NFL stars who retired too soon

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Jason Ence

May 5th, 2021

Many NFL players have had careers derailed by injury and had to hang up the pads sooner than they wanted to. However, some have stepped away from the game during the prime of their careers, when their bodies still had plenty of juice left.

Let’s look at the five players who stunned the league with early retirements.

5. Tiki Barber

Barber spent 10 seasons with the New York Giants and missed just two games after his rookie season. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his last five seasons and amassed more than 5,000 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns in his final three.

However, in October of his last season, he announced he was going to retire from football at the end of the year. He turned down a two-year, $50 million deal to pursue a career in broadcasting, and stated he “couldn’t take" the toll the game had on his body. Barber also said he was tired of head coach Tom Coughlin “demeaning” him.

The Giants won the Super Bowl the following season, and Barber was there covering the game. He tried to return to the NFL in 2011 but went unsigned. 

4. Andrew Luck

There may not be a retirement in NFL history as bizarre as Lucks. He literally walked off the sideline during a preseason game in 2019.

Luck was the Colts starting quarterback for six seasons. He threw for 4,000 yards or more in four of those years and compiled 171 touchdowns. However, he missed the 2017 season with a severe shoulder injury that required him to have surgery and a very lengthy rehab. That was in addition to a lacerated kidney in 2015.

He played very well in 2018, with nearly 4,600 yards passing and 39 touchdowns. However, at age 29, his body was still not fully healed, and he made the decision to retire.

Word of the decision broke while he was still on the sideline, and fans and media were stunned, as he walked into the locker room and out of the league just before the season began.

3. Luke Kuechly

When a seven-time Pro Bowl player retires at 28 years old, you can’t help but do a double take.

Kuechly was the leader of the Panthers’ defense, made the Pro Bowl every season except his rookie year, and was named the best linebacker in the league three times. He recorded at least 100 tackles every year, including 144 in 2019.

In January of 2020, Kuechly released a three-minute video on social media that explained his retirement. He suffered three concussions in successive seasons (2015-2017), although he did not specifically state that as a reason. He instead said he was not sure he could continue to play “fast, physical, and strong” any longer.

2. Calvin Johnson

Between 2011 and 2013, "Megatron" racked up 5,137 receiving yards, the highest total over three season in NFL history. He also recorded the fourth-most yards for any receiver through his first nine seasons. So when Johnson retired in early 2016, at age 30, everyone around the NFL was caught off guard.

Johnson played nine seasons with the Lions and missed just nine games. He scored 83 touchdowns for the Lions and set more than a dozen team records, including career receiving yards and touchdowns.

While he never suffered a major injury, he said his body had been punished by the game and that he could no longer give the effort he felt was required. He also was unhappy with the performance of the team and didn’t see a reason to punish his body for a losing franchise. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this year.

1. Barry Sanders

Speaking of the woeful Lions, perhaps their most beloved player set the framework for Johnson’s decision.

Barry Sanders was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his 10 years in the league, ran for at least 1,100 yards every year, and gained 2,053 yards in 1997, when he won NFL MVP. The shifty back broke ankles and spirits every time he took the field, and he was one of the most electrifying players in the history of the league.

He was also a workhorse for the Lions and carried the ball at least 300 times in seven of his final eight seasons. This culminated with 343 carries in 1998 for a team that won just five games. In July of 1999, just before training camp, he faxed a letter to his hometown paper that announced his retirement.

He left the game fewer than 1,500 yards shy of Walter Payton’s career rushing record (which would later be broken by Emmitt Smith) and later stated he lacked the desire to play. He wrote in his autobiography that he felt he was no closer to a Super Bowl than he was when he arrived, and individual honors were not enough motivation to continue playing.