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Who would walk away from a job that pays millions of dollars and earns the support of thousands of cheering fans? It happens periodically in the sporting world, and on occasion, the early retirements come in clusters.
The recent NFL offseason saw an unusual number of stars, or budding stars, leave the game early and on their own terms, for a variety of reasons. Jake Locker, former quarterback of the Tennessee Titans, walked away from a potential free-agent contract because he no longer had “the burning desire necessary to play the game for a living.” Jason Worilds, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, retired at the age of 27 in order to devote more time to his faith. However, an increasing number of NFL players are retiring not because of current health concerns, but because of the potential for future ones — especially with the risk of head trauma and related disorders.
Veteran linebacker Patrick Willis and running back Maurice Jones-Drew also retired this offseason with money left on the table. In both cases, cumulative injuries were taking their toll and played a factor in their decision to retire.
The shocker of this offseason was linebacker Chris Borland who retired after one impressive season, specifically over concerns about head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In Borland’s own words, “from what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
Early retirement may be a recent trend in football, but it is not a completely new development, nor is it limited only to football. Here are a few other athletes who retired short of fully cashing in on their sporting talents.
- Björn Borg – The Swedish tennis star had a seven-year run of dominance including five straight Wimbledon championships and six French Open titles, but he lost the passion for the sport and abruptly retired in 1983 at age 26. He went on to establish a successful fashion label under his name. Then, surprising many, Borg attempted a comeback nearly ten years later, but ultimately failed. Speaking about it more than a decade later, Björn admitted to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, “’I can’t explain except to say I wanted to play again. It was madness.”
- Annika Sörenstam – Sorenstam is one of the top female golfers ever to play, with 72 victories on the LPGA tour. She retired in 2008 to pursue other interests, from a sport where it is possible to earn significant money well into older age. Arguably, she made a wise choice, as her successful enterprises range from a golf academy and course design group, to financial advisory services.
- Sandy Koufax – Probably the most stunning retirement in baseball history was the 1966 retirement of Sandy Koufax from the Los Angeles Dodgers at the age of 30. Koufax had just led his team to the World Series and captured his third Cy Young award earlier that year. He had a fastball so nasty that Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell likened hitting it to “drinking coffee with a fork.” Koufax retired because he was afraid of further damaging his arm, which was plagued by chronic arthritis.
- Barry Sanders – After ten straight Pro Bowls, the Detroit Lions running back hung up his cleats at age 30, saying that he had lost his passion for the game. It is possible that the team’s inability to regularly advance in the playoffs and the relative lack of talent around him influenced his decision to hang it up early.
- Pat Tillman – Tillman may be the most well-known of the early NFL retirees for tragic reasons. Motivated by the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., he rejected a multi-million dollar deal with the Arizona Cardinals to join the service. Tillman became an Army Ranger and was killed almost two years later by friendly fire.
- Jim Brown – While he may not have made millions given the salary structure at the time, it is worth ending with Jim Brown (pictured below,) the famous running back from the Cleveland Browns who turned artist, actor, and activist. He retired at 29 and in 2002 was named by Sporting News magazine as the greatest professional football player ever.
There will always be outliers who retire early from any sport, but given the way the game is played now, and the increased awareness and risk of injury, expect football players to lead the list of early retirements in the future. Rest assured that the folks at NFL headquarters are thinking hard about ways to retain their players, despite the risks associated with the sport.