The business of the NFL can be frustrating for players. It allows players some say in where they’ll play, but sometimes, great guys get stuck in really bad situations. The game that was once sugary sweet becomes bitter and boring, and the men who serve as supremely entertaining, exceptionally talented athletes decide it’s time to move on to other life ambitions. Sometimes, this happens when a guy is in his prime or playing at the top of his game. Here are 20 NFL players who retired with fuel left in the tank.
21. Carson Palmer
Okay. We know we said 20 players, but we get one cheat on this list at No. 21. A player to serve as an example of how fine the line is between “I’m in my prime,” and “I’m retiring.” Carson Palmer had a bittersweet run with the Cincinnati Bengals. He suffered a devastating knee injury when he was reaching the pinnacle of his career, and his two playoff appearances with the team were duds.
After the 2010 season, in which the Bengals finished 4-12, Carson requested a trade. His request was rejected. Carson opted for the “trade me, or I’ll retire” route, and nobody believed him. Then, he didn’t show up to camp. At that point, everyone believed it: Carson was done.
The first nine weeks of the season passed, and rookie QB Andy Dalton was capably leading the Bengals. At that point, Oakland reached out to Cincinnati and a deal was done, sending Carson to the Raiders. He finished off with the Arizona Cardinals, the starting every game in 2015 and got all the way to the NFC Championship game. He started 15 out of 16 the following season. He eventually retired in early 2018, after a broken arm limited him to just seven games in the 2017 season. He’s finally officially retired but was still kind of in his prime from ages 34-to-38. Palmer is an anomaly on this list.
20. Ickey Woods
The man who gave us the Ickey Shuffle, easily one of the best celebratory dances in sports history, sadly only ended up with 27 career touchdowns to celebrate. Ickey Woods was a rookie sensation in 1988 for the Bengals, rushing for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Bengal rode his strong running game all the way to the Super Bowl that season. Woods would rush for more yards than anyone else that day, but the Bengals were ultimately downed by the famed 49ers combo of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice — no shame in losing to them.
Unfortunately, his first year in the NFL would end up as his best. He tore his ACL two games into the 1989 season and was out 13 months. He had already lost his job at the No. 1 running back to Harold Green when he returned in 1990, and only rushed for 268 yard and six touchdowns that year. He was hoping for a big comeback in 1991, but injured his other knee in the preseason. Though not as serious as his first knee injury, he only managed to run for 96 yards on 36 carries when he returned mid-season. Woods quietly slunk away from the game at just 26-years-old.
19. Billy Sims
After winning the Heisman Trophy in 1978, Billy Sims was the No. 1 overall draft pick by the Detroit Lions in 1980. He was thrust immediately into the role of starting running back, and played the part to perfection. In his rookie season with the Lions, he rushed for 1,303 yards and led the NFL in touchdowns (13 rushing, 3 receiving). He followed that up with a sophomore effort of 1,427 yards and 15 more touchdowns. He was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons and appeared to be on pace to become one of the game’s legendary rushers.
Sims helps the Lions reach the playoffs in 1982 and 1983, but suffered a horrendous knee injury halfway through the 1984 season. He spent two years rehabbing, but could never get healthy enough to get back on the field. In 1989, he even offered to play on a “blank check” contract — basically playing for free, and allowing the Lions to assess his performance and pay him accordingly when the season was over. It didn’t pan out, and Sims was forced into retirement after just five seasons.
18. Sterling Sharpe
Sterling Sharpe spent his his entire career with the Green Bay Packers, wearing the iconic green and yellow from 1988 to 1994. He made five Pro Bowls and led the league in receptions on three separate occasions, including in 1992 when he also led the league in receiving yards and touchdowns. His name is often forgotten when discussing the best wide receivers, and that’s primarily because he didn’t hang around long enough to put the career numbers of, say, Jerry Rice or Randy Moss.
That lack of longevity can be traced back to two specific incidents — a pair of massive hits at the end of the 1994 season that caused two vertebrates in Sharpe’s neck to come loose. That’s a scary thing to hear. He underwent cervical spine fusion surgery to fix the problem, but the procedure was relatively new and untested at the time (in terms of football players, anyway). No team wanted to take a chance on seeing Sharpe re-injured while wearing their uniform, so no comeback was forthcoming. Instead, Sharpe was forced to retire at just 29.
