The NFL has seen quite a few careers end too soon, either by circumstance or by choice. Examples of an injury cutting a career short are Michael Irvin (spine), Sterling Sharpe (neck), Terrell Davis (knees), and Bo Jackson (hip). However, some choose to retire early by choice. Here are 5 who did so.
Sportsnaut describes Jim Brown as possibly the “single greatest offensive player in the history of professional football.” He played for the Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965, and led the league in rushing every year except 1962. Brown was one of the sport’s most prolific players. Asian gaming guide Expatbets in their article “Football Players Who Became Successful Hollywood Actors” detail how Brown is the only NFL player in the sport’s history to average 100 rushing yards per game. That is just one of Brown’s many impressive feats in his 9 seasons at Cleveland. He rushed for 12,312 yards, scored 106 rushing TDs, and won three league MVPS. He also helped the Browns win the 1964 NFL Championship (Brown’s ring from that historic championship, however, was allegedly stolen according to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press).
Brown retired a year later at the age of 31 (supposedly due to his film commitments). He went on to have a successful acting career, which included starring roles in hit films like The Split (1969), Shaft (1971), and Slaughter (1972). Things worked out for Brown post-NFL, but he could have played at least a couple more years.
Barry Sanders was a prolific chain mover, yet retired too early. In 10 seasons with the Detroit Lions (1989–1998), Sanders compiled 15,269 rushing yards and scored 109 total touchdowns (99 rushing and 10 receiving). He also won league MVP in 1997, when he recorded 2,053 rushing yards (making Sanders the 3rd of only 7 members in the 2,000 rushing yards club). A year later, Sanders retired at the age of 30. It came as a complete shock, as he was healthy, in his prime, and within striking distance of Walter Payton’s then all-time rushing mark of 16,726. Many speculate that the losses ultimately took a toll on Sanders, as the Lions missed the playoffs in 5 of Sanders’ 10 seasons. If not for the defeats, Sanders could have played at least a season or two more. At the very least, Sanders and the Lions seem to be on good terms, as the former RB is now the team’s ambassador.
In a case of déjà vu another in-his-prime Lion retired too early. This time it was WR Calvin Johnson. After initially being coy on why he retired at 30, Johnson finally admitted in 2017 that losing factored into his decision: “I didn’t see the chance for them to win a Super Bowl at the time, and for the work I was putting in, it wasn’t worth my time to keep on beating my head against the wall and not going anywhere.” Johnson put in the work in his 9 seasons in Detroit, finishing with 11,619 yards on 731 receptions and 83 touchdowns. Had the Lions surrounded Johnson with championship-caliber talent, he might still be playing in 2019. But Johnson seems to be enjoying life away from the gridiron, writing in The Players’ Tribune how he has been fishing, playing golf, and skiing. He also has been busy with various business and philanthropic endeavors, mostly in Michigan.
Rob Gronkowski retired when he was at the top after helping the New England Patriots win Super Bowl LIII. In 9 seasons with the Pats (2010–2018), Gronk compiled 7,861 receiving yards and 80 TD (79 receiving, 1 rushing), and won three Super Bowls (XLIX, LI, LIII). He had hinted at retirement previously, but that he followed through this year was still a shocker. He is, after all, just 30, and still one of the best tight ends in the league. There’s no doubt that he can still play a few more years. Still, Gronk seems to be genuinely at peace with his retirement. He recently opened up to CBS Boston and noted how he’s “just relaxing and chilling” for the time being.
The case of Chris Borland is a curious one. The former Wisconsin Badger had an impressive rookie season for the San Francisco 49ers in 2014. He started eight games, and recorded over 100 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 1 sack. Then he was out of the league, retiring at the age of 25. He cited health as his reason for walking away, noting how the game is “inherently dangerous.” But Borland has stayed close to the game via nonprofit organizations like Gridiron Greats and After The Impact Fund. Now 28, Borland would have been in his athletic prime; instead, he is helping NFL retirees navigate life after the NFL.
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