As the great Neil Young famously sang, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” With that in mind, it’s important to understand that the fame and fortune that goes with success at the highest level of sports can be addictive. In fact, it can cause so much dependency that athletes often experience difficulty walking away from the sports they love and from which they have gained so much. As a result, it’s common to see sportsmen that continue to ride the wave of their success all the way until the wave crashes — not exactly a flattering way to leave a sport.
For example, by the time Swedish tennis player Björn Borg retired in 1983, he had won eleven Grand Slam singles titles and was a former world number one. Sadly, Borg couldn’t resist the temptation of reclaiming past glory and attempted a comeback in the early 90s. Quite embarrassingly, he was unable to win a single match in his return.
There are, however, a few athletes who had the foresight to retire (and remain retired) while they were still at the top of their game. They were probably hounded by doubters who continually asked them, “Are you sure?” But in the end, history smiled kindly on these athletes’ decisions to end their careers while they were still at their sporting and moneymaking bests.
In compiling this list of ten rich athletes who retired at the top of their games, a maximum of one man and woman per sport was included. For deceased sportsmen, their listed net worths were based on how valuable they were at the time of their deaths, the amounts correspondingly adjusted for inflation.
10. Ned Jarrett / NASCAR / Net Worth: $5 Million
American Ned Jarrett was dubbed “Gentleman Ned Jarrett” because of his calm demeanour. But whenever he sat behind the steering wheel of his NASCAR Grand National stock car, Ned transformed into a ruthless driver. That kind of determination is expected of someone who had to compete under an assumed name to be able to hide his racing career from his father, who strongly disapproved of the sport. Eventually, Ned’s father found out, and he told his son that if he was going to race, he ought to at least use his own name.
The decision to finally allow Jarrett to freely pursue his racing career turned out to be a wise one as Ned ended up being a two-time NASCAR champion (1961, 1965). Jarrett was actually in the run for another championship when Ford, his sponsor, suddenly announced it was withdrawing from NASCAR. As a result, at just 34 years of age, Ned decided to leave the sport as the only driver to retire as NASCAR champion.
9. Rocky Marciano / Boxing / Net Worth upon Death (adjusted for inflation): $9.5 Million
That Rocky Marciano has a career win-loss record of 49-0 is already a giveaway that he retired on top. In fact, he’s the only man to have held the heavyweight title and go untied and undefeated throughout his entire career. And it wasn’t because Rocky ducked the toughest matches. On the contrary, during his World Heavyweight Championship reign from September 23, 1952 to April 27, 1956, he defended his title six times against top-caliber heavyweights of that time.
Marciano actually considered a comeback in 1959, but after only a month of training, he wisely decided against it.
8. Bill Russell / Basketball / Net Worth: $10 Million
In 1969, the NBA Championship boiled down to a seventh game between the LA Lakers and the Boston Celtics. The Celtics won that game through the leadership of a 35-year-old Bill Russell, who grabbed 21 rebounds on his way to a league-leading eleventh NBA Championship.
Days later, during the victory welcome for the team in Boston, Russell didn’t show up. Fans would later find out why. Saying he owed the public nothing, Bill retired and cut all ties to the organization with which he won five NBA Most Valuable Player Awards (1958, 1961-1963 and 1965) and for which he was the centerpiece player. Predictably, Boston fans grew furious with the ungrateful Russell.
Today, Russell’s retirement sins have been forgiven, and he is fondly regarded by Celtics fans as one of the team’s all-time greats.
7. Sandy Koufax / Baseball / Net Worth: $10 Million
It’s ironic that Sandy Koufax, nicknamed “The Left Arm of God” because of his incredible pitching ability, had to retire from baseball due to the pain caused by arthritis in his throwing arm. Nevertheless, in the eleven years that he pitched for the Brooklyn / Los Angeles Dodgers from 1955 to 1966, he racked up some pretty impressive statistics and achievements.
In the last few years of his baseball career, Koufax won three Cy Young Awards by unanimous vote, one of them coming in his retirement year in 1966. Those awards made him the first three-time Cy Young-winner in baseball history and the only one to win three times when the award was for all of baseball, not just one league as is the setup now.
Koufax had actually been advised by his physician to retire before the 1966 season. This was because on March 31, 1965, Koufax awoke to find that his entire left arm was black and blue from hemorrhaging. Armed (no pun intended) with painkillers and a post-game ice bath for his appendage, Sandy decided to play one last season. In that last year of play, Koufax tallied a 1.73 earned run average (ERA), the best of his career.
