We've seen it time and time again in sports: some athletes would rather retire at the top of their respective sport than overstay their welcome and tarnish their legacies. The latest example came on Tuesday night, when the No. 1 women's tennis player in the world, Ashleigh Barty, announced her retirement.
Many players have taken a similar path and retired in the primes of their careers whether it be due to injury or just wanting to leave the playing field. With that in mind, it's worth taking a closer look at some of the most surprising retirements over the years.
Barty abruptly announced her retirement from tennis on March 23, stating that she no longer had the "physical drive" to compete at the highest level. Prior to her retirement, Barty had spent 114 weeks as the WTA's top-ranked player and even won the Australian Open in 2022. The 25-year-old star captured 15 singles titles throughout her career, including Wimbledon (2021) and the French Open (2019). Barty left the sport with a 305-102 career record and will certainly go down as one player that left the tennis world too soon.
This goes down as one of the more shocking retirement announcements that the sports world has seen. Shortly after turning 31 years old in 1999, Sanders announced his retirement from the NFL. The Detroit Lions superstar held records for most consecutive 1,000 yard seasons (10) and the most seasons with at least 1,100 rushing yards (10, tied with Walter Payton). Sanders rushed for no less than 1,115 yards in each of his 10 seasons. The man was a human highlight reel that rushed for 1,491 yards in his final NFL season and clearly had multiple years of high-level football left in him.
Former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck sent shockwaves through the football world when he abruptly retired last summer. Luck had put together four Pro Bowl seasons since being the top pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and replacing Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. The star quarterback led the league in passing touchdowns in just his third NFL season and also became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 370 yards, 4 touchdowns, and have a completion percentage of at least 70 percent in consecutive games. Luck at the age of 29 when he departed the game.
Much like Barry Sanders, Jim Brown retired when he was still putting up monster numbers on a yearly basis. Brown retired after just nine seasons and was coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,544 yards and tied his previous career-high of 17 touchdowns. The Cleveland Browns star tailback averaged 104.3 rushing yards per contest and 5.2 yards-per-carry over the course of his career. Brown was one of the most lethal running backs in the league and widely considered one of the greatest NFL players of all-time when he walked away in the prime of his career.
Brandon Roy is the ultimate story of what could've been. After being the sixth overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, Roy had a stellar start to his NBA career with the Portland Trail Blazers. Roy immediately burst onto the scene by winning the Rookie of the Year Award in 2007 and averaged 20.0 points-per-game in his first four seasons in the league. There were few players that were as explosive as Roy and couple that with the ability to shoot from beyond the arc. However, the Trail Blazers star had several knee injuries and ended up announcing his retirement in 2012 before returning for one more season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. During that final season, he averaged just 5.8 points per game in five games.
There's no doubt that Calvin Johnson was one of the greatest wide receivers that the NFL has ever seen. The Detroit Lions star wideout set the NFL receiving yards record for a single season when he racked up 1,964 receiving yards during the 2012 season. Johnson's 6-foot-5-inch frame allowed him to make tough receptions and he was easily Matthew Stafford's top target. Johnson was a walking highlight reel that could always be counted on to make the big catches in crunch time. "Megatron" walked away from the game in his prime at 30 years old and was still playing at an elite level at the time.
If you're talked about players that retired in their prime, Michael Jordan can definitely be the poster child. While Jordan did eventually return to the Chicago Bulls in March 1995, his abrupt exit from the game in 1993 was truly jaw-dropping when it happened. Jordan elected to retire following the Bulls' first three-peat in the early 1990s and pursued a baseball career after his father was murdered in 1993. The Hall of Famer played in the Chicago White Sox system for a season before making his triumphant return to the NBA. Jordan retired again in 1998, after a second Bulls three-peat, and one of his Hall of Fame teammates if MJ and the Bulls had stayed together.
Bo Jackson was a tremendous talent that excelled at both football and baseball in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Jackson entered the NFL after winning the Heisman Trophy in 1985 while starring at Auburn. The then-Los Angeles Raiders running back was extremely explosive in his four years with the franchise before being forced to retire from the sport due to a hip injury. Jackson averaged 5.4 yards-per-carry during his NFL career and racked up 16 touchdowns. In addition, the two-sport star also put together a strong MLB career. Jackson hit .250 with 141 home runs and 415 RBI in time with the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, and California Angels and was the MVP of the 1989 MLB All-Star Game.
After just eight NFL seasons, San Francisco 49ers star linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement following a nagging toe injury that sidelined him for most of the 2014 season. Willis was one of the top linebackers in the NFL after being the No. 11 pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. The 49ers linebacker racked up at least 101 solo tackles in each of his first four seasons and had at least four sacks in three of those four campaigns.
Sandy Koufax was one of the most dominant left-handers in the history of Major League Baseball. Koufax was a seven-time All-Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner, and helped lead the Los Angeles Dodgers to four World Series titles. The star pitcher was also a two-time World Series MVP, but ended up walking away from the diamond at just 30 years old. Koufax had chronic arthritis in his left elbow, which led to him deciding to retire at such a young age.
Swedish sensation Bjorn Borg burst onto the tennis scene in 1972 at the age of 15. Over the course of his career, Borg became the first men's tennis player in the Open Era to win 11 Grand Slam titles with six coming at the French Open and five at Wimbledon. He also became the first player to win six French Open titles and was considered the best player in the world from 1977 to 1980. Borg retired at 26 years old due to being burnt out because of constant attention as the face of the sport.