Most players don’t get to make the decision to retire. The decision is often made for them. Their skills decline over time, the competition gets younger and they just can’t hack it anymore. Maybe they even face the indignity of being released.
Some athletes, though, get to go out on their own terms. The reasons are varied, and sometimes these decisions can be shocking, blindsiding fans and teammates. Below are the most shocking retirements of all time.
Barry Sanders – Detroit Lions – 1999
From the time he was a freshman for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, no one could ever really get their hands on Barry Sanders. The running back was drafted by the Lions in 1989 and he rolled off 10 consecutive Pro Bowl seasons.
The Lions, though, were mostly terrible during the halfbacks career and injuries began to take their toll. Sanders announced his retirement in July of 1999. Despite only being 31 at the time and still in his prime, the slippery running back never returned.
Theo Fleury – Chicago Blackhawks – 2003
Theoren Fleury may have only stood 5-6, but he stunned opponents with his skill as well as his ferocity. The spark-plug right wing scored in droves, notching 459 goals which included a 51 score season in 1990-91.
The 7-time All-Star had significant demons, though, and battled drug and alcohol addiction. He retired prematurely in 2003 at only 34 years of age. Fleury later revealed that he had been abused as a minor hockey player and this led to his substance issues.
Magic Johnson – LA Lakers – 1991
It was hard to imagine the NBA without Magic Johnson. The point guard was as celebrated as much for his innovative, dominant play as he was for his advertising ability and telegenic smile. The 12-time All-Star won 5 NBA titles with the Showtime Lakers.
In 1991, the point guard announced that he had tested positive for the HIV virus. He retired immediately. Twenty-nine years later, Magic is going strong. He is not only a health activist, but he also has remained close to the Lakers and recently acted as the team’s President.
Lou Gehrig – New York Yankees – 1939
Larrupin’ Lou Gehrig was among the greatest baseball players of all time. The New York Yankee teamed with Babe Ruth to create one of the sport’s first dynasties. With 7 All-Star appearances, 6 World Titles and 2 MVP’s, it seemed the success would go on forever for Gehrig and the Yanks.
Tragically, Gehrig came down with an illness that was so rare that it ended up being named for him. His retirement ceremony, which took place in 1939, is perhaps the most famous of all time. Gehrig passed from his illness in 1941.
Brian Rafalski – Detroit Red Wings -2014
For much of NHL history, the game was dominated by Canadian players. The ’80s and ’90s saw a wave of American stars make their mark on the game. Devils and Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski was among them.
The high-scoring back-ender had a decorated career, winning two Olympic silver medals to go along with 3 Stanley Cups. The 3-time All-Star surprised some with his 2014 retirement, though the defenseman had little left to prove in hockey.
Maria Sharpova – Tennis – 2020
The best tennis players have a much different career than other professional athletes. Maria Sharapova, for example, started her pro career at 14 years of age. By the time she was 25, she had won a grand slam.
There was controversy too. The Russian born star was banned from the sport in 2016 after a drug test revealed melodium in her system. She returned in 2017. Sharapova, in the beginning of 2020, announced her retirement from the sport at just 32 years old.
Ken Dryden – Montreal Canadians – 1979
Ken Dryden was really good at hockey. You know how good? So good that the award given to NCAA Division I Hockey’s best goaltender has been called the Ken Dryden Award since 1996.
The Montreal Canadian only played in the league for 7 full seasons. But he made his mark in those years as he won the Vezina (best goaltender) Trophy 5 times and the Stanley Cup 6 times. He retired at the age of 31 to pursue a career in politics.
Chris Borland – San Francisco 49ers – 2015
Despite a star-studded career at the University of Wisconsin, Chris Borland somehow lasted until the 3rd round of the 2014 draft. The 49ers got a steal with the linebacker who immediately became the leader of their defense.
In his rookie season, Borland notched 107 tackles, picked off 2 balls and was named to the league’s All-Rookie team. But just as soon as his career started it was over. Citing fear of head trauma, Borland retired in 2015 after just one season.
Andrew Luck – Indianapolis Colts – 2019
Coming out of Stanford University, Andrew Luck was considered maybe the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning. Fittingly, he was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts to replace Manning, whose career had been side-tracked by a neck injury.
And when he was healthy, Luck was as good as advertised, making 4 Pro Bowls and winning the 2018 Comeback Player of the Year Award. He was not healthy as often as he would like, though, and injuries led to the signal-caller calling in quits in 2019 at 29 years of age.
Brandon Roy – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2011
During the 2006 NBA Draft, the Portland Trailblazers traded for the rights to a guard from the University of Washington. Brandon Roy made them look smart by becoming one of the very best young players in the NBA.
