Barry Sanders, running back for the Detroit Lions, during the National Football Conference Central game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1991. He retired in 1998.

25 athletes who retired in their prime

Written by:
June 25, 2019
Rick Stewart/Allsport // Getty Images

25 athletes who retired in their prime

To become a professional athlete, it takes years of hard work, endless hours of practice, tons of natural ability, and a good amount of luck. For the small percentage of players who make it to the highest level, there can be untold riches, a lifetime of fame, and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. That's why it's so shocking whenever the greatest to ever do it decide to pack it in and retire at an early age. While the average length of a pro-sports career in the NFL, NBA, and MLB are all less than six years, those who play at the highest level tend to stick around far longer. It can come as a shock to fans when the best of the best step down at the top of their game.

The list of players to end things early is surprisingly long and there are myriad reasons for any athlete's departure. For some, the injury bug hit them too soon. For others, a lack of desire and motivation washed over them after years of putting in their maximum effort. And for a few, they felt the simple desire to walk away, spend more time with family, and just live a normal life. Some athletes, like Barry Sanders (who's featured on this list), wait for decades before revealing their reasons for retiring.

Stacker was fascinated by these retirements and created a list of 25 athletes who stepped down in their prime. The list of players runs the gamut from basketball players and football stars to track gods and golfers. Each player left for a different reason, but the biggest similarity is that they still had years of talent to give and millions of dollars in potential earnings left on the table.

Ultimately, this is the greatest "what if" list in sports. What if Magic Johnson never contracted HIV? What if Jim Brown didn't want to be in movies? What if Bo Jackson's hip never popped out? Unfortunately, no one will ever know, and this instead is how history has unfolded.

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Barry Sanders

Barry Sanders was one of the most prolific running backs of all time, especially considering his size, standing at just 5-foot-8. Sanders retired from the Detroit Lions in 1998 at the age of 31 and in his last year was fourth in the league in rushing. He finished his career with the third most rushing yards in NFL history, the third most rushing yards in a single season, and the most 100-plus-yard games and consecutive 100-plus-yard games in a season, both in 1997 the year before he retired. Sanders left the game because he was frustrated and felt that the Lions weren't committed to building a winning team.

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan was so good at basketball that he retired from the game twice while in his prime. The first was in 1993 after the Chicago Bulls had won their third straight championship and Jordan, at the age of 30, decided to try his hand at baseball. Jordan came back in 1995 and led the Bulls to three more NBA titles, only to retire again in 1998 at the age of 34. He said he had lost his desire to play at the highest level and was 99.9% sure he wouldn't return again. Jordan made one last comeback, however, playing for the Washington Wizards from 2001 to 2003, but it wasn't his finest hour.

Jim Brown

Considered one of the best running backs in NFL history, Jim Brown surprised the world when he announced his retirement on the set of "The Dirty Dozen" in 1966. Brown was only 30 years old when he left the NFL and had just come off the 1965 season where he was crowned the MVP of the league. While running for the Cleveland Browns, Brown set the records for most seasons leading the league in rushing, most consecutive seasons leading in rushing, and most seasons leading the league in touchdowns, all records that still stand today.

Floyd Mayweather

With a career boxing record of 50-0, Floyd Mayweather is another professional athlete with multiple retirements in his prime. Mayweather first retired in 2007 after beating Oscar De La Hoya at the age of 30. That retirement didn't last long, as he came back to fight again at the end of 2007, beating Ricky Hatton. Mayweather retired again before returning in 2009 and fighting until 2015, still without losing. Mayweather made one last comeback in 2017 at the age of 40 against MMA fighter Conor McGregor. Mayweather won again, and this retirement "might" be his last.

Tiki Barber

Enjoying an incredibly successful career as a running back for the New York Giants, Tiki Barber surprised fans when he announced his retirement in 2006 at the age of 31. Barber had run for more than 1,600 yards in his last season but decided to pursue a career in broadcasting instead. Barber briefly attempted to return to football in 2011 after a widely publicized affair led to the end of his broadcasting career. Barber never made it back on the field, but finished his career as the Giants' all-time leader in rushing yards.

