For any professional athlete — especially those at the highest level of their sport — deciding when to walk away from their sport can be one of the toughest choices they’ll ever face. There are the lost earnings that come with retirement, of course, which are massive in the case of athletes, but there’s also the loss of what has sustained their passion since their youth: top-level competition.
We’ve all seen brilliant sports stars stick around just a few too many years, proving the well-worn maxim that “Father Time is undefeated,” but some have quit while they still had plenty to offer, leaving fans wanting more. Here are some star athletes who retired at the top of their game.
If you’re a football fan, Barry Sanders has to be one of the first guys you think of when the topic of this story comes up for debate. The rushing icon spent all 10 of his NFL seasons with the Detroit Lions and is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite what many would consider a brief career. In his final season, in 1998-99, Sanders rushed for nearly 1,500 yards, which placed him fourth in the league on the year, and made his 10th consecutive Pro Bowl. He retired at the age of 30 as the highest-paid player in the league, citing as his reason his lack of passion for the game.
Retiring as an NBA league leader in a major statistic is virtually unheard of, but doing so at the age of 36 is mind-blowing. Basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain did just that when he led the NBA in rebounding for the 1972-73 campaign and called it a career afterward. It was the 11th time “The Stilt” had been the league’s rebounding champion, and he nearly walked away with a third league championship, as his Lakers lost in the NBA Finals to the Knicks. He was the all-time leader in points and rebounds at the time of his retirement and likely could’ve added plenty to those tallies if he’d stuck around.
American soccer players don’t get much more famous than Mia Hamm, which is what makes her retirement after a brilliant achievement on the pitch all the more memorable. After two FIFA World Cup championships and 158 career goals in international play, which made her the leading scorer in soccer history at the time, Hamm retired following the 2004 Athens Olympics, where she won her second gold medal as the leader of Team USA. She was only 32 years old at the time and any team would’ve been thrilled to extend her career.
No player in NBA history has won more championships than Bill Russell, so it makes sense that he went out with one more ring in his collection. The Celtics titan was 34 years old at the end of the 1968-69 season, when he still managed to average just under a double double at 9.9 points and a remarkable 19.3 rebounds per game. In the playoffs, Russell did average a double double and secured his 11th NBA title before calling it a career.
If we’re comparing the final seasons of star players across sports, MLB legend Sandy Koufax might have had the most dominant one of them all. The Dodgers lefty went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA and more than 300 strikeouts on his way to winning his third Cy Young Award during the 1966 season. Those were career-high figures in a short career that was full of outstanding numbers and signaled that Koufax was indeed the best starting pitcher in the game at the time and maybe ever. But alas, he walked away from baseball after that magical year at the age of 30 as the crippling arthritis he’d been battling for years threatened to permanently injure him.
Several star football players have retired from the NFL after seasons when they were named to the Pro Bowl, but walking away after being named a first-team All-Pro is borderline crazy. Cornerback Bobby Boyd did exactly that when he walked away from the league after the 1968 season, which saw him grab eight interceptions and help the Baltimore Colts make it to the Super Bowl. He was only 31 years old and transitioned to becoming a coach for his team after walking away from its roster at the peak of his defensive powers.
Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque’s retirement was a story that warmed a lot of hearts in that frigid sport. The star defenseman had spent his entire career making a difference on teams that fell just short of winning the Stanley Cup, but he finally got his championship at the age of 40, as a member of the 2000-01 Colorado Avalanche.
But we’re not honoring once-great players who simply stuck around long enough to win a title as a backup and then retired. Bourque was a huge part of that Avs title team. He tallied 59 points that year, making his 19th All-Star Game and finishing second in Norris Trophy voting, which honors the best defenseman in the NHL.
Given the nature of golf as a sport that welcomes players of all ages, it’s rare for anyone to walk away from top-level competition at their peak. That’s exactly what Bobby Jones, one of the true legends of the game, did at the age of 28. Throughout the 1920s, Jones completely dominated the world of golf, and he capped it off in 1930 by winning all four major championships for the first single-season Grand Slam in the sport’s history. Mere months after pulling off that astounding feat, Jones retired from competition, only coming out once a year to play in the Masters after he helped found that tournament in 1934.
