Great Athletes Who Retired Early From Their Sport

By and , RADIO.COM Sports

One year ago, the NFL world was stunned by the sudden retirement of one of the games top quarterbacks. But he wasn't alone in hanging up his cleats earlier than expected.

Not all athletes go on to have long careers in the sports they play, and even the great ones are sometimes forced to step away from the game they love while in the midst of their prime.

Whether it is injuries, illness or because their heart just is not in it anymore, many promising, even Hall of Fame careers have ended prematurely, for better or worse.

Here are some of the best athletes who decided to hang it up early:

Andrew Luck

The Indianapolis Colts quarterback shocked the sports world when he announced his retirement two weeks before the start of the 2019 season, which had leaked during the middle of a preseason game against the Bears. Luck was just 29 years old and was coming off his fourth Pro Bowl season, but injuries had begun to take its toll on the 2012 No. 1 overall pick. Those injuries included shoulder surgery on a torn labrum, a concussion, torn cartilage in his ribs, a lacerated kidney and he was sidelined in his final training camp with a high ankle/calf injury.

At his press conference, Luck said he was “mentally worn down” from the cycle of injury, pain, rehab and needed to move on from football.

Jim Brown

Brown is one of the greatest NFL players of all-time, and some may argue he is atop that list, yet the eight-time All-Pro called it a career after nine seasons at the age of 30. The Cleveland Browns running back had rushed for 1,544 yards and 21 touchdowns in an MVP season his final year, and led the Browns to the NFL title game that season.

Brown retired as football’s all-time leading rusher. He announced his retirement in July of 1966 while filming on the set of “The Dirty Dozen” after Browns owner Art Modell threatened to suspend him without pay if he did not report to training camp.

Barry Sanders

The Detroit Lions running back shocked many with his retirement at the age of 31 before the start of training camp in 1999. Sanders was within 1,500 yards of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record, but the running back said his decision was simple: “My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it.”

Sanders played 10 seasons in the NFL and made the Pro Bowl in each of them. The Lions, however, never found success with him on the roster, winning just one playoff game in his career.

Gale Sayers

Sayers is another Hall of Fame running back whose career ended early. But unlike Sanders and Brown, Sayers’ decision to retire stemmed from his struggle to stay healthy and on the field. He played in just 68 games over seven seasons with the Chicago Bears, including just four in his final two years. He was Rookie of the Year in 1965 and was First Team All-Pro in his first five seasons while leading the league in rushing in two of them. Battling injuries to both knees, Sayers retired at age 29.

Bobby Orr

Orr is worshipped in Boston for leading the Bruins to two Stanley Cup titles and earned hockey’s first-ever million dollar contract. He is still the only NHL player in the sport to win four major awards in the season — earning top defenseman, top point-scorer, MVP and Most Outstanding Player honors in 1974-75.

Yet, Orr’s career ended after 10 seasons when he retired at age 31 after two years with the Chicago Blackhawks in which he barely saw the ice. Orr had undergone over a dozen knee surgeries in his career and could no longer play. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame almost immediately in 1976 — the youngest player to be enshrined.

Cam Neely

Another Bruins icon, Neely also retired early at the age of 31.
The right-winger was a five-time All-Star, including four consecutive honors from 1987-91, including two 50-goal seasons, but it was in the 1991 playoffs that changed Neely’s career. In the Prince of Wales Conference Finals, Neely was checked by Ulf Samuelsson and injured his knee on the play. He was hit on the knee again in Game 6 and played just 22 games over the next two seasons as he attempted to recover.

Neely returned to All-Star form in 1993-94, but developed a degenerative hip condition that eventually forced him away from the game after a 13-year career. He retired as the Bruins’ all-time leading playoff goal scorer and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.

Sandy Koufax

The Dodgers southpaw, who played for the team in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, retired at the age of 30 after the 1966 season despite having just won his second straight Cy Young Award and third in his career. Koufax cited his reason for retiring was that he feared permanent injury to his arthritic left elbow. He finished his career with a 165-87 record, 2.76 ERA and 2,396 strikeouts.

Isiah Thomas

The Detroit Pistons point guard was an NBA All-Star in each of his first 12 seasons in the league, but began to battle injuries in the 1993-94 season, which culminated in Thomas tearing his Achilles tendon. One month later, he announced he was retiring, but said it was not because of the Achilles tear.

“I’ll be walking next week,” he said. “The thing that makes me good is the energy and intensity I can bring to the game every night. I don’t have that type of energy anymore. I don’t have that rah, rah rah anymore. There’s just no more energy left in my body.”

Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson’s retirement announcement was larger than just the NBA, but also had a cultural impact as the Los Angeles Lakers guard stepped away from basketball on Nov. 7, 1991 when he revealed he was HIV positive.
Johnson was 32 years old and was already the NBA’s all-time assists leader and a three-time MVP.

Johnson returned to play in the 1992 All-Star Game and was also a member of the 1992 USA "Dream Team." In 1996, Johnson returned for half a season, averaging 14.6 points and 6.9 assists per game in 32 games.

Michael Jordan

Though it didn't last too long, His Airness' decision to retire and pursue a career in baseball was cause for mass hysteria -- and that isn't even that much of an exaggeration -- throughout Chicago. There were conspiracy theories involved, too, which made it all the more memorable. Of course, the only thing that could have worked to make the buzz surrounding his retirement a thing of the past was his explosive return in 1995, which led to a 13-4 run to end the season and three consecutive championships in subsequent campaigns.

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