17. Tony Boselli
When the city of Jacksonville was awarded an NFL team, the first draft pick in franchise history was a big deal. And we mean that literally, because offensive lineman Tony Boselli was 6’7″ and 324-pounds, which is about as big as they come. He played big too, barely missing a game, making five straight Pro Bowls, and allowing just defensive lines to get just 15.5 sacks against him in seven NFL seasons.
When the Houston Texans joined the league in 2002, they selected Boselli with the first pick of the expansion draft. However, Boselli wasn’t exactly keen on a move, plus a nagging shoulder injury was getting worse. At just 30-years-old, Boselli announced his retirement from football before he could ever play a single game with the Texans.
16. Earl Campbell
Big things were expected of Earl Campell when he was taken with the first overall pick in the 1978 NFL Draft. The Texas-born running back delivered immediately, in his home state as a member of the Houston Oilers. Campbell led the NFL in rushing yards for each of his first three seasons, winning the MVP in 1979 (his 19 touchdowns that seasons were also tops).
Unlike some other players on this list, Campbell wasn’t hampered by major injuries. In fact, he only missed a handful of games in his eight year career. But after being traded to New Orleans in 1984 and playing a season and a half in the Big Easy, Campbell abruptly retired before the 1986 seasons started. He was 31 at the time, but also competing for snaps with another No. 1 overall pick — the 1981 first pick George Rogers. Maybe he just didn’t like not being the first option.
15. Bo Jackson
Most people know the story of Bo Jackson. But if you don’t, you should seriously check out the ESPN 30 for 30 episode “You Don’t Know Bo,” which chronicles the life of probably the most naturally gifted athlete in the history of North American sports. Bo was a freak of nature, spending his summers playing pro baseball for the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox, and joining the Los Angeles Raiders in the winters as a running back. But it wasn’t some gimmick — the man could play! He is the only man to ever be named an MLB All-Star and make the NFL Pro Bowl.
Unfortunatly, Jackson somehow managed to severely injure his hip after a routine tackle in a January 1991 playoff game. Doctors later found that he had lost all cartilage supporting his hip, forcing him to retire from the NFL after just four seasons at 29-years-old. The Royals cut him in Spring Training that year, not wanting to pay him $2.4 million to rehab an injury he suffered playing for another team (in another league). Jackson would have a brief Renaissance with the White Sox in the early 90s, but his trademark power had dried up.
14. Terrell Davis
When the Denver Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowl championships in the 1997 and 1998 seasons, running back Terrell Davis was a big reason why. He was a rugged, powerful back that kept defenses on their toes, allowing quarterback John Elway to also march downfield via an aerial attack. Davis was the Super Bowl MVP in 1998 when he ran for 157 yards and scored three touchdowns. When the regular season returned that Fall, Davis picked up where he left off and ran for 2,008 yards and scored 23 touchdowns, on his way to MVP honors and another Super Bowl ring.
Then everything fell off a cliff.
Davis was limited to just four games in 1999 and five in 2000, a result of an ACL and MCL tear in his right knee. In 2001 he underwent double knee surgeries and missed half the season. Even when he was able to get on the field, he was nowhere near the same player as he was in the first half of his career. He scored just four touchdowns in his final three seasons, compared to 61 in his first four. Davis retired a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday, after just seven seasons in the NFL. But hey, he’s got two rings!
13. Patrick Willis
Patrick Willis was a first round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft as a highly touted linebacker out of the University of Mississippi. He was immediately inserted into the San Fransisco 49ers starting lineup, to great affect. He made more than 100 tackles in each of his first four years, adding in 14 sacks and eight forced fumbles. He was also as durable as they come, barely ever missing a game between 2007 and 2013. He made the Pro Bowl seven seasons in a row.
Through seven seasons of NFL wear and tear, Willis started to be affected by nagging injuries. First there was a hamstring problem in 2011, then a fractured hand and a groin injury in 2013. A toe injury in 2014 required surgery, and was apparently the last straw for Willis. He shocked fans and teammates by announcing his retirement in 2015, after just eight seasons and while still just 30-years-old. He would later tell the media he was worried about his long term health after seeing a number of former NFLers live out their post-playing days in tremendous pain.
12. Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers was an electric player for the Chicago Bears in the 60s and into the early 70s. He was a halfback, a kick return specialist, and was even good for a couple dozen receptions each seasons. He shot out of the gates, picking up more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each of his first three seasons. He scored an incredible 20 touchdowns in his rookie season (when the regular season was only 14 games long, no less).
After nine games of the 1968 season, his fourth, Sayers was leading the league in rushing yard when he went down with torn ligaments in his right knee. Surgery and a long physical rehabilitation process began. He bounced back to once again lead the NFL in rushing yards in 1969, with 1,032. Unfortunately, that was the last highlight of his career. In 1970, he injured his left knee in the preseason. He tried to play through the pain, but his performance was lousy. Another knee surgery and an ankle injury later, and Sayers called it a career after just seven seasons (and he only played two games in each of his final two). He was still just 30-years-old when he retired.
11. LeCharles Bentley
LeCharles Bentley could still be playing in the league if he hadn’t come up against some bad luck and bum deals. The beastly offensive lineman was drafted by the Saints in 2002 and enjoyed an impressive rookie campaign. Sports Illustrated named LeCharles their Offensive Rookie of the Year. Following the 2003 season, he was elected to the Pro Bowl. In 2004, he moved back from guard to center and started all 16 games. The following season, he was elected to the Pro Bowl at center. At that point, LeCharles wanted out of New Orleans. He eventually landed in Cleveland, tore his patellar tendon before the 2006 season, and missed the entire campaign. After his operation, he contracted a staph infection in his knee that kept him out of play even longer. He never returned to form, and he officially called it quits after the 2007 season at just 28-years old.
10. Al Toon
Al Toon was a stud at the wide receiver position. He was an incredible athlete who accomplished feats in high school track and field that few can claim. For example, three jumps over 50 feet in the triple jump. As an NFL professional, he played his entire career for the New York Jets. Al played from 1985-1992 and was forced to leave the game early due to concussions. He was quick to the defense of Calvin Johnson when the rumors began to swirl that Megatron might retire at the age of 30. Toon experienced nine concussions in his eight year career, and even before the “protect the players” rhetoric swept through the NFL, Al knew he was in danger of losing his long-term health. Unfortunately, Al was still producing great numbers and had fuel left in the tank when he said farewell to the league.
9. Tiki Barber
If twin brother Ronde was an example of how long Tiki could have played, he retired too early. Most NFL fans will say that Tiki left the game at the right time, and on his own terms. The counterpoint suggests he was playing his best football, and in his prime, though it came a bit later in his career. What we know: Tiki tried to come back after retiring but couldn’t get a squad to give him a legitimate look. It seemed everyone was ready to move on. Was this because of his play, or because he was known to have a mouth and run it outside of the locker room? The whole incident with kicking his pregnant wife to the curb also suggested some character issues. Whatever the case, there’s no denying his physical attributes and abilities when he retired.
8. Jason Worilds
Here’s one of the oddest entries on this list. Remember Jason Worilds? He was a young stud for the Pittsburgh Steelers boasting a tremendous upside at the linebacker position. After playing his rookie contract with the Steelers, he was considered one of the top free agents available at the position going into the 2015 free agency period. Instead of fielding offers, Jason was stuck fielding the same question: “Why?” Jason announced his retirement at the age of 27. This was shocking to fans, and the league. After some digging, it was reported that Jason wanted to dedicate his life fully to his faith, and very niche camp of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jason never elaborated on the exact reason he stepped away from the game and suggested that he probably never will. We imagine the church loves him, and that $10 million he made in 2014.
7. Jake Plummer
Jake Plummer was everything the NFL needed when he joined the circus. He was born and raised in Boise, Idaho, a collegiate legend for the Arizona State Sun Devils and he began his career with the Arizona Cardinals. Jake showed promise everywhere he went, and was quite effective in Denver, until the Broncos drafted a fella by the name of Jay Cutler. Jay eventually usurped Jake based on what we know now as one hell of a reputation. Jake was offered an opportunity in Tampa Bay, with then-head coach Jon Gruden. Jake was initially interested, and signed a good deal worth good money, but he lost interest as Tampa’s quarterback roster continued to expand, and he considered his recent burn in Denver. Jake decided to retire, even after being lured by Coach Gruden to stay and play. He was 33.
