Elite Sports Stars Whose Careers Ended Too Soon

Mike - September 28, 2019

Elite Sports Stars Whose Careers Ended Too Soon

Mike - September 28, 2019

12. Rob Gronkowski:

‘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.

Bo Jackson
Image via

11. Bo Jackson:

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.

10. Mario Lemieux:

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.

9. Calvin Johnson:

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.

8. Sandy Koufax:

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.

Photo by Tim Defrisco/Getty Images

7. Magic Johnson:

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.

6. Andrew Luck:

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.

Bobby Orr, Bruins
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5. Bobby Orr:

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.

4. Jim Brown:

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.

Gale Sayers, Bears
Image via ESPN

3. Gale Sayers:

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.

2. Barry Sanders:

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.

1. Michael Jordan:

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.