Auto racing is another sport that allows its stars to compete at the top level longer than many others, but Ned Jarrett left the track when he was still the driver to beat in NASCAR. Jarrett stunned the racing world in 1966 when he announced his retirement not long after winning the 1965 series championship, which was the second of his career. All these years later, Jarrett is still the only NASCAR driver to retire as the organization’s reigning season champion.
As you’ll see from this list, there have been some epic retirements from NHL superstars, and Ken Dryden’s ranks right up there with any of them. After helping lead the Montreal Canadiens to a fourth-consecutive Stanley Cup championship in 1979, the Hall of Famer walked away from hockey at the age of 31. What made Dryden’s retirement even more stunning was that he’d led the NHL in shutouts and goals-against average that final season, quitting as the reigning winner of the Vezina Trophy, which honors the league’s best goaltender.
In the long history of heavyweight championship boxing, Rocky Marciano is the only one to ever retire with a perfect record. The Massachusetts native went an incredible 49-0 during a professional career that lasted from 1947-1956 and included victories over fellow Hall of Famers Joe Louis, Jersey Joe Walcott and Archie Moore. Marciano retired at the age of 31 as the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, reportedly wanting to spend more time with his family.
Norm Van Brocklin
In Philadelphia Eagles lore, Norm Van Brocklin’s final season holds a sacred place. The year was 1960, and Van Brocklin led the team to a 10-2 record and what would be their last NFL championship for nearly 50 years. “The Dutchman” was 34 years old, and in his 12th season and he was named league MVP for the only time in his career, after he threw a personal-best 24 touchdowns on the year. Van Brocklin retired shortly after the Super Bowl victory, becoming the first player in NFL history to hang up his cleats as the league’s reigning MVP.
Steffi Graf’s entire career was like something out of a book of tennis mythology, and her retirement capped the story perfectly. When the German master announced her retirement in 1999, she was only 30 years old and was ranked as the No. 3 women’s tennis player in the world. Mere months before calling it a career, Graf had won her sixth French Open title, showing she was still at the top of her game. More than 20 years after her retirement, Graf still ranks among the 20 richest money winners in women’s tennis history.
One of the most common reasons why brilliant athletes retire young is because they don’t feel the passion for the game they once had. That’s what happened to Tarik Glenn, who gave up what would’ve likely been many more years of lucrative NFL game checks in 2007. Glenn, a left tackle for the Indianapolis Colts, walked away in the offseason following his third consecutive Pro Bowl appearance and his instrumental role in the team’s Super Bowl victory just months earlier. He was just 30 years old and playing arguably the best football of his life.
Yet another star athlete who quit his sport at the age of 30 was noted soccer provocateur Eric Cantona. The Frenchman made his shocking retirement proclamation in 1997, following a season that saw him lead the Premier League in assists and lead Manchester United to another championship. “I always planned to retire at the top and, at Manchester United, I have reached the pinnacle of my career,” Cantona said in a statement at the time.
In 2004, British boxing legend Lennox Lewis followed in Rocky Marciano’s footsteps by becoming only the second world heavyweight champion to retire while holding the title. At 38 years old, it could be argued that Lewis’ prime was behind him, but it cannot be argued that he walked away at the top of his sport, rather than risking that impressive coda with one more fight. He was 41-2-1 in his career and avenged both of his losses in rematches, giving him one of the more satisfying records in boxing history.
You can argue that since he was 38 years old at the time of his retirement, John Elway was already well past his prime, but his play on the gridiron in his final seasons say otherwise. The Broncos legend led his team to back-to-back Super Bowl wins before deciding he was finished after the second one came in 1999. Elway was a Pro Bowler in each of his final three seasons and had the best passer rating of his long career during his final campaign, showing he still had talent to spare when he called it quits.
Like Steffi Graf, tennis icon Pete Sampras finished his career by winning the last Grand Slam tournament in which he competed. For Sampras, it was the 2002 U.S. Open, and it saw him knock off fellow Americans Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick on his way to the crown. Sampras was 31 years old and it was his 14th Grand Slam title, leaving fans with a thrilling highlight to remember him by for decades to come.
Another Stanford stud, early NBA star George Yardley was named an All-Star in his final season, but it wasn’t a pity pick because of nostalgia for his bygone great years. Yardley averaged 20.2 points per game and drained 45.3% of his shots during that final season, which was the best shooting percentage of his career. He retired in 1960 at the age of 31 and sailed into the Hall of Fame partly because of the great final memory he had left on basketball fans with his farewell campaign.
