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.