The 2014 NFL free agency signing period is well underway. We already have a few surprises. Rashard Mendenhall, a two-time Super Bowl champion, announced his retirement at 26 years old. Former Minnesota Vikings defensive end, Jared Allen, had stated he would retire if he did not get his fair market value this offseason (which he seems to have gotten, striking a four-year deal with the Chicago Bears). Allen is only 32 years old and is still a highly productive pass rusher.
These developments inspired us to look at the greatest players to retire too soon. Unfortunately, some of the greats will never be remembered because their professional careers were cut short due to injury. Some simply decided it was just time to hang up the cleats. Whatever the reason for their decision, some players were too good just to forget about because of the short length of their NFL careers.
The nature of professional football is tiring. Sometimes it is better to retire early while one still has their health. It must also be exhausting to constantly be in the public eye. No one can decide when is the right time to call it quits except for the players themselves. No matter what, these particular players gave us some great memories and will never be forgotten. In the words of Neil Young, sometimes “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”.
10 Jake Plummer - Retired at 34 in 2007
“Jake the Snake” Plummer probably still had a few good seasons left in the tank. After leading the Broncos to three straight playoff appearances, Shanahan benched Plummer half way through the 2006 season in favor of rookie quarterback Jay Cutler. Plummer was coming off the best season of his nine-year career, prior the Broncos giving the reigns over to Cutler. He was picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but opted to retire instead of competing with four other quarterbacks for the starting job. He filed his retirement paper work at age 34.
9 LeCharles Bentley - Retired at 29 in 2009
LeCharles Bentley was a two-time Pro Bowl center for the New Orleans Saints. In 2005, he announced he was unhappy in a Saints’ uniform and hit free agency. He reached an oral agreement with the Philadelphia Eagles, but later backed out of it before anything became official. Instead he signed with the Cleveland Browns. In 2006, his first year with the team he injured his patellar tendon and was sidelined for 2006 and most of 2007. After the 2007 season, the Browns release Bentley. He did not sign with another team for the 2008 season. Bentley finally announced his retirement in 2009 after a five-year career.
8 Ickey Woods - Retired at 26 in 1991
Unfortunately, the only reason we still hear the name Ickey Woods is because of his famed touchdown dance, “The Ickey Shuffle”. Woods played running back for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1988 to 1991. He rushed for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns in his rookie year and led the Bengals to Super Bowl XXII. The following year, Woods tore a ligament and sat out the remainder of the season. In 1990, he was used mostly as a goal line back. He ended up reinjuring his right knee in 1991 and was forced to retire at 26 years old.
7 Bo Jackson - Retired at 28 in 1990
Even though Bo Jackson only played in the NFL for three years, his name is still talked about to this day. In fact, ESPN named him “The Greatest Athlete of All Time”. Jackson was a Heisman Trophy winner and the only person to ever make All-Star teams in two different sports. He was originally drafted in 1986 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs’ owner gave Jackson a ride in his private jet to check out the team’s facilities. However, Jackson was still played college baseball at this time. The plane ride put his standings with the NCAA in jeopardy and almost cost him his Heisman Trophy. He was very angry about this and refused to sign with the team. The next season he was drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders. During his short career, Jackson averaged an amazing 5.4 yards per carry. He was forced to retire at 28 years old after a hip injury ended his career. After retiring from football, Bo Jackson focused his time on his professional baseball career.
6 Tony Boselli - Retired at 29 in 2002
In 1995, the newly formed Jacksonville Jaguars spent their first draft pick ever on offensive tackle Tony Boselli. Boselli went on to become a five-time Pro Bowler and a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s. An injury ended his time with the Jaguars and he was picked by the Houston Texans in the 2002 expansion draft. He was unable to play for them because of his injury. He finally retired at 29 years old after just six years with the Jaguars. He was the first player to be inducted into the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Hall of Fame and has been and NFL Hall of Fame nominee every year since 2009.
5 Christian Okoye - Retired at 31 in 1992
For a five-year span “The Nigerian Nightmare” terrified opposing defenses. Christian Okoye was the running back for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1987 to 1992. During that time he was a two-time Pro Bowler and led the NFL in rushing yards during the 1989 season. He retired at 31 years old due to a lagging knee injury. He also cited being tired of playing football as a reason for his decision.
4 Troy Aikman - Retired at 34 in 2000
Troy Aikman is the first Hall of Fame member of the list. The six-time Pro Bowl quarterback led the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories. He was MVP of Super Bowl XXVII. In 2000, he was released by the Cowboys because he was about to be due a $70 million, seven-year contract extension. No teams were willing to spend this amount of money on the 34-year-old quarterback and he was unable to sign with a new team. He also was dealing with a number of back problems, which Aikman claims was the major reason behind choosing to retire.
3 Gale Sayers - Retired at 28 in 1971
The youngest person to ever be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was Gale Sayers. “The Kansas Comet” was a four-time Pro Bowl running back from the Chicago Bears. He was with the team from 1965 to 1971. During that time, he was the NFL’s rushing champion twice. Sayers is also a member of the NFL All-Decade Team for the 1960s. Injuries forced him to retire at 28. In 1977, he was enshrined in Canton at 34 years old.
2 Barry Sanders - Retired at 30 in 1998
Had he played a few more years, Barry Sanders probably would have easily been considered the greatest running back to ever play professional football. He spent his entire ten year career with the Detroit Lions. He never missed a Pro Bowl and led the NFL in rushing yards four times during his career. Sanders ranks third on the all-time rushing list with 15,269 yards. He is also a member of the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1990s. He retired at 30 years old, only 1,457 short of passing Walter Payton as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. He was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
1 Jim Brown - Retired at 29 in 1965
Jim Brown is arguably the greatest professional football player of all time. He retired at 29 years old after playing running back for the Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965. During his time with the Browns he made nine Pro Bowls and was the NFL rushing champion eight times. The NFL named him a member of their All-Decade Team for the 1960s. Brown retired with 12,312 rushing yards and 126 touchdowns, both NFL records at the time. In 1971, Jim Brown became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.