.
Heading into the 2008 French Open, however, Henin shockingly announced her retirement from the sport. She was only 26 years old. Nagging injuries were mounting for the tennis superstar, but she simply cited fatigue from 20 years of focusing on tennis alone. Henin later made a comeback in 2010 and ultimately retired a second time for good in 2011.
Smith was highly-touted prospect coming out of Ohio State when the Minnesota Vikings drafted him in the first round of the 1993 NFL draft. However, it would take him quite a few seasons before he finally found his groove in the NFL. In 1997, he had a breakout season with 1,266 yards rushing, But the best was yet to come. He followed that up with his finest season when he led the league in rushing with 1,521 yards in 2000. Smith was the rare running back who got better with age.
Despite that fact, however, he would shock the football world by retiring from the sport after what was by far his best season. Smith went on to pursue a career as a doctor before any serious injuries added up in football. He’s recently appeared as an analyst on ESPN but has otherwise stayed out of the sporting spotlight.
Baldwin wasn’t necessarily a truly elite wide receiver in the NFL during his eight seasons from 2011-2018. But he was undoubtedly an effective one. He made the Pro Bowl twice in 2016 and 2017 after leading the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 2015. His crowning achievement came when his Seahawks won the Super Bowl after the 2013 season.
Baldwin racked up 493 receptions for 6,563 yards and 49 touchdowns. Many feel those numbers could have been significantly higher. But he decided to step down from the sport following the 2018 season. He dealt with multiple injuries requiring surgery and decided to call it a career. The Seahawks released him after he failed a physical, bringing an abrupt end to an otherwise solid career for the former Stanford Cardinal.
Goalies in the NHL don’t often get much hype in the professional sports world. But Dryden undoubtedly deserved it. He was a rare professional athlete at the top of the game who had many other avenues outside of sports. Dryden stormed into the NHL by taking over net-minding duties for the Montreal Canadiens for the final six games of the regular season and the playoffs in 1971. All the team did was win the Stanley Cup, and Dryden won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player.
But Dryden was far from done there. When the dust settled, he won an incredible five more Stanley Cups with Montreal. His career only lasted eight seasons. No other NHL goalie has packed that much success into such a short career. So why would he retire? Dryden felt that Montreal offered him a contract below his real value. And he didn’t need hockey anymore, becoming an attorney, author, businessman, teacher, and color commentator in addition to a member of the Canadian Parliament. Dryden is truly a man of the world, and he could have kept dominating the NHL had he wanted to.
A workhorse from Oklahoma, Sims showed tremendous promise in the early days of his NFL career. Drafted by Detroit, he became the 1980 Offensive NFL Rookie of the Year. Sims made Second-team All-Pro that year and First-team All-Pro the following year in 1981. He made three straight Pro Bowls from 1980-1982.
The future was extremely bright for the talented back. Halfway through the 1984 season, however, Sims’ career was cut short when a devastating knee injury forced him into early retirement. He spent two years trying to rehabilitate the knee but eventually stepped down. Sims tried a comeback in 1989, yet it never materialized. He truly could have been one of the greats. Instead, injury limited him to only five seasons.
Roy’s story is unfortunately quite similar to that of the aforementioned Billy Sims. The ultra-talented basketball player spent six seasons in the NBA, showing the promise to be one of its most talented stars for many years to come. Indeed, he won the NBA Rookie of the Year award in 2007, made three All-Star games, and two All-NBA teams in only six seasons.
Roy was so effective in his early NBA run, in fact, that the legendary Kobe Bryant was even quoted as saying that he had “no weaknesses in his game.” Poised to take the league by storm, he was signed to a max contract extension by the Portland Trailblazers. But tragedy struck when Roy was diagnosed with a degenerative knee condition that eventually forced him to retire after playing only five games for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2012. Roy could have legitimately been one of the greats.
Marciano is still considered one of the greatest heavyweight champions in boxing history, and for good reason. ‘The Brockton Blockbuster’ held the title from 1952 to 1956, defending the belt six times in that span. Marciano was regarded for his unbeatable mix of punching power and an iron chin.
He racked up a peerless 49-0 record before deciding to hang up the gloves at the age of only 32. When he did, he became the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated, a record that stands to this day. Few, if any, fighters will be able to reach his unheard-of 87.76% knockout-to-win percentage. However, in a sport as violent and volatile as boxing, perhaps Marciano made the right move to retire and keep his legacy intact. He’s still one of the all-time greats of the sport. Unfortunately, Marciano passed away in a plane crash when he was only 45.
