The Most Surprising Reasons These Sports Stars Retired Early

A teenage phenom to start his career, tennis legend Björn Borg was absolutely dominant during the 1970s. With five Wimbledon wins, 11 Grand Slam titles, and 61 total titles, Borg was already a living legend before he was 30, per ESPN. But in 1983, he shocked the tennis and sports world by retiring at 26. His reason? He got burnt out and tired of playing.

"I was hoping this feeling I had inside would change in January, that I would say, 'OK, I enjoy this again,'" Borg told The New York Times. "When you go out on the court, you should say this is great, I'm going to hit the tennis ball, I'm going to try to win every point, and I like to make a good shot. If you don't think and feel that, it's very difficult to play."

While some sports stars arguably retire too late, what makes others retire in their prime? Here are more surprising reasons why some athletes retired early.

Why did Luke Kuechly retire from the NFL at just 28?

Drafted by the Carolina Panther in 2012, linebacker Luke Kuechly made his impact felt immediately by winning the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year. The following year? He won the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. From 2012-2019, Kuechly led the NFL in tackles, grabbed more interceptions than any other linebacker, and made seven-straight Pro Bowls.

He wreaked absolute havoc on opposing offenses due to his toughness and the uncanny ability to call out the other team's plays pre-snap. However, that production also led to way too many concussions. So in January 2020, a year after becoming the first NFL player to record 1,000 tackles in their first eight seasons, Kuechly shocked the football world by announcing his retirement at the age of 28.

"I think now is the right chance for me to move on," Kuechly said in his emotional farewell. "It makes me sad because I love playing this game, I've played it since I was a kid. It's my favorite thing in the world to do. The memories I have from this place and this organization and being on the field with these guys — they'll never go away." Keuchly added, "In my heart I know it's the right thing to do ... There's only one way to play this game since I was a little kid — play fast, play physical, and play strong. And at this point, I don't know if I am able to do that anymore."

Quarterback Andrew Luck 'made a vow' to himself and retired early

When selected No. 1 overall by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2012 NFL Draft, quarterback Andrew Luck was considered a "generational talent" and the future of the position. And for a while, that appeared to be the case. During Luck's first three years with the Colts, the team went 11-5 and made the playoffs each season. 

After missing nine games in 2015 with a kidney injury, Luck signed a whopping six-year, $140 million deal to start the 2016 season to be the face of the franchise for years to come. However, he later decided to have surgery after also injuring his shoulder, and ended up missing the entire 2017 season. In 2018, Luck led the team to a 10-6 record and was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year. With his injury issues behind him, Luck was ready to go down as one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks ever, right? Wrong.

On Aug. 24, 2019, Luck announced his retirement from the NFL at the age of 29. During his emotional press conference, the four-time Pro Bowl selection said the constant pain from multiple injuries and rehab had taken their toll. "I've been stuck in this process. I haven't been able to live the life I want to live in," Luck explained (via ESPN). "Taken the joy out of the game, and after 2016, when I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice, I made a vow to myself that I would not go down that path again."

Brandon Roy's became one of the NBA's biggest 'what ifs' when he retired

Brandon Roy might go down as one of the biggest "what ifs" in NBA history. Selected in the first round by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2006 NBA Draft (and immediately traded to the Portland Trailblazers), Roy was a star as soon as he hit the court. The 6'6" shooting guard dropped 20 points in his first career start and went on to win the Rookie of the Year award after averaging a spectacular 16.8 points, 4.0 assists in just 57 games (via ESPN).

Over his next four years with the team, Roy remained dominant, but never played a full season due to lingering knee injuries. In 2011, he officially retired at the age of 27, revealing that his knee issues were so severe that he lacked cartilage between the bones in both knees. "This is a very difficult and painful day," Roy said in a statement (via ESPN). "I love the game, I love the Portland Trail Blazers and I love our fans, but after consulting with my doctors, I will seek a determination that I've suffered a career-ending injury."

He attempted a comeback in 2012 with the Timberwolves, but he lasted only five games before ... requiring season-ending surgery on his knee. He then finally called it a career. "For me, it's a little bit easier to walk away," Roy said in 2013 (via ESPN). "It's never going to be easy, but it's a little smoother knowing I gave it a try and now it's time to move on."

Chris Borland retired very early for the sake of his health

Drafted in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers, linebacker Chris Borland wasn't expected to make an immediate impact. He did. During the 2014 season, the rookie registered 108 combined tackles, two interceptions, a sack, and was named the NFL Pepsi Rookie of the Week for his 11 solo tackles and game-changing fumble recovery performance against the New Orleans Saints. He accomplished all this in just 14 games and eight starts.

It appeared the 49ers found themselves a new star linebacker to man the position for the next decade or more. Or so they thought. In March 2014, Borland appeared on ESPN's Outside The Lines and announced his intention to retire at the age of 24. His reason? Brain damage wasn't worth the price of NFL glory.

"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," Borland said (via ESPN). "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk." He added: "I just thought to myself, 'What am I doing? Is this how I'm going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I've learned and knew about the dangers?"

Calvin Johnson's early retirement was 'not an easy or hasty decision'

It's rare to find a 6'5" wide receiver who weighs 237 pounds and can also run a 4.35 40-yard dash. The Detroit Lions knew that, as well. Selected No. 2 overall in the 2007 NFL Draft, Calvin Johnson made an instant impact. Nicknamed "Megatron" by his peers due to his size, speed, and strength, Johnson went on to six straight Pro Bowls and shattered Jerry Rice's single-season receiving yardage record in 2012.