Roy made 3 straight All-Star teams before developing a devastating debilitating knee injury. Almost overnight, he went from a 22 point per game scorer to a 12 point per game scorer. He was out of the league by 2011, though he did attempt a brief comeback in 2013.
Dave Nilsson – Milwaukee Brewers – 1999
You can count on one hand the MLB stars who have hailed from Australia. Catcher Dave Nilsson was one of the better ones. The Milwaukee Brewer had his best season in 1999, hitting .309 with 21 homers and making the National League All-Star team.
That would be his last season in the Majors. Nilsson wasn’t injured or debilitated in any way, he was actually just homesick. The catcher returned to his native country, spent time with his family, and destroyed most of the Australian Baseball League records.
Dave Dravecky – San Francisco Giants – 1989
Crafty lefthanders that can get guys out are always in demand in the majors. And throughout the early to mid-’90s, Dave Dravecky was one of the league’s craftier lefties. Towards the middle part of the decade, though, Dravecky’s stuff inexplicably started to decline.
It turned out that the reason for the decline was a desmoid tumor in his pitching arm. After a few years off, Dravecky attempted a comeback with the Giants. The left arm was just too weak, though, and he was forced into retirement.
Isiah Thomas – Detroit Pistons – 1994
With today’s medical science, injuries are treated so much differently than they were in the mid-’90s. Kevin Durant tore his Achilles tendon in 2019 and still signed a max contract at 31. Isiah Thomas tore his Achilles in 1994 at the age of 31 and it ended his career.
Thomas had been a superstar in the league since day one of his career. In his 13 year stint, the year of the injury was the only one where he didn’t make the All-Star team.
Sandy Koufax – LA Dodgers – 1966
It took a while for Sandy Koufax to figure out major league hitters. The Brooklyn-born bonus baby struggled for years with his control. When he finally made it to the big club, though, he was virtually unhittable.
Sandy rolled off 6 straight seasons that may never be matched. The lefty, though, suffered from an arthritic condition that he had trouble managing. The 3-time Cy Young Award winner announced his retirement after the 1966 season at only 31 years of age.
Darren Collison – Indiana Pacers – 2019
If you haven’t noticed, NBA players are making an awful lot of money these days. Darren Collison was one of those guys. The point guard made a total of $10 million during his 2019 season with the Pacers.
After the season, despite plenty of interest in him, Collison decided to retire from the game. Teams didn’t buy his decision and multiple squads tried to get him to join during the 2019-2020 midseason. Collison, though, has stuck to his guns and has remained in retirement.
Cam Neely – Boston Bruins – 1996
Cam Neely broke out as a star for the Boston Bruins during the 1986-87 season. He quickly became a hero in Boston for his scoring prowess as well as his overall toughness.
The future Hall of Famer, however, had severe knee injuries that kept costing him games. Despite his incredible toughness, the balky knees became too much for Neely to bear and he retired in 1996 at only 33 years old. Following his career, the former right-wing has become actively involved in many charities.
Jim Brown – Cleveland Browns –
Jim Brown was drafted out of Syracuse by the Cleveland Browns in 1957. And he was basically unstoppable from day one. Brown was an 8-time First-Team All-Pro and led Cleveland to an NFL title in 1964.
The superstar running back had many interests outside of football, too. Brown wanted to get into acting and had plenty of opportunities in Hollywood. The running back left the sport in 1965, still in his prime at 29 years old.
Mickey Mantle – New York Yankees – 1968
It’s not that Mickey Mantle didn’t have a long career. He played in the majors for 17 seasons. And in those years he hit 536 home runs, took home 3 American League MVP Awards and won 6 World Series titles.
But it’s hard to imagine what kind of career Mantle would have had if he didn’t have terrible knees. The injury cost the Yankee hero years off his career and plenty of explosiveness. He left the game in 1968 when he just couldn’t take the pain anymore.
Michael Jordan – Chicago Bulls – 1993
During the late ’80s/early ’90s, the NBA was chock full of premium talent. The Lakers had Magic, the Celtics had Bird, the Pistons had Isiah and the Bulls had Michael Jordan, the greatest of them all.
Jordan was just coming off his 3rd straight title in 1993 when he announced his retirement from the sport. The shooting guard, who said he had lost his passion for the game, played minor league baseball for the White Sox. He returned to the sport in 1995 and quickly got back to dominating.
Bill Lange – Chicago Cubs – 1899
Not only was Bill Lange’s retirement from baseball a surprising one, but it was also one of the oldest. The outfielder retired from the Chicago Cubs in 1899. In the 7 seasons before his decision, Lange hit .330 with 699 runs scored and 399 stolen bases.
Unlike today, ballplayers back then were considered low-class citizens and the father of a woman Lange was interested in was dismayed at the idea of his daughter marrying the outfielder. While the marriage did not last long, the lightning-quick outfielder never returned to the game.