Top 10 NFL Players Who Retired Too Soon

Updated on August 27, 2019
Ty Tayzlor profile image

TT is an online writer with over four years of experience writing about sports and pop culture.

Given the surprise retirement of Andrew Luck, I rank the top 10 players who retired sooner than expected.

10. Billy Sims

He is one of those players where everyone wonders what might have been.

Billy Sims was the first overall pick in the 1980 NFL Draft. In his four and a half seasons in Detroit, Sims had 1131 carries for 5106 yards and 42 touchdowns. He was given the nickname "Kung Fu Billy Sims" after a game where the Detroit Lions played the Houston Oilers. In the game, rather than be tackled during a run, Sims ran at, jumped, and, while fully airborne, kicked the Oiler's defender in the head. His number "20" would go on to be worn five years after his retirement by Barry Sanders, and is currently retired as an unofficial "Triumvirate" of the greatest Lions in the modern era to ever wear the number, which also includes Hall of Fame defensive back Lem Barney. Sims career ended midway through 1984 when he suffered a terrible knee injury. Sims was forced to retire as a three time pro bowler, two time All-Pro, and the 1980 rookie of the year.

Had they had the medical procedures they have today, Sims could have recovered and had a long career. But in the mid-80s, a torn ACL was pretty much a death sentence. Sims was Barry Sanders before Barry Sanders, and the fact that his career ended the way it did is an absolute shame.

9. Gale Sayers

"The Kansas Comet" was one of the most elusive running backs in league history.

A first round pick in 1965, Gale Sayers instantly became the Chicago offense's most important weapon. In his rookie year, he scored an NFL record 22 touchdowns and gained 1,374 yards from scrimmage and had 2,272 all-purpose yards. Sayers tied Ernie Nevers and Dub Jones record for touchdowns in a single game with six and won the Rookie of the year award. In 1968, Sayers tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. He came back the next season to lead the league in rushing. It was an incredible feat at the time considering the fact medical technology isn't what it was back then. He retired in 1971 after a failed second comeback with over 9,000 all purpose yards and 56 total touchdowns. In Sayers seven seasons, he was four time pro bowler, five time All-Pro, and led the league in rushing twice. He was the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977 at age 35.

Like Billy Sims, Sayers career was hampered thanks to the medical procedures of the era. After his first ACL tear in 1968, he wasn't the same elusive runner he was in his electric rookie season. The fact he was able to lead the league in rushing in 1969 while not having a carry go for more than 22 yards is incredible. Competent physical therapy and surgeries could have put Sayers back on track as the best running back in football.

8. Tiki Barber

He went from being a third down back, to being the team's starter.

A second round pick in 1997, Tiki Barber made his way into the starting lineup. By 2000, he gained a reputation for his exceptional cutback running, quick feet, and running vision. He also was an adept receiver out of the backfield. In 2004, he added upper-body strength which allowed him to break more tackles and become a more powerful runner. He improved his patience as a runner and learned to deliver blows to defenders instead of being on the receiving end of them. Due to his extra strength, he had his best seasons in the latter portion of his career. Barber retired after the 2006 season as a three time pro bowler and a 2005 All-Pro. He retired as the Giants all time leading rusher and all time leader in receptions.

Barber cited the toll the physical nature of football takes on a person's body and that he couldn't take it anymore. But many say his retirement stemmed from his frustration with head coach Tom Coughlin. Given he announced his plan to retire after the year midway through the 2006 season, it was evident he had enough with New York. He left the game at age 31 at a point where he got better the longer he played. He played his best football over his final three seasons and his choice to try to make a comeback in 2011 show his strain from the Giants organization.

7. Robert Smith

He left the game just as Minnesota's offense was beginning to take off.

A first round pick in 1993, Robert Smith dealt with several injuries in his first few seasons. He had a breakout year in 1997 with 1,226 rushing yards. By 1998 with the addition of Randy Moss, the Vikings had developed one of the greatest passing attacks in league history and Smith proved to be the perfect ground complement and was a solid receiver out of the backfield. In eight NFL seasons, Smith rushed for 6,818 yards and 32 touchdowns, along with 178 receptions for 1,292 yards and 6 touchdowns while being a two time Pro Bowler and made the 2000 All-Pro team. He holds the all-time NFL record for average yards per touchdown run at 27.2.

Smith surprisingly retired after his best season as he led the NFC in rushing at age 28. His decision was based on seeing retired players and the physical struggles they had. He wanted to do other things with his life and didn't want to risk permanently injuring himself playing football.

6. Patrick Willis

He helped bring the 49ers defense back to relevancy.

A first round pick in 2007, Patrick Willis made an instant impact on the defense. In his rookie year, he led the league in tackles and was named the defensive rookie of the year. He quickly established as one of the premier middle linebackers in the league and has been compared to greats like Ray Lewis. By 2011, the 49ers had a top ranked defense in every major category and Willis was the leader of the unit. In 2012, he helped the team make their first Super Bowl appearance in almost 20 years. In his eight years in San Francisco, Willis was a seven time pro bowler, six time All-Pro, three time linebacker of the year, and two time league leading tackler.