Williams came into the NFL amongst much hoopla when Mike Ditka and the New Orleans Saints traded their entire draft in 2000 to select the Texas running back. Williams wasn’t necessarily a bust despite the huge amount of hype heaped upon his shoulders. He became a solid (if not elite) running back in the NFL. His finest season came in 2002 when he led the league in rushing as a member of the Miami Dolphins. That season, he made First-team All-Pro, the Pro Bowl, and even won the Pro Bowl MVP.
Williams ran into trouble after failing multiple drug tests for his drug of choice, marijuana. Facing a suspension prior to the 2004 season, Williams announced his intention to retire from pro football. He became a student of ancient Indian holistic medicine during his time off. Williams returned to the Dolphins before the 2005 season, serving his suspension and paying the team a percentage of his signing bonus. But Williams then violated the NFL substance-abuse policy yet again and was suspended for the entire 2006 season.
He returned in 2007 after agreeing to multiple drug tests a week. He would miss most of the season after tearing a pectoral muscle in the first game. Williams actually had a strong season in 2009, rushing for 1,121 yards in his best season since 2003. His career was a strange one due to his multiple drug issues and early retirement. Overall, he was a solid player. Fans just can’t help but wonder if he could have accomplished more if he was more focused on football.
Sorenstam was on top of her sport when she decided to call it quits. She’s considered one of the best ever in her sport. Many believe she is the greatest women’s golfer to ever compete. Indeed, Sorenstam boasts a long list of decorated accomplishments. She won 72 total LPGA titles and 10 total major championships.
Overall, she has the most wins of any female golfer. As of today, Sorenstam sits alone atop the LPGA’s all-time money list with $22 million earned. That’s over $2 million more than her closest competition. And she played 149 fewer events. Her success is simply unparalleled. Sorenstam’s individual records in the sport are many. However, she could have smashed those and achieved many more records. For whatever reason, she stepped down from competition in May 2008 at the age of 38. Sorenstam went on to become a mother, and her accomplishments in golf can never be discredited. They just could have been even greater, a sobering prospect to consider.
The Swedish Borg had no rival in the sport of tennis during his prime. He became the first man to win 11 Grand Slams in singles competition. He did just that from 1971, bringing home six French Open titles and five Wimbledon championships. He’s also credited with singlehandedly causing a surge in the popularity of tennis during the 1970s. As a result, he also became the first tennis player to earn one million dollars in a single season in 1979.
But like Justine Henin, the never-ending grind of pro tennis eventually caught up to Borg. He was a teen sensation whose rise to fame was dissected under a public microscope. The spotlight and pressure of being such a prominent star forced Borg to burn out at a young age. Because of this, he announced his retirement from the sport at only 26 years old. He’s still considered one of the greatest tennis players of all-time. Borg launched a highly successful fashion label in his native Sweden after retiring.
‘Gronk’ is arguably the greatest tight end in football history. It’s tough to argue with his resume, as he’s a three-time Super Bowl champion. He made five Pro Bowls and four First-team All-Pros. Remarkably the 6’6” fan favorite led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 2011, a rare feat for a tight end.
But aside from all of his success, Gronkowski’s decorated career was otherwise limited by serious injuries. He’s had surgery on his knee for a torn ACL, on his forearm, and his back. His New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in February 2018, and Gronkowski decided to call it a career. He claimed the punishing toll of his many injuries coupled with their effects on his mental health led to his decision.
There’ve been many rumors he will return sometime in the 2019 season to help New England win Super Bowl. Gronkowski hasn’t exactly shut down those rumors either. No one can blame him for retiring when he did. His injuries were serious and few have the option of going out on top with a Super Bowl win.
There’s probably not a more famous two-sport professional athlete than Bo Jackson. The dominant, Heisman-winning running back from the University of Auburn was the first overall pick of the 1985 NFL draft. But he was also a slugging outfielder in Major League Baseball who made the 1989 All-Star team.
Most feel his true dominance was on the gridiron. Despite playing part-time for only four seasons due to his baseball career and injuries, Jackson’s talent in football was undeniable. He played only 38 games in the NFL, yet racked up 2,782 yards with a 5.4 yard-per-carry average and 16 touchdowns. In his final game during the 1990 season, he dislocated his hip and allegedly ruptured blood vessels popping it back into the socket. He never played another down of NFL football. Jackson’s baseball career lasting significantly longer. He played eight seasons with the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, and California Angels.
Ultimately, he was never the same as he was before the hip injury. Jackson was one of the most talented all-around athletes professional sports had ever seen. It’s a shame that injury sapped him of so much of his effectiveness before he could fulfill his ultra-promising career.
Lemieux is an NHL legend who will almost certainly rank among the greats of the sport for years to come. He stormed into the league early in his career. Lemieux threatened scoring records by racking up 199 points in the 1988-1989 season. He was then on pace for his finest seasons, scoring in 12 straight games to begin the 1992—1993 season. But a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma put his career in significant jeopardy.