About 30 years before Ken Dryden walked away from hockey while he was on top of the game, fellow Ontario native Syl Apps created the blueprint. The Maple Leafs icon skated into the sunset at the age of 33, shortly after leading the franchise to a second consecutive Stanley Cup championship. Apps was arguably better than ever in his final season, scoring a career-high 53 points on a career-high 26 goals. Like Dryden, Apps also went into Canadian politics following his early departure from hockey.
Maybe the biggest “what-if?” story in golf history comes from Lorena Ochoa’s retirement from the game at the age of 28 in 2010. The Mexican hero was ranked as the world’s No. 1 player in women’s golf when she made her decision to walk away from competition, stunning people around the globe and probably relieving many of her competitors on the LPGA Tour. The two-time major winner quit playing to focus her energy on the nonprofit foundation that bears her name.
Like John Elway, MLB fan-favorite David Ortiz was getting up there in years when he retired, but he was still among the best players at his position. As the designated hitter for the Red Sox during the 2016 season, “Big Papi” led the American League in doubles, RBI and OPS. His .315 batting average during what would be his last ride probably made Boston fans wish he would’ve signed on for five more years of action, despite being 40 years old at the time. Ortiz was named an All-Star and a Silver Slugger recipient for his work during his last season in pro baseball.
When you think of NFL stars retiring on top, your mind has to go immediately to Jim Brown. In fact, Cleveland Browns fans are still wondering how many championships they could’ve had if the iconic rusher hadn’t retired at the tender age of 29. During his legendary final season, which happened in 1965, Brown led the NFL in all the major rushing statistics, including touchdowns, yards and attempts. Rushing for more than 1,500 yards in a 14-game season led him to be named league MVP for the third time in his career and sent him off as the eternal GOAT when he walked away in the offseason.
Carolina Panthers star Luke Kuechly’s retirement from the NFL following the 2019-20 season was one of the most shocking stories to come out of football in recent memory. The five-time first-team All-Pro pick was just 28 years old when he announced his departure from the game, following a season in which he’d made the Pro Bowl and amassed the most tackles he’d had in five years. His decision to walk away came after he had suffered many concussions during his eight-season career, including a high-profile one in 2016 that put head injuries at the forefront of NFL conversations.
Recent inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame Andre Ward joined the short list of fighters who quit on top in 2017. The former world champion in both the light heavyweight and super middleweight divisions retired while he was still holding the former title. Ward was just 33 years old, undefeated and was ranked as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world at the time he walked away, citing a lack of desire to continue boxing.
Another French Canadian who left hockey after a brilliant season was Jean Béliveau. The Canadiens lifer was 39 years old when he announced his retirement in 1971 but he did so just months after a great personal season that saw him win his 10th Stanley Cup title with the Habs. During that final campaign, Béliveau notched 76 points in 70 games, contributing the most assists he’d had in a decade.
Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio wasn’t the unstoppable hitter he’d once been when he retired from baseball in 1951, but he was still on top of the sport. A couple months after helping the Bronx Bombers win yet another World Series, DiMaggio announced his retirement at the age of 36. He was voted to the All-Star Game during his final season — like he was in all 13 of the MLB seasons he played — and contributed five RBIs during the team’s postseason run.
Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli’s entire tennis career was building to the 2013 Wimbledon championship, which would give her a thrilling coda. Bartoli had played in 47 Grand Slam events without winning a crown but finally took it home at that event in magical fashion. She announced her retirement from competitive tennis just weeks later in an emotional press conference, walking away at the age of 28 after the biggest moment of her athletic life.
Less than 20 years after Jim Brown’s dramatic retirement from the NFL in his prime, Hall of Famer Lynn Swann did the same thing. The iconic Steelers wide receiver had only spent nine seasons in the league before walking away in 1983, but he won four Super Bowls in that span. Swann’s production had slipped a bit in his final two seasons, but he was only 30 years old when he retired, leaving fans to wonder how many more great catches they’d miss in his nonexistent second act.
Like several other star athletes on this list, Ukrainian boxer Vitali Klitschko retired at the top of his sport to get into politics. The towering fighter announced his departure from boxing in 2013 at the age of 42. While that might seem a little old for an athlete to retire at the top, Klitschko was the reigning world heavyweight champion when he quit, having won his final 13 bouts and holding a career record of 45-2.