6. Lorena Ochoa / Women’s Golf / Net Worth: $15 Million
Mexican Lorena Ochoa left college after her second year to become a professional golfer. Her decision seemed to pay off in 2002 when she topped the Futures Tour money list to earn her membership on the LPGA Tour for 2003. Ochoa received Rookie of the Year honors after her debut season, seeming to serve as a precursor for her wins at the 2007 Women’s British Open and the 2008 Kraft Nabisco Championship. Ochoa was also named LPGA Tour Rolex Player of the Year in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.
On April 20, 2010, Ochoa released a statement indicating her intent to retire from professional golf. At a press conference, she explained that her career plan had always been to play for around ten years and to be the #1 player in the world. She wasn’t able to accomplish her first goal as she had only played 8 years by the time she retired, but perhaps, Ochoa figured that being the #1 female golfer from April 2007 to her retirement in May 2010 was enough of an accomplishment.
5. Pelé / Football / Net Worth / Net Worth: $18 Million
Pelé is not often acknowledged for retiring at the top of his game because he had a long career beginning in 1953 and ending in 1977 when the Brazilian legend was already 37 years old. It also doesn’t help that after his nineteenth season with Santos in 1974, a well-past-his-prime Pelé still chose to sign with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League for the 1975 season. However, even while not at his height of awesomeness, the player widely regarded as the best footballer ever was still able to lead the Cosmos to the 1977 NASL championship in his third and final season with the club.
On October 1, 1977, Pelé formally ended his career in an exhibition match between his two teams, the Cosmos and Santos, for which he played one half of the match each. After the game, Pelé was lifted by several Cosmos players and gloriously carried around the field to say goodbye to his adoring crowd.
4. Steffi Graf / Women’s Tennis / Net Worth: $30 Million
Germany’s Steffi Graf won the most Grand Slam singles titles in the Open Era (22) and became the first and only tennis player, male or female, to achieve the Calendar Year Golden Slam. She accomplished the feat in 1988 by winning all four Grand Slam singles titles and the Olympic gold medal in the same year.
Unfortunately, in the last few years of her career, Graf was beset by injuries to her knees and back. As a result, in 1997 she lost her #1 ranking to Martina Hingis and failed to win a Grand Slam title for the first time in ten years. Worse, she continued to lose early in several tournaments. At that point, it seemed that Graf was no longer at her best and looked like she would, like so many other athletes, leave her sport with her career in decline.
However, at the 1999 French Open final, Graf managed to defeat the top-ranked Hingis in three sets for her 22nd Grand Slam singles title and announced it would be her last French Open. She explained, “I have done everything I wanted to do in tennis. I feel I have nothing left to accomplish.”
3. Bobby Jones / Men’s Golf / Net Worth upon Death (adjusted for inflation): $34.5 Million
Bobby Jones made a living mainly as a lawyer and really only played golf part-time. However, that didn’t stop Jones from being the most successful amateur golfer ever to compete on a national and international level. In fact, from 1923 to 1930, his golfing peak, Bobby competed very successfully against the world’s best professional golfers, often beating them. By the end, he had won three Open Championships (1926, 1927, 1930), five US Amateur Championships (1924, 1925, 1927, 1928, 1930), and a British Amateur Championship (1930).
Retiring in 1930 at the peak of his career, Jones explained,
It [championship golf] is something like a cage. First you are expected to get into it and then you are expected to stay there. But of course, nobody can stay there.
And Bobby didn’t insist on staying there. On the contrary, at just 28 years of age, Jones left golf while he was at the top of his game.
2. Jim Brown / American Football / Net Worth: $50 Million
Jim Brown was named by Sporting News as the greatest professional football player ever and is widely considered to be among the greatest professional athletes in the history of the United States. He played for the Cleveland Browns throughout his professional career from 1957 to 1965. During that period he was a three-time Pro Bowl MVP (1961, 1962, 1965), helped his team win the NFL Championship in 1964 and was named NFL MVP by various organizations in 1957, 1958, 1963 and 1965, the year of his retirement.
1. Pete Sampras / Men’s Tennis / Net Worth: $150 Million
Pete Sampras won a Grand Slam title each year from 1993 (beginning at Wimbledon that year) until 2000 (again at Wimbledon). That gave him a total of thirteen Grand Slam singles titles, a record at that time. However, Sampras seemed to have hit a wall when he failed to win a Grand Slam title in 2001 and was in danger of having a second Grand Slam-less year in 2002 after he had failed to win at Australia, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon. The calls for his retirement grew with each loss. Pete, however, had other ideas.
After suffering an embarrassing second-round exit at Wimbledon, Sampras hired former coach Paul Annacone to help him at the 2002 US Open, where he was seeded a lowly 17th. Surprisingly, Pistol Pete defeated a young Tommy Haas and Andy Roddick on his way to the final, where he met his rival, Andre Agassi. After four tough sets, Pete claimed his fourteenth Grand Slam singles title in his last match as a professional tennis player — certainly a grand (slam) way to go out.