Earlier this week former Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals running back Rashard Mendenhall announced his retirement from the NFL. Mendenhall’s announcement was a surprise because he was only 26 years old and presumably able to play for several more years. While Mendenhall’s decision did make headlines, he is not the first athlete to retire with potentially their best years ahead of them. Athletes walk away for a variety of reasons including boredom, stress and injuries. Some of these athletes never return to their sports, but a surprising number of them return after a short period on the sidelines. This list catalogs ten athletes who had sudden retirements. This list chose to focus on athletes who were at the pinnacle of their sport and were more celebrated and accomplished than the aforementioned Mendenhall.
10. Ilya Kovalchuk
Ilya Kovalchuk kicks of this list even though he never retired from playing professional hockey. On July 11th, 2013, Kovalchuk made huge headlines when he retired from the NHL. Kovalchuk stated that he wanted to return to his home country of Russia with his family. Upon returning to Russia, Kovalchuk continued his hockey career in the Russian KHL. What made Kovalchuk’s retirement from the NHL surprising was that he was only 30 years old and in his prime. He also was in the third year of a fifteen year contact that had $77 million left on his contract with the New Jersey Devils when he chose to walk away from the NHL.
9. Ricky Williams
Rashard Mendenhall is not the first NFL running back to suddenly retire. In 2004, soon before the NFL season commenced, Ricky Williams decided to retire from the league and leave the Miami Dolphins just two days before training camp. Williams was 27 years old and only two years removed from leading the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Williams’ teammates expressed their displeasure with the running back and stated that they would never want to play with him again. Williams’ retirement lasted one year, but it had a very negative impact on the Dolphins who finished the 2004 season with a 4-12 record. Before the announcement of his retirement, Williams was reported to have failed multiple drug tests, testing positive for marijuana. Williams played the 2005 season with the Dolphins before a year long suspension in 2006 for another failed drug test.
8. Sugar Ray Leonard
Sugar Ray Leonard‘s retirement was surprising not only because he was one of the best boxers at the time, but because of the way the announcement unfolded. In May 1982, Leonard had surgery to repair a detached retina. In November of the same year, Leonard invited several boxing dignitaries to a charity event. Most assumed that Leonard was going to announce his intention to fight Marvin Hagler. Instead, Leonard announced that the anticipated showdown with Hagler would not happen due to his imminent retirement. Furthermore, Leonard stated that his eye had completely healed and his retina had nothing to do with his retirement. Leonard stated that he just did not want to fight anymore. In December 1983, Leonard announced that he would be returning to boxing. Leonard eventually fought against Hagler in 1987 and won in a controversial decision.
7. Sandy Koufax
Sandy Koufax retired from baseball at the age of 30. Upon his retirement he had won two Cy Young awards, made seven All-Star appearances and had helped the Dodgers win four World Series titles. Koufax retired due to an arthritic left elbow. What was a surprise at the time was that in his final year Koufax’ elbow did not seem to affect his pitching performances. In his final season, Koufax had a 27-9 record with an ERA of of 1.73 and 317 strikeouts. He also led the Los Angeles Dodgers to the 1966 World Series where they were swept by the Baltimore Orioles. Koufax pitched six innings in Game 2 of the series, which was his final game in baseball.
6. Justine Henin
While Serena Williams has dominated women’s tennis over the last few years, things were different in the middle of the last decade, as Justine Henin was the most dominant and consistent player at that time. Between 2001 and 2007, Henin had won seven Grand Slam tournaments and the 2004 Olympic Gold for Belgium. She had made the finals of all four Grand Slam events multiple times and was ranked number one for twelve consecutive months between 2007 and 2008. In 2007, Henin won two Grand Slams and had a 63-4 record. On May 14th 2008, Henin surprisingly announced her retirement. This was a shock to the tennis world as Henin was still the number one ranked player and was a favorite for the French Open which she had won three years running. Henin’s retirement lasted 16 months and she returned during the 2009 season. She again retired from tennis on January 26th, 2011 due to an elbow injury.
5. Bjorn Borg
Bjorn Borg is rightly regarded as one of the greatest tennis players in history. He won eleven Grand Slam tournaments between 1974 and 1981 and he won Wimbledon five straight years and won the French Open six times. Borg never won a US Open despite playing in four finals. Borg was also the first tennis player to earn over $1 million in prize money. Despite his success and stature in the game, Borg announced his retirement in January of 1983. He had only played one tournament the year before. When Borg retired, he was the only male tennis player to win over ten Grand Slams in the open era. His great rival John McEnroe tried to persuade Borg to relent on his decision but to no avail. Borg was only 26 years old when he retired. Borg’s retirement lasted eight years before a failed attempt at a comeback which saw him win no matches over a two year period.
4. Jim Brown
When Jim Brown retired from the NFL, he held the all-time NFL rushing record. Brown’s record would last nineteen years after his retirement. He retired at the age of 29 and is universally acclaimed as the greatest running back in NFL history. Brown left the Cleveland Browns and the NFL to pursue a career in acting. During his last off-season with the Browns, Brown filmed The Dirty Dozen which turned out to be a box office success. Allegedly, Brown told his team that he would be late for the season start of training camp because of production delays. The Browns allegedly responded by ordering Brown to return to the team immediately and fining him $ 1,500 for each day he missed, to which he responded with a retirement.
3. Barry Sanders
In ten NFL seasons, Barry Sanders was selected to the Pro Bowl all ten times and Sanders was the third player in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season. Unfortunately for Sanders, he played for a Detroit Lions organization that made the playoffs only five times in his tenure. Sanders averaged over 1,500 rushing yards for his career and was only 1,500 yards short of the all-time record when he retired. He had five 1,500 yard rushing seasons including four straight which are both NFL records. In a letter he faxed to the Lions announcing his retirement, Barry stated, “The reason I am retiring is very simple. My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it.” Sanders faxed his retirement only two months before the 1999 season began.
2. Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan has retired from the NBA on three separate occasions, however, his first retirement was the most shocking. In October of 1993, Jordan retired from the NBA at the age of 30. To that point Jordan had been named league MVP three times and was coming off his third straight NBA championship. Jordan retired from the NBA to pursue playing baseball. Jordan’s father had been murdered earlier in 1993 and the event is thought to have weighed heavily on his mind. Jordan stated that it was his father’s dream to see him play baseball. Jordan’s first retirement lasted 18 months and upon his return he went on to win three consecutive NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls between 1996-1998.
1. Magic Johnson
There was no more surprising retirement than when Magic Johnson retired from the Los Angeles Lakers in 1991. Johnson retired from the NBA because he had contracted HIV. He was one of the premier players in the league at only 31 years of age, was league MVP three times and an NBA champion five times. HIV awareness in 1991 was not what it is now and people thought Johnson did not have long to live. Johnson did live and was the MVP of the 1992 NBA All-Star game after being selected by the fans and a member of the 1992 Dream Team. Off the court, Johnson has helped raise HIV and AIDS awareness and has become a successful businessman, TV personality and is now part of the ownership group that purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012. Johnson returned to the NBA in 1996 at the age of 36 and the Lakers had a 22-10 record in games he played in. After losing in the playoffs to the Houston Rockets, Johnson retired from the NBA for the second and final time.