Top 10 Athletes Who Retired in their Prime

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You see it every year in sports — a former all-star player, his skills greatly eroded, is released by his longtime team. Rather than retire, the player starts looking for another team, hoping to milk one more mediocre season out of his career. One attribute that makes great athletes special is their supreme self-confidence, but that becomes a negative if they’re convinced they can still perform when age and injuries have sapped their skills. The result can be sad to behold. Think Willie Mays in his bumbling stint with the New York Mets. Or Rickey Henderson playing in the minor leagues in his late 40s. Or Franco Harris shuffling around with the Seattle Seahawks.

On the other hand, some athletes know when to leave, walking away in their prime, or as champions. Here are 10 athletes who went out with a bang, at or near the top of their game. Some went out the sweetest way possible, winning a championship in their final hurrah.

10. Bill Russell

The legendary Boston Celtics center was the foundation of a team that won 11 NBA championships in his 13-year career. The 12-time all star was 35 and on the downhill side of his career when the Celtics beat their perennial rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, to win the NBA championship in 1969. However, Russell was still a vital cog for the Celtics that year, and he averaged 10.8 points and 20.5 rebounds per game in the playoffs, including 21 boards in the win over L.A. in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. And that was it. With no fanfare, Russell walked away from the sport, even skipping a victory parade in Boston after the championship. Often viewed as arrogant and aloof by Boston fans, Russell’s retirement fueled more anger and resentment. Time has healed those wounds, however, and Russell has since been embraced by Celtics fans.

 

9. Steffi Graf

Tennis buffs can argue whether or not Steffi Graf was the greatest female player of all time. In her favor, she won 22 Grand Slam titles — second only to Margaret Court’s 24 — and ranks third all-time in singles titles with 107. Eight times she ended a season ranked No. 1 in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association, which ranked her No. 1 a record 377 weeks. Whether you rate her the best all time or not, no one can dispute that Graf walked away from tennis near her peak. In 1999, she won the French Open and reached the finals at Wimbledon, where she lost to Lindsay Davenport. In August, beset by nagging injuries and struggling to stay motivated, she retired while ranked No. 3 in the world.

Graf gets the nod on this list over fellow tennis great Justine Henin, who was ranked No. 1 in the world when she announced her immediate retirement in May 2008. Henin, however, attempted a comeback in 2010 before retiring again in 2011 because of injury.

 

8. Junior Johnson

A season after winning a career-high 13 races, Junior Johnson retired.

Photo credit: ISC Archives/Getty Images

Junior Johnson honed his driving skills hauling moonshine in the North Carolina foothills, then put them to use in the new sport of NASCAR. He won 50 races on the NASCAR Cup circuit, posting his best season in 1965, when at the age of 34, he won a career high 13 races, leading an astounding 56 percent of the laps he raced. Already a larger-than-life figure in the sport, Johnson’s legend grew that year when noted writer Tom Wolfe dubbed Johnson “The Last American Hero” in an article in Esquire. Yet at the height of his fame and talent, Johnson ran only seven races the next year and then retired. He would go on to win six championships as a car owner.

 

7. John Elway

John Elway retired after winning the Super Bowl.

Photo credit: © Jerry Coli/Dreamstime.com

The longtime rap on John Elway was not fair, but it was certainly persistent — great skills, great quarterback, but he can’t win the “Big One.” Elway rendered that criticism useless when, after three winless trips to the Super Bowl, he led the Denver Broncos to victory in Super Bowl XXXII following the 1997 season. Then, at age 38, Elway performed an encore, winning Super Bowl MVP honors in leading the Broncos to their second consecutive championship. It was his final game, as Elway announced his retirement in May 1999.

 

6. Annika Sorenstam

The Swedish-American golfer had a career full of superlatives, from her eight LPGA Player of the Year Awards to her 90 international tournament wins, including 10 majors. She retired following the 2008 season, a year in which she won three LPGA events, finished third in the tour championship and was second in scoring average. Sorenstam cited a desire to start a family as a primary reason for leaving. Two years later, another top LPGA star called it quits in her prime; Lorena Ochoa only played eight seasons on the tour, so her career stats aren’t as gaudy as Sorenstam’s, but she was a four-time LPGA Player of the Year and was ranked No. 1 in the world when she retired in May 2010.

