NFL: Players That Retired Too Early

On Saturday August 24th, during halftime of the preseason game between the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears, the seemingly unthinkable happened. Quarterback Andrew Luck retired from pro football. The news broke during halftime, and post-game he had a press conference to make it official. After a 2018 campaign which was arguably one of his best seasons, many thought he would have an MVP-like follow up season. However, the myriad of injuries he had throughout his career finally caught up with him. And he decided it was best for his health to call it quits. He is not the first high-level football player to step away from the game in presumably their prime though. Let’s take a look at some others that hung their cleats up a bit earlier than expected.

Barry Sanders

Perhaps the most electrifying player of all-time that left the NFL in his prime was running back Barry Sanders. He retirement was puzzling to most because he was 1,458 yards away from breaking the all-time rushing record set by Walter Payton. In his 10 seasons with the Detroit Lions he rushed for over 1,000 yards in all of them. In the 1997 NFL season he ran for a whopping 2,053 yards. And most of the runs throughout his career were highlight reel material.

The Lions just weren’t winning though. And the team’s front office wasn’t doing a great job of surrounding Sanders with talent. So just before the 1999 season he decided his desire to play football was no longer there, and he retired. It probably had more to do with him being stuck in the situation (team) that he was in. But fans were left to wonder just how many more yards he would’ve racked up had he hung around for four or five more seasons!

Patrick Willis

Ever since linebacker Patrick Willis entered the league in 2007, he struck fear into the hearts of opposing offenses. Even in his rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers his intensity, leadership, and natural instincts were on full display. And all those traits came together to earn him the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. From there on he was selected to seven Pro Bowls and earned All-Pro honors five times. And each season he was the heart and soul of the 49ers defense.

His 2014 season was cut short though due to foot injuries. The toe problems were persistent and nagging. And before the 2015 season, he made the decision to retire. His rationale was simple yet profound. If he couldn’t play at the level he wanted to and feel his best doing so, he knew it would be time to walk away. To try and summarize his impact on the game, consider this. He led the league in tackles in twice, and he helped lead the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. And although his career seems short at a glance, those eight seasons were extremely prolific. And he will go down as one of the best to play the linebacker position!

Calvin Johnson

Another player that retired right in his prime was big-bodied wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Fans fondly referred to him by his nickname “Megatron”. He played for nine seasons with the Detroit Lions. In all but two of those seasons he had over 1,000 yards receiving. And in 2012 he set a single season receiving record after picking up 1,964 yards. At the rate he was going, he had a chance to pass up Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice in career receiving yards.

The game of football however put a lot of wear and tear on his body throughout those nine seasons. And Johnson felt as though he wouldn’t be able to get the same output any longer. So rather than be a shell of himself, prior to the 2016 season, he stepped away from the game for good at the age of 30. Just as with Sanders, Johnson left NFL fans (specifically Lions fans) with many thoughts of “What Could’ve Been”.

Hall of Fame?

Sanders joined the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a part of the Class of 2004. He was a first ballot inductee to the surprise of no one! Willis and Johnson will more than likely be first ballot inductees as well. Willis’ first year of eligibility is 2020 and Johnson follows in 2021. Both of them left their legacy on the game of football. And though their careers were short, their wait time to wait to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame will be short as well!

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