5 of the Most Unexpected Retirements in Sports History

And we’ve ranked them

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Lou Capozzola/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the most bittersweet things a fan can experience in sports is when their favorite player finally decides to call it quits after a long, successful career. What makes it even worse is when they decide to hang it up during the prime performance years, leaving everyone to ponder “what if” if they’d stuck with it for a little while longer. Just like Andrew Luck—who retired weeks before the start of the 2019 NFL season—athletes nowadays are cherishing life after sports rather than dealing with the long-term effects of a career full of injuries.

Here are five cases where some of the best athletes retired unexpectedly in their prime and never looked back.

5. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions

The minute you saw him on the gridiron, you knew something special was bound to happen. Calvin Johnson was dubbed “Megatron” for more reasons than one. The receiver stood tall at 6-foot-5, weighed 239 pounds and ran a 40-yard dash with a time of 4.35 seconds while possessing amazing body control and catching ability. Johnson opened the door to a new wave of big wide receivers such as Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald who changed the way football was played. 

In a short span, he was able to rack up a plethora of accolades, including becoming a six-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro selectee, as well as setting the new single-season NFL receiving yards record with 1,964 yards in the 2012 season. What’s most impressive is that he accomplished all this before the age of 30.

Just shortly after signing an eight-year, $132 million contract extension, Johnson decided out of nowhere to hang up the cleats. According to ESPN’s The Undefeated, major concerns over his long-term health and life after football were big factors in why he retired at the young age of 30.

Three years removed from the league, Johnson is regarded as one of the greatest wide receivers to ever touch the football field, and many have wondered what could have been if he’d continued his dominance. His 5,137 receiving yards from 2011 to 2013 are still the most by any player over a three-year stretch in NFL history.

4. Chris Borland, LB, San Francisco 49ers

Just when you thought the 49ers were in trouble after their Pro Bowl hard-hitting linebacker Patrick Willis went down, a diamond in the rough rose to the occasion.

The former Wisconsin Badger sensation had an impressive rookie campaign for the 49ers. He tallied up 107 tackles, one sack and two interceptions after starting in only eight games. Many believed the future was bright for the 49ers until a random announcement came from Borland stating he was retiring from football to avoid the risk of long-term injury

Because he retired at only 24, Borland returned more than $400,000 in bonus money to his former squad.

3. Darren Collison, PG, Indiana Pacers

A speedy guard who knew how to facilitate the offense and could drain the three ball when necessary, Darren Collison was what you wanted in an NBA point guard. Granted, he didn’t provide the acrobatic, showstopping athleticism like Russell Westbrook, but Collison knew how to get the job done, which is why his career lasted more than a decade. 

Bouncing from teams such as the Dallas Mavericks, L.A. Clippers, Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers, Collison showed the league he had a lot to bring to the table. So when he recently shocked the basketball world by announcing his retirement on June 28, it was a major blow. What was so shocking was that he led the league in three-point field goal percentage during his 2017-2018 season, despite having knee surgery in February 2018.

His reason for retiring at age 31 was to focus on his faith (he is a devout Jehovah’s Witness), but Collison’s leadership and clutch attributes will be missed by teams who are trying to make deep runs come playoff time.

2. Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions

The game’s most electrifying running back decided to call it quits just days before the start of training camp in 1999. 

Barry Sanders was a walking highlight reel for the Detroit Lions and was en route to rewriting the record books. He needed just 1,457 yards to break Walter Payton’s NFL rushing record, but as time went on, Sanders grew frustrated with the Lions organization. While racking up ten Pro Bowl appearances, six first-team All-Pro selections, and an NFL MVP honor, Sanders couldn’t get over the hump to get to the “big game.” 

Despite signing a four-year, $36 million contract, Sanders wanted to play for a team that would compete for a Super Bowl. The Lions wouldn’t let him go, so at the tender age of 31, Sanders took matters into his own hands and decided to hang up the helmet and walk away from the game that made him an all-time great.

1. Michael Jordan, SG, Chicago Bulls

Coming off three consecutive NBA titles, three consecutive NBA Finals MVPs and two straight NBA MVPsyou can imagine how someone’s mind might travel, seeking answers to figure out what’s next.  

At 30 years old, MJ was the world’s best basketball player, and his celebrity status became bigger after every iconic Gatorade and Nike commercial on top of his dominating play on the court. Many people thought the Bulls would be on top for a long time with his Airness on the roster. But right before the 1993-1994 season, Jordan announced his retirement from basketball to pursue his passion for baseball. The announcement came not long after his father—who had envisioned his son becoming a baseball star—was killed at a highway rest stop in North Carolina on July 23 of the same year. After a short and unsuccessful stint in pursuit of an MLB contract, MJ decided to return to pro hoops. He won three more NBA titles and two more NBA MVPs before retiring for good in 2003.

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