Earl Campbell

When Earl Campbell entered the NFL in 1978, there were few players who were considered more of a sure thing for greatness. In five of his first six seasons, Campbell ran for more than 1,000 yards, including in 1980 when he rushed for 1,934 yards, which is still the eighth best ever. In 1985, Campbell decided he had enough, alerting the New Orleans Saints that he wanted to spend more time with his family. He was only 31 years old and was still considered the Saints' #1 rushing option.

Rocky Marciano

Citing a desire to spend more time with his family, Rocky Marciano retired from boxing in 1956 with a 49-0 record at the age of 31. Marciano was a heavyweight fighter and is widely considered one of the best of all-time with fights against other legends like Jersey Joe Walcott, Joe Louis, and Ezzard Charles. Tragically, Marciano died in a plane crash in 1969.

Björn Borg

Although he officially retired in 1983, tennis legend Björn Borg had barely played a match since the end of 1981 when he won the French Open for the sixth time and finished second at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Borg was only 26 when he left the game and had won 11 major titles, second only to Roy Emerson at the time. Borg was quoted as saying he could no longer give 100% and tennis just wasn't fun for him anymore. In 1991, Borg made a brief comeback, but couldn't muster any wins and left again in 1993.

Justine Henin

Ranked #1 in the world, Justine Henin was the three-time defending champion at the French Open and defending champion at the U.S. Open when she abruptly quit the sport of tennis in 2008. Henin was only 25 years old when she left and claimed that she had lost the desire to train and compete. The Belgian-born Henin came out of retirement in 2009, and it looked like she might make it all the way back, winning two titles in 2010. She ultimately succumbed to an elbow injury and retired for good in 2011.

Annika Sörenstam

Considered to be one of the best female golfers of all time, Annika Sörenstam decided to retire in 2008 while still at the top of the game. Though she was 37 years old, Sörenstam still won three tournaments in her final year, finishing fourth on the money list, and was ranked #2 at the end of the season. In her career, Sörenstam won 72 tournaments (third all-time), 10 majors (tied for fourth all-time), and is the all-time career money leader for the LPGA. Sörenstam claimed that she wanted to do other things with her life, including starting a family and working on her foundation.

Calvin Johnson

Nicknamed Megatron because of his large hands, NFL wide receiver Calvin Johnson surprised fans by retiring in 2015 at the age of 30. Johnson only played nine seasons for the Detroit Lions, abruptly leaving the game because he felt he couldn't give 100% mentally or physically. Despite his short career, Johnson holds a number of records. His 1,964 receiving yards in 2012 are the most in NFL history. His 1,214 receiving yards in 2015 are the most for any receiver in their final year. In 2013, Johnson carded 329 receiving yards against the Dallas Cowboys, which is the second most all-time for a single game.

Ken Dryden

One of the all-time hockey greats, Ken Dryden's career is filled with awards and accolades. Dryden first entered the NHL in 1971 and played so well as a rookie that he won the Conn Smythe Trophy awarded to the MVP of the playoffs. Dryden took two breaks from hockey. His first was sitting out a year in 1974 to pursue a degree in law. He came back but retired for good in 1979 at the age of 31. Dryden played eight seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and the team won the Stanley Cup six times in those years.

Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax pitched for 12 years, all for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers before retiring at 30. In his final year, Koufax recorded his lowest ERA of 1.73, and pitched an astounding 27 complete games, winning the Cy Young Award for a then-record third time. Koufax retired from the game because of chronic arthritis, but finished his career with four World Series wins, a National League MVP award, four no-hitters, and one perfect game.

Bobby Orr

Widely considered the best defensemen in NHL history, Bobby Orr was a bruising hockey phenom who retired at 30. Most of his career was spent with the Boston Bruins in the 1960s and 1970s where he won two Stanley Cup titles, two Conn Smythe trophies, and three Hart trophies. Orr suffered from major knee problems and the last three years of his career he was only able to play 36 total games after more than a dozen knee operations.

Bo Jackson

Possibly the biggest "what if" athlete of all time, Bo Jackson was a superstar who played professional baseball and football at the highest level and at the same time in the 1980s. Jackson started his professional career in baseball in 1986 playing for the Kansas City Royals and then added on NFL duties as a running back for the Los Angeles Raiders in 1987. First, Jackson's football career ended after he suffered a hip injury in 1991. He tried coming back to baseball in 1993 and 1994, but he was never the same and retired for good at the age of 31.

