Dr. Bennet Omalu published his paper discussing the harmful effects of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in 2005. Since then, the number of early retirements has increased significantly. Players wish to live the rest of their lives with full use of their brain and who wouldn’t? Players like Andre Waters and Junior Seau all tested positive for CTE at the time of their deaths. Take all of this into consideration, and fans should be more understanding if one of their favorite players retires unexpectedly. Of course, there are more incentives for calling it quits early in one’s career, so here are the most shocking NFL retirements.
OT Joe Thomas – 2018
Joe Thomas was a rookie for the Cleveland Browns in 2007. The offensive tackle didn’t miss a start until halfway through the 2017 year, which is remarkable. It’s hard to imagine a guy calling it the end after one injury.
Thomas was a pro-bowler every year he played before a torn triceps ended his 2017 campaign, and his career, early. When he retired, Thomas said football just wasn’t fun anymore. He’s since moved on to the media and has been a great success.
RB Billy Sims – 1984
It isn’t fun when you’re forced to retire early due to injuries when you see others ending retiring by their own will. Billy Sims had the injury bug cut his career short after five seasons.
Between 1980 and 1984, Sims racked up more than 5,000 yards and made the Pro Bowl three times. He led the Detroit Lions to a playoff appearance in ’82 and ’83, further proving his worth to the team. The devasting knee injury he sustained in ’84 made him end his relationship with the gridiron halfway into that season.
RB Barry Foster – 1995
Running backs might have it the toughest amongst NFL players. Their careers tend to last the least amount of years on average, but no one wants their team’s ball carrier done after only five years, which is what exactly what happened Pittsburgh’s Barry Foster.
Between 1990 and 1994, Foster made the pro bowl twice and became the AFC Offensive Player of the Year. In ’92, Foster set the Steelers single-season rushing record with 1,690 yards. After that season, it all went downhill thanks to injuries.
QB Andrew Luck – 2019
Andrew Luck was the reason the Colts thought it was a good idea to ship out Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. They drafted him number one overall in 2012, and he immediately made a lasting impact. Luck took a 2-14 team to the playoffs after leading them to an 11-5 record.
Calling it shocking that he retired only seven years into his career would be an understatement. “I’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road, and I made a vow to myself that if I ever did again, I’d choose me, in a sense,” an emotional Luck said. Hard to be mad at someone choosing their health.
RB Barry Sanders – 1999
Andrew Luck’s recent news might be utterly surprising, but it still doesn’t compare to this. Barry Sanders made his announcement in the middle of summer as training camps were getting started before the 1999 season.
The news shocked the world because Sanders had just renewed his contract and even had an $11 million signing bonus. The Lions demanded that Sanders pay back some of the money, but he would only do so if they allowed him to sign someplace new. Detroit refused and one of the biggest what-ifs revolves around arguably the best running back to do it.
LT Tony Boselli – 2002
Tony Boselli played his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars just when they were starting out as an expansion team. They drafted him with the second pick in 1995, and he would continue to play with them through 2001. Boselli was a five-time pro bowler and a three-time first-team all-pro player.
Injuries began to take effect on the tackle, and he started to lose his ways. When the Houston Texans became an expansion team in 2002, they selected Boselli, but he could no longer play and ended up retiring that year.
RB Marshawn Lynch – 2016
During the off-season where everyone expected Peyton Manning to announce the inevitable, one player shockingly beat him to the punch; Marshawn Lynch. The Super Bowl champion chose to walk away at 29 years-old.
Everyone, including Lynch, knew there was fuel left in the tank, which was why this was so shocking. He rushed for 1,000 yards in a season six different times. Not all backs could do what Lynch could. That explains why he came back after a brief retirement.
RB Christian Okoye – 1992
The Kansas City Chiefs took a chance on the “Nigerian Nightmare” Christian Okoye in 1987. The gamble worked as Okoye quickly became their star running back. Okoye played phenomenal for six years and would retire as the Chiefs all-time leading rusher.
At 6’1″ and 253 pounds, Okoye gave defenders the chills. He may have made it look easy, but he battled knee injuries throughout his career. The knee issues caused him to hang it up at 31 years old after claiming the game wasn’t fun anymore.
RB Tiki Barber – 2007
Between 2002 and 2006 Tiki Barber rushed for 7,643 yards. That was the second-most in the NFL during that time frame, behind only LaDainian Tomlinson. That made it all the stranger when Barber announced his plans to retire following the 2006 season.
He was at the peak of his career but elected to protect his future. The ironic part is that the year after he retired, the Giants did the one thing he always wanted; win a Super Bowl.
