Andrew Luck stunned both Indianapolis Colts fans and the wider world of sports with his retirement announcement in August 2019 at the age of 29. But he was hardly the first high-profile athlete to retire too early. Here are some of the biggest athletes who surprised fans with their retirements...
Drafted by the Patriots in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Gronk dominated the tight end position (and the party scene) for most of the next ten years, helping lead New England to a slew of play-off wins and three Super Bowl victories. In just his second year, Gronk led the league in receiving touchdowns, the only tight end ever to hold this honor. Unfortunately, his career was also plagued by injuries, and he chose to go out on top after the Patriots’ 2018 Super Bowl win.
After a decorated career at Georgia Tech, Megatron was an imposing presence on the field for the Detroit Lions from 2007 to 2015, twice leading the league in receiving yards and setting the NFL record for that statistic in 2012 with 1,964 yards. While he did play through leg injuries in the later years of his career, he still managed all 16 games in 2015, putting up over 1,200 yards and 9 touchdowns before his unexpected retirement at age 30 before the next season.
49ers linebacker Patrick Willis made his mark on the NFL immediately, leading the league in tackles during his 2007 rookie season and earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Though this would prove to be his best year statistically, Willis still went on to seven straight Pro Bowls and was a major factor in San Francisco’s 2012 NFC Championship season. Unfortunately, in 2014 a toe injury brought his season and career to a dead halt, and he retired in early 2015.
Selected first overall by the Cowboys in 1989, Troy Aikman was the biggest name in football in the 1990s, leading Dallas to eight play-off appearances and three Super Bowl wins, including a 52-17 rout of the Buffalo Bills in 1993. Despite his successes, Aikman also suffered from nagging back pain and no fewer than ten concussions throughout his career, and he made the tough choice to retire in 2001 at the age of 35, still fairly young for a quarterback. The Cowboys haven’t returned to the Super Bowl since.
After all was said and done, Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, had played in the NBA for fifteen seasons and ended his career at the ripe old age of 40. So why is he on this list? Well, Jordan retired early not once, but twice, before his third retirement finally stuck. His first retirement came in 1993 at age 30, after leading the Chicago Bulls to three straight NBA championships. When his foray into professional baseball was unsuccessful, Jordan returned to the Bulls for another three championship seasons before retiring a second time in 1999, becoming a part owner of the Washington Wizards, and returning in 2001 to play for the Wizards for two years. Whew!
During his first twelve seasons at point guard for the Lakers, Johnson won five NBA championships and developed an iconic rivalry with the Celtics’ Larry Bird, but after his shocking diagnosis as HIV positive he chose to walk away from the game in 1991. Though he attempted a comeback in the 1992 NBA All Star Game and as a member of the Olympic “Dream Team,” some NBA players protested Magic’s full-time NBA return out of fear of contamination. Johnson never played another full season in the NBA, but he continues to serve as an inspiration and passionate basketball ambassador.
Yao Ming’s NBA career stood out both for his giant 7 foot, 6 inch frame, and for his status as one of the most successful and recognizable Chinese athletes of all time. After starting his career in the Chinese Basketball Association, Ming joined the Houston Rockets in 2002 and made three straight All Star games and two play-off appearances in his first three seasons, breaking stereotypes and raising awareness of Chinese culture along the way. Starting in his fourth season, though, a recurring broken bone in his foot forced him out of a significant number of games and eventually led him to retire in 2011 at 30 years old.
The Portland Trail Blazers thought they had found the answer at shooting guard when they selected Washington Husky Brandon Roy in the 2006 NBA Draft, and for four years they were right, as Roy was named Rookie of the Year and later led the Blazers to the playoffs in 2009 after a five-year drought. Unfortunately, repeated knee injuries and surgeries left Roy with a shell of his former abilities, and he retired in 2011 when he was only 28.
Swedish tennis prodigy Bjorn Borg was just 15 when he embarked on his professional career in 1972, and he went on to win eleven Grand Slam singles titles, including a streak of three years when he won both the French Open and Wimbledon. Still in good health, he chose to end his career at age 26 apparently to escape the limelight, and has gone on to varying degrees of success since then, including a failed tennis comeback in the 90s and a lucrative sports fashion label.
Another star who started and ended young, Belgian Justine Henin was a force to be reckoned with in women’s tennis in the 2000s, using her trademark backhand to win seven Grand Slam singles titles, two of them at the French Open without losing a single set, as well as an Olympic Gold Medal in 2004. At the time she retired in 2008, Henin was ranked the world No. 1 in women’s tennis, and though she returned briefly in 2010, an elbow injury forced a second retirement the following year.
Back in 1955, Sandy Koufax joined the MLB as a left-handed pitcher for the Dodgers. During his tenure, the Dodgers won four World Series pennants, two of them with Koufax as MVP. He also won the Cy Young Award three times, becoming the first pitcher to win more than one. In his later years in the league, Koufax went to great lengths to pitch through severe arm pain, eventually leading him to retire at age 30. His early retirement had a silver lining, though, as he later became the youngest player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame at 36.
Bobby Orr’s twelve-year NHL career, most of it with the Boston Bruins, was notable for his excellence on both offense and defense. Orr won the Stanley Cup with the Bruins in both 1970 and 1972, and he also twice led the NHL in points (combined goals and assists), still the only defenceman ever to do so. Knee injuries ended Orr’s time in Boston and derailed the next phase of his career with the Blackhawks, and he also retired at age 30. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame just one year later.