6. Chris Borland
Here’s another league anomaly that may soon become common practice. Young players losing their love for the game and becoming concerned for their own health and safety due to the latest concussion and brain studies. Chris Borland was only 24 when he bailed on the game of football, citing health concerns. Chris walked from the NFL after one season with the San Francisco 49ers—an impressive rookie campaign. Borland started eight games, logged over 100 tackles, two interceptions and a sack in his only season. When asked why he made the decision he did, he suggested health was more important than a football career. As it stands, Chris Borland is outspoken on his football views, calling the game “inherently dangerous.” That it is. And people who choose to play should do so at their own risk. Chris opted out, and immediately returned a large chunk of his signing bonus.
5. Calvin Johnson
He is the catalyst for this list. Calvin Johnson is still at the top of his game. Though his top end speed may have waned slightly since coming into the league, the player dubbed “Megatron” by peers and fans has a lot of artillery shells left in his arsenal, but…he’s been playing in Detroit. How many disappointing seasons can one player endure before their interest completely dies? And Calvin was loyal to the Detroit Lions fans. He probably considered life in another city on another team as potential career rejuvenation, but when he considered all of this potential options, he settled on retirement. Whether Calvin has other career interests, or was concerned about long-term health, we don’t really know at this point. We’re guessing he was tired of playing for a sucky team in a city that is locked in a perpetual struggle.
4. Jake Locker
Who saw this one coming? Jake Locker gave the NFL a shot, and apparently it didn’t vibe with his future interests. For a lot of guys, they may be fine with making some coin and functioning as a quality backup. Jake wasn’t feeling that vibe. To quickly breakdown his short career: Jake was taken 8th overall in the 2011 draft. By 2014, he was the man in Tennessee, prepped to lead the Titans to a quality season. Things didn’t go as planned. After a very promising show to begin the season, 2014 ended with Jake on the bench watching rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger start. By the free agency period of 2015, Jake announced that he was done with football, as he’d lost the desire to play. Honestly, what could be worse than being a highly touted top draft pick QB on a crappy team?
3. Jim Brown
Let’s address the running backs, shall we? It is the position on the field that takes the biggest beating of them all. How Emmitt Smith played and remained effective for as long as he did…? We must tip a cap to quality offensive lines. Enough digression, let’s get back to the legendary Jim Brown. When Jim was running the ball, he looked like a man playing with high school kids. It’s not that he couldn’t be tackled, it was just a terrifying task. Jim was a standout at Syracuse, and went on to be the greatest thing that has ever come through Cleveland (sorry, LeBron). He walked away from the game while he was still dominant, and his reasoning was simple: he loved movies and had talent as an actor. The offers were on the table and he was ready to do something else.
2. Robert Smith
Robert Smith—and we’re talking Robert Smith of the Minnesota Vikings, as opposed to Robert Smith of The Cure—was another running back who retired early by all accounts. Robert struggled with injuries early in his career, but once he got his motor running, and running without any knocks or pings, he was a force to be reckoned with. It didn’t hurt that he had Randy Moss on the edge, demanding respect from defenses. Robert played from 1993-2000, and in the 2000 season he rushed for 1,571 yards, leading the NFC in rushing. (Edgerrin James went for 1,709 in Indy, if you’re curious.) After that season, at the pinnacle of his career, Robert called it quits. He was 28. His decision was based on seeing retired players, and their physical struggles, and his desire to do other things in life. He had no desire to live a debilitated life.
1. Barry Sanders
Who else could sit at #1 on this list? When Barry Sanders walked away from the NFL, it was met with an immediate response: “He’s probably retiring to get out of his contract, then he’ll come back in a year and play for a contender.” Nope. When Barry walked away, he stayed away. The Wichita, Kansas, native had enjoyed his fill of football and he never stepped on the field in uniform again. The biggest shock of Barry’s retirement wasn’t his exhaustion of playing for a hapless Detroit Lions franchise, it was the fact he was less than 1,500 yards from breaking Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record. Barry averaged about 1,500/season. He had multiple years on his existing contract, but couldn’t deal with playing for a losing team any longer. After years of dodging the question, he finally admitted: the mismanagement of the franchise had taken its toll.