For most football players, making it to the NFL is a dream come true. But that doesn’t mean they want to play forever. In recent years, we’ve seen a substantial number of great NFL players have decided to walk away from the game with plenty left in the tank. Whatever their reason, they decided to retire in the prime of their career. Let’s take a look at some of the most notable NFL players who chose to end their pro football careers when they were still at or near the top of their game.
Sanders deciding to retire when he did might be the nicest thing an NFL player has ever done for opposing teams. One almost has to feel bad for the younger generation of NFL fans who didn’t get to watch Sanders play. This guy was something special; he was as quick as any running back in the history of the game and could stop on a dime and change direction.
After making the Pro Bowl in all 10 of his NFL seasons, Sanders called it quits despite signing a six-year contract with the Lions just two years earlier. Years later, Sanders revealed that his retirement was largely fueled by frustration with the Lions and the team’s lack of progress despite having the services of an all-time great running back. Fortunately, we fans got to see 10 great years from him and highlight reels that will keep us amazed forever.
Mendenhall is an early retiree who fans tend to forget. He didn’t contribute much when the Steelers won the Super Bowl following the 2008 regular season, but for the three years immediately after that, he was one of the best running backs in the NFL. During those three seasons, he amassed over 3,3300 yards and 29 touchdowns.
But after six seasons in the league, Mendenhall called it a day, saying: “football was pretty cool, but I don’t want to play anymore.” Instead, he wanted to travel and pursue a writing career. Mendenhall went on to become a writer for the HBO show Ballers, using his experiences in the NFL as the inspiration for scenes on the show.
Even with a somewhat early exit, many will consider Gronkowski to be the best right end in NFL history. For a player of his size, his speed and athleticism were almost unreal. He also had the physicality to block when called upon and shake off arm tackles like they were nothing. Gronk ended up playing nine seasons, being selected to five Pro Bowls and being part of three teams in New England that won the Super Bowl.
Patriots fans were stunned and dismayed when he walked away at the age of 29 when there was no doubt he was still the most feared tight end in the NFL. He later explained that he lost some of his desire to play, in part because of the physical toll his body took over his nine seasons. In his defense, Gronkowski dealt with plenty of injuries and was often a marked man, putting him on the receiving end of some vicious hits that surely helped push him toward early retirement.
In the middle of his 10th NFL season, Barber let it be known that he would be retiring at the end of the year. He said that he was pushed toward retirement by the physical nature of football and the hits he took as a running back. Barber also expressed in a broadcasting career, which he’s done. He’s also appeared on television and made it to Broadway in 2019. The Giants even offered him $50 million over a two-year deal to keep him, but Barber still chose retirement.
At the time of his retirement, Barber had rushed for over 1,500 yards in three consecutive seasons and more than 1,200 yards in five straight seasons. Ten years into his career, Barber was at the top of his game but still walked away. Of course, Barber tried to make a comeback attempt five years later, only to find no NFL teams were interested in seeing if he had anything left in the tank.
Kuechly is the newest member of the NFL’s early-retirement club. He spent eight seasons in the NFL and was one of the best linebackers in football during that time. Kuechly made the Pro Bowl every year but his rookie season and won the Butkus Award for the best linebacker three times as a pro.
At age 28 and undoubtedly an elite linebacker, Kuechely’s retirement came as a shock. He released a three and a half minute long video to explain his decision, saying it was “time to move on” and “the right thing to do.” Kuechly mentioned that he wasn’t sure if he could still “play fast, play physical, and play strong,” which pushed him toward retirement despite still being elite at his position.
Johnson’s early retirement was one of the most shocking of the 2010s. He stepped away from the NFL on the heels of six straight Pro Bowl while he was arguably the best wide receiver in the game. His record of 1,964 receiving yards during the 2012 season remains an NFL record. The man they called Megatron also owns over a dozen more Lions or NFL records.
In his final season, it was business as usual for Johnson with 88 catches for over 1,200 yards in 16 games. Clearly, he was still one of the best receivers in football. However, he felt he could no longer put in the effort to be as good as he wanted to be, leading him to call it quits. Johnson believed he could be good but not great moving forward, so he decided to retire close to his peak.
While he wasn’t exactly a household name at the time, Borland retiring after one season in the NFL made big waves around the league. He called football “inherently dangerous” and decided that a career in the NFL wasn’t worth the potential risks to his long-term health, specifically the possibility of having brain damage later in life.
If he had kept playing, there’s no telling where Borland’s career would have led. But it did show plenty of promise. He made first-team All-Big-Ten three times in college and was one of the best rookie linebackers while starting eight games for the 49ers in 2014 and amassing 107 tackles. Borland surely set himself up for a fruitful career in the NFL but ultimately chose another path.
Of all things to stop one of the best linebackers of his generation, it was a toe injury that pushed Willis into retirement. The nagging toe injury limited him to just six games in 2014, which turned out to be his last season in the NFL. In his defense, the toe had been a problem he’d been able to play through in past years, but eventually got the best of him.
Before the injury pushed him to retire, Willis was a Pro Bowler in each of his first seven seasons in the NFL. He was also a First-Team All-Pro selection in five of those seven years. For those seven years, Willis was undoubtedly one of the best at his position and likely would have continued to play at a high level for a few more seasons had the toe problem not gotten in the way.
Monroe is another player who retired at a young age amidst concerns for his long-term health. One could argue that he never quite lived up to the expectations that come with being a top-10 pick. However, he started 90 of the 93 games he played during his NFL career and was always one of the better offensive linemen on his team. Toward the end of his career, injuries got in the way a little, but at 29 years old, Monroe had interest from several teams and could have kept playing.
However, Monroe says that football’s impact on the body, especially the brain, was a strong factor in his decision to retire young, claiming he had noticed signs of memory loss. In retirement, Monroe has continued to be outspoken about the NFL making cannabis a banned substance, advocating for how it can be used by players for pain management.
At the start of his career, many experts believed Luck would become one of the all-time greats. Instead, he will end up being one of the biggest “what ifs” in NFL history. He was undoubtedly a great quarterback during his seven years in the league, going to four Pro Bowls and taking the Colts to the playoffs four times. Despite sitting out the entire 2017 season due to shoulder problems, Luck came back strong in 2018 and looked poised to pick up where he left off.
However, once again hindered by injuries, Luck abruptly retired right before the 2019 season. He said the steady stream of injuries and rehab took all the fun out of football, forcing him to walk away from the game. He was 29 at the time and barring more injuries could have potentially played another 10 years. Nobody doubts that he could have been one of the all-time greats, but sadly, we’ll never know for sure.