Best Athletes Who Retired in Their Prime
The public's expectations of athletes once they pick up a paycheck for playing the game they love are sometimes unfair. Fans can't always understand why they wouldn't try to play that sport until their bodies fail them.
From the perspective of the athlete, it's usually not that simple. Injuries can take their toll. Pressure can take its toll. And sometimes, just being great at a sport doesn't necessarily mean that you love it.
These are the greatest professional athletes who stepped away from their sport in their primes, and for a variety of reasons.
15. Justine Henin
Belgian tennis superstar Justine Henin shocked the tennis world when she retired in 2008, at just 25 years old and with seven Grand Slam singles championships to her name.
Henin cited "chronic fatigue" in her retirement, which came when she was still the No. 1 player in the world and the three-time defending French Open champion. She returned in 2010 for just one year before retiring again due to a chronic elbow injury.
Henin is still considered one of the greatest women's tennis players of all time and finished her career with $20.8 million in career earnings.
14. Brandon Roy
When a basketball player's career ends early it's highly unusual. They seem to be the sport least prone to early retirements for some of the strange reasons that populate this list.
Brandon Roy's retirement because of chronic knee pain was so striking to NBA fans because he was one of the best players in the league when he stepped away. Roy played six seasons in the NBA, but it was really more like five because he only played five games in his final season.
In his short time in the NBA, Roy was named 2007 NBA Rookie of the Year, was a three-time All-Star and made two All-NBA Teams.
13. Chris Borland
You'll find a lot of football players on this list who retired early due to concerns about their health — in particular the long-term effects of repeated head trauma.
Former University of Wisconsin star linebacker Chris Borland played just one season in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers when he decided to hang it up.
The move shocked fans because Borland showed in his one season that he could be one of the NFL's elite linebackers, making the PFWA All-Rookie Team in 2014.
12. Ricky Williams
"I was never strong enough to play football," NFL running back Ricky Williams said after retiring from football for the first time in 2004. "I'm finally free. I can't remember ever being this happy."
Williams won a Heisman Trophy at the University of Texas and had a lengthy pro career that spanned over a decade in which he was one of the NFL’s best running backs.
Even with all those accomplishments, Williams is now known more for his eccentricities, including doing interviews with his helmet and visor on and "retiring" from football for one year to study holistic medicine in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
11. Sandy Koufax
If you're looking for the most dominant five-year stretch of any pitcher in MLB history, start with Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax's career from 1961 to 1966.
He won three Cy Young Awards (when just one Cy Young was given out), won the National League pitching Triple Crown three times, won two World Series Most Valuable Player trophies and pitched a perfect game.
Koufax was just 30 years old and had pitched just 11 seasons when he retired in 166 because of chronic pain in his left elbow.
10. Tiki Barber
Tiki Barber's legacy should be more than it is among Giants fans, but here's the problem. When you trash the team and the starting quarterback on the way out the door, and they win the Super Bowl the next year, people aren't very forgiving. Which Barber did.
Having a bad take is one thing. Throwing your old teammates under the bus after you've decided to retire early to pursue some wack, go-nowhere broadcasting career and not having the guts to do it to their face is another.
9. Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan isn't higher on this list because we've tried to limit the number of players who retired and came back — which Jordan did twice.
But the first time he retired, in 1993, was seismic, leaving the Chicago Bulls after three consecutive NBA championships to pursue a professional baseball career.
While Jordan returned to the Bulls 18 months later (and won three more titles), his greatness merits a spot on the list.
8. Luke Kuechly
In just eight seasons, Luke Kuechly accomplished almost everything an NFL linebacker could — including being perhaps the best coverage linebacker in the history of the game.
Kuechly made seven Pro Bowls, seven All-Pro teams and in the other season, 2012, he was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Knowing what we know now about concussions, which forced Kuechly's retirement, should players who accomplish what he did and have their careers shortened be in the Hall of Fame?
We think Kuechly deserves a spot.
7. Ken Dryden
Ken Dryden was the only Hall of Famer taken in the 1964 NHL draft, when the Montreal Canadiens selected him in the third round.
Dryden won the Stanley Cup championship six times, won the Vezina Trophy five times and was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 1971 — incredibly coming before he won the Calder Trophy in 1972. His NHL career also proved to be incredibly short, spanning from just 1970 to 1979.
Dryden's 1983 book "The Game" about the Canadiens' 1979 season is perhaps the greatest nonfiction book about sports of all time.
6. Calvin Johnson
Playing for the Detroit Lions must be a pretty life-sucking experience. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson is one of two players from the franchise to make this list by shocking football fans by retiring in their prime.
Johnson played just nine seasons in the NFL and had seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons when he retired following the 2015 season, citing the Lions' struggles and his lack of passion for playing the game anymore.
Johnson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2021, in his first year of eligibility.
5. Bjorn Borg
In 1981, Bjorn Borg was just 24 years old, had won 11 Grand Slam singles titles and was one of the most famous athletes in the world.
In 1982, he played in just one tournament. And in 1983, at 26 years old, he shocked the sports world when he decided to retire from tennis because it was "no longer fun."
Borg's lavish lifestyle pushed him to the point of bankruptcy and forced him back into the game in 1991, where he showed up using wooden rackets and didn't win a single set in two years.
4. Jim Brown
Considered by many to be the greatest football player of all time, Jim Brown is still the only player in NFL history to average over 100 rushing yards per game.
In just nine seasons, Brown led the NFL in rushing eight times and was NFL MVP three times. When filming the classic World War II film "The Dirty Dozen" began to cut into the start of Cleveland Browns training camp in 1966, Brown was threatened with a fine by owner Art Modell.
Brown responded by retiring from football.
3. Ashleigh Barty
When 26-year-old tennis superstar Ashleigh Barty retired in March 2022, it was actually her second time leaving behind the game she's better at than almost anyone in the world.
Barty went on "hiatus" in 2014, when she left tennis to play professional cricket, but returned to win three Grand Slam singles titles — the French Open in 2019, Wimbledon in 2021 and the Australian Open in 2022, leaving her just a U.S. Open title away from a career Grand Slam.
"I don’t have the physical drive, the emotional want and everything it takes to challenge yourself at the very top of the level any more," Barty said when she retired in 2022. "I am spent."
2. Barry Sanders
The argument for greatest running back of all time usually includes a short list of Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. Like Brown, Sanders ended his career while he was still in his prime, retiring unexpectedly after the 1998 season and with the NFL's career rushing record well within his sights.
How Sanders retired remains part of his mythos. He simply faxed a letter to his hometown newspaper, The Wichita Eagle, where his childhood friend, Mark McCormick, was a reporter at the time.
That The Eagle got the scoop still makes some people BIG MAD.
1. Andrew Luck
No player's retirement hit with the seismic shock of Andrew Luck's decision to walk away from the game. The Indianapolis Colts quarterback called it a career after six seasons. Luck was definitely in his prime, with one of the richest contracts in NFL history.
Luck had the misfortune of deciding to hang it up in the peak of our current social media era. And it became one of the most picked-over and debated retirement decisions of all time.
What led to Luck's decision? After playing every game each of his first three seasons in the NFL, he missed nine games in 2015 with a lacerated kidney and torn abdominal muscle. In 2017, Luck missed the entire season with a shoulder injury, then returned to play all 16 games in 2018 and was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Just days before the 2019 season was set to begin, Luck said goodbye, "I can't' live the life I want to live," due to the injuries he'd suffered so far. He was just 29 years old.