He underwent draining treatment, yet actually returned to play up to his standards. Lemieux was then forced to undergo back surgery in the years that followed. Due to the ailments, Lemieux announced he would retire following the 19997 NHL Playoffs. He was inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame that fall.
It looked like the career of one of hockey’s true greats had been cut short by injuries and health issues. But this all-time great was not done there. Against all odds, Lemieux returned for the 2000 season due to his four-year-old son wanting to see him play once again. At the time, he was a part-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins after purchasing shares in 1999. Lemieux played until 2006 in his return to the NHL. Adding on to his all-time totals, Lemieux furthered his legacy and overcame an early forced retirement.
Johnson was undoubtedly well on his way to becoming one of the greatest wide receivers ever. But fans still wonder what a complete career would have resulted in for the dominant “Megatron.” Johnson is one of multiple Detroit Lions to retire early from football, a disturbing trend for the franchise.
In terms of pure on-field performance, no one rivaled Johnson’s numbers when he was healthy. His finest work came during the 2012 season when he led the NFL in receptions and set an NFL single-season record for receiving yards with 1,964. That topped the single-season mark of even Jerry Rice, the man most consider to be the greatest wideout of all-time.
‘Megatron’ played nine seasons, announcing his retirement in March 2016. Nagging injuries caught up to the 6’5” superstar. He incited a bit of controversy when he claimed that he played with pain for most of the end of his career. Johnson said painkillers were handed out with little regulation to combat the pain football players experience. He holds nine all-time records for the Detroit franchise. There may not have been a more effective receiver in his prime. What he accomplished was historic, but fans wonder if Johnson could have been the greatest of all-time.
Koufax was as dominant a major league pitcher as there ever was during his prime. He was a seven-time All-Star. Koufax won four World Series titles with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, winning two World Series MVP awards in those wins. He also won three Cy Youngs, led the MLB in strikeouts four times, and in wins three times. Koufax was the first MLB pitcher to throw four no-hitters as well.
But arthritis in his left elbow forced Koufax to retire at 30 years old in November 1966. Needless to say, the entirety of the baseball world was left in disarray. Koufax had just come off a season where he won an astonishing 27 games with 317 strikeouts and a peerless 1.73 earned run average (ERA).
To this day, Koufax is still ranked among the best MLB pitchers of all-time. His career obviously could have been even better had he remained healthy. But he paved the way for many more athletes to call it an early career due to injury. He may still be the most famous example of that despite the fact he retired well over 50 years ago.
Magic Johnson earned an honored reputation as one of the greatest point guards in basketball history. His list of accolades certainly supports that statement. He was a five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers, winning three NBA Finals MVP awards. He was also a three-time NBA regular-season MVP, leading the league in assists four times and steals twice. Johnson made 12 All-Star games and won the MVP award there twice.
However, in late 1991, Johnson announced he had tested positive for HIV. He retired immediately in one of the biggest sports stories of the year. Johnson later returned as coach of the Lakers, and eventually returned as a player in 1995-1996. But he was far from the dominant form of his early playing days and retired for good after that season. After his playing career, Johnson became an advocate for HIV research. He’s also an ultra-successful businessman. Johnson became the Lakers president of basketball operation in 2017 until stepping down amid controversy in 2019. No one can take away from Johnson’s playing career, yet it’s unfortunate health issues caused an early halt to such a great body of work.
The most recent early retirement on our list was most certainly a shocking one. Drafted with the first overall pick of the 2012 NFL season, Luck was billed as the next big thing at quarterback. Based on his on-field success, that billing may not have been an unrealistic possibility. Luck made four Pro Bowls in seven years. He led the NFL in passing touchdowns during the 2014 season. His Colts also made the AFC Championship Game that year.
All told, Luck had 23,671 passing yards and threw 171 touchdowns compared to only 83 interceptions in seven years. Those are definitely great numbers. But Luck never lived up the countless predictions that he would become one of the game’s all-time legends. He was plagued by many serious injuries throughout his career. They started with a lacerated kidney and shoulder injury in 2015. He played with the shoulder injury in 2016, but it only got worse. Luck was forced to miss the entire 2017 season as a result.
He came back with a vengeance in 2018, achieving one of his best seasons and winning the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award. The Colts had the best offensive line of his career and were poised to make a run at a Super Bowl. Once again the injury bug struck, with Luck missing the start of training camp thanks to a mysterious ankle injury. Weeks before the season began, Luck shockingly retired due to the cycle of injuries he had experienced. You can’t blame him for doing so. It’s just too bad we’ll never get to see his full potential. He had it all.