Willis retired after 2014 due to a nagging toe injury kept him out for most of the season. His retirement announcement shocked everyone as he had been one of the league's best middle linebackers since entering the league and was looking like the next Ray Lewis. Some speculate his decision to leave was due to the change in coaching staff following Jim Harbaugh's departure while others see his retirement was caused from a religious awakening. Regardless, the league lost an elite player and San Francisco lost the leader of their defense.

5. Bo Jackson

He was a two sport star who excelled at both.

A first round pick in 1986 by Tampa Bay, Bo Jackson refused to play for the Buccaneers after he discovered he couldn't play his final season of college baseball after being drafted. Tampa Bay forfeited their selection and the following season, the Raiders drafted Jackson in the seventh round. Owner Al Davis gave Jackson full time money to play football after his baseball season ended. In his four years with the Raiders, Jackson rushed for over 2,700 yards and 18 total touchdowns in just 38 games and was a pro bowler in 1990. He is the only man in history to be named to an NFL Pro Bowl and an MLB All Star team.

Jackson was forced to retire from football in 1990 at age 29 after a routine tackle resulted in a severe hip pointer. Doctors discovered he had lost all cartilage around his hip and lost his trademark power for both football and baseball. Jackson is one of the greatest athletes in sports history and for him to go out the way he did is one of the biggest travesties in league history.

4. Calvin Johnson

"Megatron" quickly become the top wide receiver in the league.

A first round pick in 2007, Calvin Johnson possesses a rare combination of size, hands, speed, strength, leaping ability, body control and hand-eye coordination. Even during the Lions 0-16 2008 season, Johnson was able to have success finishing fifth in the league in receiving yards and led the league in receiving touchdowns. By 2010, he established himself as the leagues best receiver leading the NFL in receiving yards twice. In 2012, Johnson broke Jerry Rice's single season receiving yardage record. In his nine seasons, Johnson was a six time pro bowler, four time All-Pro and holds NFL records for most career 200 yard receiving games and second most receiving yards in a game. He is Detroit's all time leader in receiving yards with 9,328 and touchdowns with 66.

Like Barry Sanders, Johnson retired at age 30 in the prime of his career. Johnson claimed he retired after being fed up with football and being tired of the daily grind of NFL life. He still had $67.7 million remaining on his deal and many saw him as the only receiver capable of challenging some of Jerry Rice's career records.

3. Andrew Luck

He was considered the greatest quarterback prospect since John Elway, but injuries took their toll.

The first overall pick in 2012, Andrew Luck immediately stepped in after Indianapolis let go of Peyton Manning. In his first three seasons, he led the Colts to three playoff appearances and two AFC South division titles. In the 2014 playoffs, he led the Colts to the second largest playoff comeback in NFL history in a victory over Kansas City. After missing all of 2017, Luck returned to finish second in the league in touchdown passes and setting career highs in several categories, as well as leading the Colts to 10 wins and their first playoff appearance since 2014 while being named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year. In his seven seasons, he was a four time Pro Bowler and led the league in touchdown passes in 2014.

Luck announced his retirement during the 2019 preseason at age 29. He cited his recurrent cycle of injuries and rehabilitation as the primary reason why. Seeing how he's dealt with injuries like a busted throwing shoulder, lacerated kidney, and torn abdominal muscle its hard to blame him. He spent most of his tenure in Indianapolis behind a mediocre offensive line and never a solid running game or defense until 2018. He stated in his retirement press conference that the injuries took away the joy he got from the game and hasn't been able to live the life he wants to live.

2. Jim Brown

He can arguably be considered as the best overall player in NFL history.

You name it, Jim Brown did it. Nine time pro bowler, eight time All-Pro, eight time NFL rushing leader, NFL champion, rookie of the year, three time pro bowl MVP, and three time league MVP. Jim Brown is the only back in history to average over five yards per carry for a career and 100 yards per game. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971.

Brown left the game early at his prime at age 29 after a financial dispute with ownership. He was the most dominating player in the game and could have easily played five more years. He retired as the NFL's all time leading rusher but if he were to still play, he would have push the record even farther. Regardless, Brown remains Cleveland's all time leading rusher and know Browns running back has come close to taking that record away.

1. Barry Sanders

He could have put up numbers that no one could have come close to matching.

A first round pick in 1989, Barry Sanders quickly became the focal point of the Detroit offense. He is easily the most elusive running back of all time and averaged 1,500 rushing yards a season in his career. Sanders was also noted for his on-field humility. Despite his flashy playing style, Sanders was rarely seen celebrating after the whistle was blown. Instead, he preferred to hand the ball to a referee or congratulate his teammates. In 1997, Sanders became the third running back in history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. Sanders was named All-Pro and a pro bowler every year of his 10 year career. He led the league in rushing four times, was a two time NFL offensive player of the year, and the 1997 NFL MVP. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.

Sanders surprisingly retired after the 1998 season, 1,457 yards shy of Walter Payton's all time rushing record. The reason for his retirement has sparked numerous theories from Sanders being fed up with Detroit to him just losing his love for the game. The retirement was a surprise as two years prior he signed a six year extension. Sanders offered to pay back the entire $5.5 million signing bonus in return for his release or trade from the team. The Lions refused, stating they would welcome him back to the team or would honor his announced retirement. Had he stayed in the league, he could have easily surpassed the all time rushing record and likely would have three or four more productive years ahead of him as he showed no signs of slowing down.

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