 

5. Bjorn Borg

Few athletes in any sport accomplished as much as quickly as Swedish tennis great Bjorn Borg. Between the ages of 18 and 25, he won 11 Grand Slam titles, including five consecutive Wimbledon titles and six French Open titles. He was the consensus No. 1 player in the world each year from 1977 through 1980. Then, in 1981, after losing to John McEnroe in the U.S. Open finals, Borg quickly departed without sticking around for the post-tournament ceremonies. It was his last Grand Slam event. He played only one tournament the next year, then announced his retirement in 1983 at the age of 26. An ill-fated comeback in the early 1990s quickly fizzled.

 

4. Barry Sanders

In 1998, at the age of 30, running back Barry Sanders stopped, started and spun his way to 1,491 rushing yards for the Detroit Lions. Expectations were high for the 1999 campaign, as Sanders needed only 1,458 yards to pass Walter Payton as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. But there would be no 1999 season for Sanders. In arguably the most surprising NFL retirement since Jim Brown walked away from the sport a generation earlier, Sanders retired in unusual fashion in July 1999, announcing his intentions in a letter faxed to his hometown newspaper in Wichita, Kansas. Sanders had been mulling retirement since the previous season, later noting that Detroit’s perennial status as a loser had sapped his desire. Sanders’ stunning retirement did not sit well with Lions fans or the team’s management, who demanded he repay more than $7 million from a signing bonus he’d received.

 

3. Rocky Marciano

The numbers speak volumes about the great Italian-American heavyweight champion: 49 fights, 49 wins, including 43 by knockout. Marciano held the world heavyweight championship for almost four years until his retirement in 1956 at the age of 32. He remains the only boxer to earn the heavyweight title and retire undefeated. (Note: The embedded video shows Marciano and Muhammad Ali in a 1969 boxing “fantasy fight” dreamed up by radio executive Murray Woroner. He queried 250 boxing experts to develop a fantasy tournament pitting fighters from different eras. A computer with a then-hefty 20K of memory was programmed with each fighter’s strengths, weaknesses and various scenarios. When the computer determined Marciano beat Jack Dempsey for the “championship,” Ali sued Woroner for $1 million, citing defamation of character. The suit was settled when both Ali and Marciano agreed to participate in a filmed version of the fantasy fights. The two fighters sparred as many as 75 rounds, acting out every conceivable scenario, and the results were spliced together based on the computer’s simulation. After that, the film was shown Jan. 20, 1970 in theaters in North America and Europe.)

 

2. Sandy Koufax

Injuries forced an early retirement on Sandy Koufax.
Sandy Koufax earned the nickname, “The Left Arm of God” for his incredible pitching exploits with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1960s. From 1963 to 1966, Koufax went 97-27 and won three Cy Young Awards as the best pitcher in baseball (there were no separate AL and NL Cy Young Awards in that era) The Los Angeles Dodgers lefthander finished the streak off in 1966, going 27-9, with a career-best 1.73 ERA. That was his farewell, as he retired from the sport at age 30. By then, Koufax’s battle with arthritis in his pitching arm was well known, as he had to soak his arm in ice after every start to combat the pain and swelling. The Dodgers’ team physician actually advised the star pitcher to retire before the 1966 season, but Koufax shrugged off the pain, leading the Dodgers to the World Series, where they were swept by the Baltimore Orioles.

 

1. Jim Brown

There is no debate about the man at the top of this list. Today, almost a half century after his surprise retirement, Jim Brown is still widely regarded as the top running back to ever play in the NFL. And he was the best player in the NFL when he stunned the league and Cleveland Browns fans with his retirement at age 29 following the 1965 season. Brown led the league in rushing eight of his nine seasons, including in 1965 when he tallied 1,544 yards and 21 total touchdowns in 14 games. Two statistics attest to Brown’s enduring greatness: He averaged more than 104 rushing yards per game for his career (no other running back is over 100) and he had an eye-popping 5.2 yards per carry average, also the all-time mark.

 

One More: Ted Williams

In an often-recounted baseball tale, legendary hitter Ted Williams, playing the final game of his career at home in Fenway Park, homered in his last at bat on Sept. 28, 1960. It’s usually noted that Williams was 42 years old, ancient by baseball standards of the time. But he was hardly decrepit, as he hit 29 home runs that year and finished with a .316 batting average — a far cry from his heyday, but still very respectable numbers. There have been many other athletes who retired past their prime, yet still went out on a winning note. Most recently, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, clearly on the downside of his career, rushed for only 368 yards in his final season in 2005 but capped it by winning the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit. He announced his retirement following the game.

 

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.

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