The records of Orr are simply breathtaking for an NHL defensemen and will most likely never be topped. He won eight straight Norris Trophies as the NHL’s top defenseman, a record. Orr is the only defenseman to lead the NHL in scoring as well, having done so twice. He also still holds the records for points and assists in a single season by a defenseman. Realistically, Orr simply rewrote the record book on what a defenseman could accomplish in the NHL.
Sadly, knee injuries robbed Orr of much of his prime years. He played 10 seasons for Boston and two with Chicago. But he only played six games his final year in 1978. All told, he underwent 12 knee surgeries and could hardly skate by the end of his career. Orr was only 30 years old when he stepped down. He eventually became the youngest player to be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame at 31 years old.
Brown is an all-time NFL legend who redefined the running back position during his dominant run of the 1950s and 1960s. In his nine years, Brown made nine Pro Bowls and eight First-team All-Pros. He won three NFL MVP awards as well. Eight times he led the NFL in rushing yards. Brown also led the league in rushing touchdowns five times.
Despite the fact he retired many years ago, he’s still discussed as one of the greatest backs in NFL history. Overall, that’s a testament to his greatness even if he retired at 29 years old. Brown did so to pursue a promising movie career. The Browns legend has appeared in several movies since, finding a measured degree of success. But his skills in the movie industry pale in comparison to his outright success in the NFL. Regardless, Brown will always be one of the best running backs ever.
Jim Brown was able to maintain a full body of work despite retiring early. Sadly enough, Sayers was not. He could have joined Brown as one the greatest NFL running backs ever. Ultimately, he may already be there even though he was forced into retirement quite early.
The “Kansas Comet” stormed into the NFL by winning the NFL Rookie of the Year award in 1965. He led the league in rushing yards twice. Sayers had five First-team All-Pros selections and four Pro Bowl appearances. A serious knee injury to his right knee in 1968 followed by one to his left knee in 1970 sapped much of his speed. Sayers attempted to come back in 1971 but injured his ankle. He retired before the 1972 regular season. Sayers’ career technically lasted seven seasons but it was truly only around five full seasons. He had 4,956 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns, adding 3,17 more return yards for another eight touchdowns.
Sayers became one of the all-time greats in only five years, showing how talented he truly was. Fans never got to see what his career could have been. His story is one of the toughest based on his potential.
Undoubtedly one of the most famous examples of a star athlete who retired too early. Sanders was one of the greatest running backs to ever compete in the NFL, and many still believe he was indeed the greatest. In terms of stats, Sanders almost assuredly would have been the greatest had he not stepped down prior to the 1999 season as he approached Walter Payton’s career record for rushing yards.
While many of the athletes on this list boast impressive accomplishments, Sanders’ were truly breathtaking. He made an alarming 10 Pro Bowls and was selected First-Team All-Pro six times. Sanders was also named the NFL Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1997 and the NFL Offensive Player of the Year twice. Four times he led the league in rushing yards. He was a Heisman Trophy winner in college.
But unlike many of the athletes here who were forced into retirement because of injuries, Sanders’ story was different. He chose to retire early, with many speculating he had grown sick and tired of playing on a team largely devoid of talent outside of himself. Indeed, Detroit found little true success despite his huge numbers in the rushing game. Others thought he simply didn’t want to break “Sweetness’” records. Either way, this was a shocking retirement that created a lasting impact on the NFL.
Jordan’s body of work speaks for itself. He’s largely considered the greatest player in NBA history. He has two separate “Three-Peats” with the Chicago Bulls. Jordan was a five-time NBA MVP and 14-time All-Star. He made the All-NBA First Team 10 times and the NBA All-Defensive First Team nine times. Jordan won the NBA scoring title an unbelievable 10 times. He led the league in steals three times. His two NBA Slam Dunk Championships were the stuff of legends. Jordan’s leap from the free-throw line has been immortalized in iconic posters and photos for years.
But Jordan once shocked the sports world by retiring early. In October 1993, he cited a loss in his drive to play the game of basketball and stepped down. Even more surprise followed when Jordan attempted his hand at playing professional baseball the following year. The Chicago White Sox signed him to a minor league contract. There, Jordan played for their Double-A affiliate Birmingham Barons, hitting .202 with three home runs and 51 runs batted in during the 1994 season. It’s safe to say Jordan’s true home was on the basketball court.
Jordan knew that as well, apparently. Not wanting to become involved as a potential replacement for the MLB strike, he stepped down from baseball in March 1995. He then returned to the Bulls, who were predictably struggling. Jordan led them to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. They ultimately lost in six games. But history was made when a renewed Jordan led the Bulls to a second ‘Three-Peat’ from 1996-1998.
Jordan retired again in 1999. He returned again with the Washington Wizards from 2001-2003. His career was a full, historic one. At the time, however, no elite sports star shocked his or her respective sport more by retiring as Jordan did back in 1993.