QB Troy Aikman – 2001
It’s safe to say that if any quarterback had better protection on their line, then their careers would be longer. That was the biggest issue for Troy Aikman because he could have easily played at least five more years.
Aikman’s nagging back issues and history of concussions he dealt with since 1991 made him make his exit earlier than expected. He was only 34-years-old, surprising most fans when he made the announcement.
LB Jerod Mayo – 2016
Jerod Mayo played all eight of his NFL years with the New England Patriots. The promising linebacker had to end three of his season’s early thanks to injuries and decided enough was enough.
During his first five years, the defensive player was healthy. He played in 75 games and would start 73 of those. Luckily for Mayo, he did win a ring after the Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX, so that means he didn’t retire empty-handed.
RB Gale Sayers – 1972
We’ve featured a ton of great running backs, but there weren’t many that could compete with Gale Sayers. Fans never got to witness how special he could’ve been thanks to his bad knees.
Sayers went back and forth between deciding if he should push through the knee injuries or just retire. As time went by, his skill lessened, and by 29, he called it quits. The good thing for him is that his legacy remained intact and he entered the Hall of Fame in 1977.
RB Bo Jackson – 1991
Bo Jackson was the jack of all trades, but nothing short of an expert in football. There’s never been a dominate two-sport athlete quite like Jackson. He was a monster on the diamond and a beast on the gridiron.
He was like Adrian Peterson, but faster, and it was his powerful running style that set him up for injuries. In 1991, Bo dislocated his hip after a tackle. That turned out to be his last play in the NFL. Never have fans wondered more about what could have been.
RB Robert Smith – 2001
Robert Smith’s departure from the league was highly surprising. Not only was he healthy, but he was on the verge of signing a contract for nearly $30 million! He chose to give it away over fears for his health.
He hung it up around the time many other athletes were forced out of the NFL thanks to brain injuries. This was before the CTE study came out, but Smith saw the issues well-before others did and knew to pack it up.
LB Patrick Wilis – 2015
Since the Steve Young era ended in the late ’90s, the 49ers have had their fair share of problems. It wouldn’t be until Jim Harbaugh came around and created a monster of a defense that Niners’ fans suffering would end. Patrick Willis played an important role.
Willis was top tackler in the NFL during his first four years, which was enormous. Unfortunately, he began battling a foot injury in 2013 that lingered over to 2014. He had to make a tough decision to avoid further damage, which is why he retired so early.
LB Chris Borland – 2015
As shocking as Patrick Willis’ announcement was, Chris Borland’s could be the most surprising retirement in 49ers history. Borland just completed his rookie campaign, one where he started eight games after Willis went down.
He had 107 tackles, one sack, and two interceptions. It was a great kick-off to a career that would get ended thanks to an ankle injury. Not too long after Willis made the call, Borland also did, citing concerns with head trauma.
RB Jim Bown – 1966
Jim Brown was miles ahead better than anyone in the NFL when he played. The running back was faster and stronger, so when he retired after just nine seasons, many were left to pick their jaws up off the ground.
Once he felt he accomplished with all that he wanted to do, Brown retired and decided to become an actor. He went down this path with no brain trauma and all his health intact. That was a smart move.
WR Calvin Johnson – 2016
Calvin Johnson entered the NFL straight from high school and was a top player almost instantly. He just so happened to land with a franchise that has a history of making players retire way earlier than they should have.
Johnson was a top-five receiver after the 2015 season, but that’s when he made the shocking news. “I don’t know, but what I can tell you, is that it’s a big unknown because… say you were winning, you win a Super Bowl and you know, you just never know how you’ll feel,” Johnson said. “I’m wasting my time trying to think about what could happen, what would have been.”
OT D’Brickashaw Ferguson – 2016
When looking at the shock meter for player retirements, this one is unmeasurable. D’Brickashaw Ferguson blindsided all of the New York Jets’ fanbase when he announced his retirement after ten years of playing stellar ball.
Not only was Ferguson healthy at the time, but he hadn’t missed a single game throughout his whole career. That’s 167 consecutive starts, plus he never missed a practice. He had a growing concern with the NFL’s concussion issue, which ultimately made him pull the plug.
QB Jake Locker – 2014
Jake Locker was a prized possession coming out of the University of Washington in 2011. The Tennessee Titans picked up the quarterback with their first pick in the draft. Locker’s career would be riddled with injuries and inconsistencies, and he could only take so much.
It took Locker four years of the pounding and ruthless NFL life before he got fed up. “I had to come to an understanding that I did not leave the NFL on bad terms. I was grateful for the experience,” Locker told SI, “I was just moving in a different direction.”