Ricky Williams

Coming into the NFL, Ricky Williams had already established himself as one of the best college football players of all time, setting multiple records and winning the Heisman in 1998. Williams was drafted by the New Orleans Saints but was traded to the Miami Dolphins after only three seasons. Williams was suspended by the NFL multiple times for drug use and announced his first retirement in 2004. He briefly returned, only to be suspended for failing another drug test. Williams came back one more time, playing for five seasons 2007–2011, but retired for good in 2012 at the age of 34.

Magic Johnson

Coming off an NBA Finals loss to the Chicago Bulls in 1991, Magic Johnson was ready to face a new season for the Los Angeles Lakers. Unfortunately, his career was tragically cut short when on November 7, 1991, he announced he was HIV-positive and was retiring from basketball at 31. Up to that point, Johnson was a five-time NBA champion, three-time league MVP, and three-time Finals MVP. In 1995, Johnson made a brief comeback, playing 32 games for the Lakers, but ultimately retired again.

Gale Sayers

Gale Sayers was a running back for the Chicago Bears in the 1960s and was the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1965. Sayers' career was short-lived, playing only seven seasons for the Bears, and recording just four total games in his final two. Sidelined by knee injuries, Sayers was forced to retire in 1971 at the age of 28. In his short career, Sayers was a First Team All-Pro selection five times and made it to the Pro Bowl four times.

Robert Smith

In 2000, Robert Smith rushed for 1,521 yards for the Minnesota Vikings in his eighth—and best—season in the NFL. Then, he retired. The 28-year-old running back said he'd "rather walk away early than limp away late." The news shocked most fans, but Smith said that even after his best season, he still needed another knee surgery. By leaving early, Smith probably gave up anywhere from $20 to $40 million, but he's reportedly happily retired with no regrets.

Brandon Roy

There are way too many careers in sports cut short by injury, and Brandon Roy's is just another sad example. Playing for the Portland Trailblazers from 2006 to 2011, Roy was the Rookie of the Year, made three All-Star Games, and was on two All-NBA teams before a degenerative knee condition took him out. Roy was only 27 years old and briefly tried a comeback at 28, but was only able to play five games for Minnesota before retiring again.

Bobby Jones

Back in Bobby Jones's day, professional golfers were looked down upon as gamblers and hustlers. Jones never turned pro, instead excelling as golf's ultimate amateur in a storied career that included four wins at the U.S. Open, three at The Open Championship, and five U.S. Amateur championships. Jones retired at 28 in 1930 after winning the Grand Slam that year, which then consisted of The Amateur Championship, The Open Championship, the U.S. Open, and the U.S. Amateur. Jones left the sport to film a series of instructional golf videos for Warner Brothers.

Mark Spitz

Before Michael Phelps, the swimming world's ultimate champion was Mark Spitz. Spitz was a multiple world recorder holder and won nine gold medals between the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games. After the '72 games, Spitz retired at 22; he was later quoted saying that he retired because he didn't have a future in swimming because he couldn't make any money in the sport. All of Spitz's records have since been eclipsed, and the swimming phenom briefly attempted a comeback at the age of 41. He wasn't able to qualify for any major events, and retired for good.

Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven straight times and initially retired from cycling at the age of 34 after the last win in 2005 to focus on his cancer charity. Armstrong came back to racing in 2009, but never regained the form of his peak years. Armstrong's case has been complicated, of course, by his admission that he took performance-enhancing drugs through the duration of his career. Armstrong has since been stripped of all his cycling titles; he is also banned for life

Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman was only four years into his NFL career when the tragedy of 9/11 happened in New York City. Tillman was playing for the Arizona Cardinals at the time and was so affected by the events, he decided to leave football at the age of 25 to enlist in the military. Tillman was deployed to Afghanistan after completing Army Ranger training and in 2004, was tragically killed in combat by friendly fire.

Usain Bolt

The greatest sprinter in the history of the sport, Usain Bolt retired from running in 2017 after winning multiple world championships and eight Olympic gold medals, including at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. At 31, Bolt was still one of the fastest men on the planet, but in his last race, he pulled his hamstring and decided not to return to the track. Bolt briefly attempted to make a career as a professional soccer player, but his dream fell short and he left the sport in January 2019.

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