Goalie Ken Dryden’s NHL career started better than anyone could have hoped, as he was called up by the Montreal Canadiens for only six regular season games before a play-off run that ended with a Stanley Cup and a recognition for Dryden as the play-off MVP. He only played for seven more seasons, winning the Vezina Trophy for the top goaltender in five of them, before retiring at age 32 and pursuing a diverse career as a lawyer, writer, sports executive, and politician.
Before Michael Phelps, American swimmer Mark Spitz held the record for most Olympic Gold Medals in a single year with seven in 1972. He set world-record times in all seven events and likely could have continued his success four years later, but he instead chose to retire at the tender age of 22. He never swam competitively again, with the exception of a 1992 stunt in which he once again tried to qualify for the Olympics at age 41.
The Detroit Lions selected Heisman-winning running back Barry Sanders with the third overall pick in 1989, and though he never played in a Super Bowl, Sanders amassed one of the most decorated individual careers in NFL history. He appeared in ten Pro Bowls and was named the NFL MVP in 1997 after becoming the third player to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season, but only two years later he made the shocking decision to retire in full health. Despite his early exit, the reason for which was never fully clear, his achievements have stood the test of time, as he still has the third most all-time rushing yards in NFL history.
Another member of the 2000-yard rushing club, the Broncos’ Terrell Davis only lasted seven NFL seasons before leg injuries compelled him to retire, but at least they were eventful ones. Playing alongside quarterback John Elway, Davis and the Broncos won the Super Bowl in 1997 and 1998. Davis was the Super Bowl MVP with a three-touchdown performance in the first year, and the NFL MVP in the second with 21 touchdowns throughout the season. Despite his short career, Davis is still the Broncos’ all-time leading rusher.
Bo Jackson was an athlete who did things on his own terms. Though drafted first overall by the Buccaneers in 1986, a disagreement with the organization led Jackson to sit out the year and pursue his other passion of baseball with the Kansas City Royals. He gave football another shot when the Raiders drafted him in the seventh round the following year, and for the next four years performed the rare feat of playing in both the MLB and the NFL before a hip injury forced him to retire from football in 1990. His baseball career didn’t last much longer, as he chose to retire in 1994 at age 32.
The Chicago Bears running back, whose friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo was immortalized in the 1971 tear-jerker “Brian’s Song,” also saw his own playing career end before its time. Sayers was Rookie of the Year in the 1965 season and led the NFL in rushing yards in 1966 and 1968, but injuries to both knees meant that he only played four complete seasons, and he ultimately retired at age 29 during the 1972 preseason.
Jim Brown played running back for, appropriately, the Cleveland Browns for nine seasons from 1957 to 1965, during which time he led the NFL in rushing yards for all but one year and helped the Browns win the 1964 Super Bowl. He obviously played at a high level throughout his career and is the only NFL running back to average more than 100 yards per game, but he had other interests outside of football and retired at 29 years old to focus on an acting career.
It might seem strange to lament the early retirement of a punter, but the Colts’ Pat McAfee was a fan favorite in Indianapolis for his sense of humor and active social media presence, and he was no slouch on the field either, leading the NFL in net punting yards in 2015 and average yards in 2016. He retired after only eight seasons to pursue a successful media career, and he will be the color analyst for ESPN’s Thursday Night College Football in 2019.
Call him “Beast Mode,” call him “Skittles,” call him “the guy the Seahawks should have given the ball to in Super Bowl XLIX,” running back Marshawn Lynch was a huge factor in Seattle’s success in the early 2010s and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns from 2013 to 2014. A hernia-plagued 2015 season led Lynch to retire at age 29, but even he felt that he retired too early, and he came back to play for the Raiders for two more seasons.
Giants running back Tiki Barber was 31 years old when he retired in 2006, not especially young for a player at his position, but he was playing the best football of his career at the time. His final three seasons featured his three highest rushing yard totals, and he rushed for over 200 yards in a game four times after turning 30. Barber achieved a successful broadcasting career after leaving the NFL, but it has to hurt that the Giants won a Super Bowl just one year after his retirement, something they never did when he was a member of the team.
Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin is a recent addition to this list, having retired in May 2019 after an eight-year career. Relatively unheralded out of Stanford, Baldwin went undrafted in 2011 and started his NFL career in a supporting role before breaking out to lead the NFL with 14 receiving touchdowns in 2015. That season also saw him become the first Seahawks receiver to break 1,000 yards since 2007, and he continued his featured role in the offense for the next two seasons, but a 2018 elbow injury unfortunately proved insurmountable.
The Colts found themselves in an ideal situation with the first overall pick when Luck left Stanford to enter the NFL Draft in 2012. Touted as a generational talent at quarterback, Luck was the heir-apparent to Peyton Manning, hopefully putting the Colts in good hands for at least the next decade. Luck lived up to the expectations at first, leading Indianapolis to the play-offs in his first three seasons, but injuries to his shoulder and kidney in 2015 caused him to miss 26 games over the next three years. He returned to form in 2018, but a lingering leg injury in the 2019 off-season made him decide to hang up the cleats for good.
After an award-winning collegiate career at Wisconsin, linebacker Chris Borland joined the San Francisco 49ers in 2014 and soon worked his way into the starting line-up. However, after just one year in the league, Borland abruptly retired due to rising concerns over CTE and other brain trauma resulting from football, and has since continued to distance himself from the game. In hindsight, Borland’s decision may have been a harbinger of some of the NFL’s more recent early retirements.