In what might be the greatest three-year run by a wide receiver in NFL history, the former Georgia Tech product made 302 catches for 5,137 yards from 2011-2013. But much like all of his time in Detroit, all of this was wasted. Johnson was a very bright spot on a very bad team, and the Lions only averaged 6 wins a year during his tenure, including the disastrous 0-16 season in 2008.

Johnson decided to hang up his cleats in 2015 at the age of 30. "Let me assure you that this was not an easy or hasty decision," he said in a released statement. "As I stated, I, along with those closest to me, have put a lot of time, deliberation and prayer into this decision and I truly am at peace with it. I also want you to know that I have the utmost respect and admiration for the game of football. It has provided so much for me and my family and I will be forever grateful to the game."

Patrick Willis had 'no regrets' when he retired early

The second San Francisco 49er on this list, linebacker Patrick Willis was set to be one of the all-time greats. During his rookie year in 2007, he was dominant out of the gate — leading the NFL in tackles, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, and going on to make the Pro Bowl in seven consecutive seasons (via NBC Sports).

However, in 2014, the injury bug came to visit and didn't want to leave. After just six games, Willis was placed on season-ending injured reserve to undergo surgery on his toe. "I promise you when I come back, I'll be better and stronger than I was before I left," he said at the time. He never did. On March 10, 2015, Willis officially retired at the age of 30. He explained that the constant pain in his feet was too much to bear any longer. 

"I feel like I have no regrets standing up here today," Willis said during his retirement press conference (via ESPN). "As I had no regrets yesterday and the day before as I know I will have no regrets tomorrow. Because one thing I've always lived by is, live by giving everything you got today so that when you look back tomorrow you don't feel ashamed because you left anything on the table."

Yao Ming retired early, but didn't leave the game

After averaging 32.4 points, 19 rebounds, and 4.8 blocks a game in his final year with the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), Yao Ming entered the 2002 NBA Draft, where the Houston Rockets held the first overall pick. The team didn't waste any time selecting the 7'6" big man. During his first three seasons, Ming was selected to two straight NBA All-Star games.

However, from 2005-2011, Ming was still a formidable player, but foot and ankle injuries plagued what could have been a stellar career. On July 20, 2011, Ming officially retired, citing his foot issues. "At the end of the last year, my left foot had a third fracture," Yao said during his retirement press conference. "Today, I need to make a personal decision. I will stop my basketball career and I will formally retire. Today, thinking back and thinking of the future, I have been very grateful. First of all, I need to be grateful to basketball. It has brought happiness to many people including myself."

In 2016, Ming revealed he still had issues with his foot. "I can tell you my foot never came back to [how it was] before after my surgery in 2008," Yao said (via ESPN). "Today, I feel this foot is almost completely numb on top of my foot. The surgery damaged my nerves. I feel less down there." In his post-retirement career, Ming was named the President of the Chinese Basketball Association in 2018.

Multiple injuries suddenly ended Isaiah Thomas' promising NBA career

The name Isaiah Thomas is synonymous with the Detroit Pistons. The point guard played 13 seasons in the Motor City, where he averaged 19.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, 9.3 assists, and was selected to 12 NBA All-Star games (per Stat Muse). However, Thomas became a household name in the late '80s and early '90s with the emergence of the "Bad Boys" era in Detroit. Known for their extremely physical and fearless style of play, the Thomas-led Pistons pummeled Michael Jordan and the Bulls in two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals on their way to back-to-back NBA Championships.

Thomas accomplished all this by the time he was 33. During the 1993-1994 season, Thomas "suffered a hyperextended knee, a broken rib, a strained arch, a calf injury, and a cut left hand" (via Could it get any worse? Yes. In his last home game, a torn Achilles tendon ended his career.

He attended his retirement press conference on crutches and with tears in his eyes. "I've never had to give a retirement speech before, so at my young age, you're going to have to bear with me," the then-33-year-old said in May 1994 (via The New York Times). "I had a tremendous time, made a lot of friends, got a chance to travel — see places I would have never gotten to see growing up on the West Side of Chicago," Thomas added. "Basketball has brought me a long way."

Sandy Koufax felt that surgery on his pitching arm 'would only make things worse'

During his 12 seasons with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, pitcher Sandy Koufax was one of the most dominant left-handers in the history of Major League Baseball: A seven-time All-Star, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, a three-time World Series Champion, and a two-time World Series MVP.

But on Nov. 18, 1966, at just 30 years old, Koufax retired from baseball, citing possible permanent disability from chronic arthritis in his pitching arm elbow. "In those days there was no surgery," Koufax said years later (via History). "The wisdom was if you went in there, it would only make things worse and your career would be over, anyway. Now you go in, fix it, and you're OK for next spring." 

Koufax otherwise had the ability to play for another decade, but his body unfortunately couldn't hold up. There's no telling the records the so-called "Left Arm of God" could have smashed wide open if his elbow was more cooperative. In 1972, at the age of 36, Koufax became the youngest player ever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Barry Sanders' feelings about early retirement were 'backed with conviction'

If an NFL running back rushes for 1,000 yards in a season, he's having an amazing year. During his ten-year career with the Detroit Lions, Barry Sanders had his worst season in 1993 when he missed five games and could only manage ... 1,115 yards. Sanders was 5'8" in a league full of giants, but he absolutely dominated from the first day he stepped on the field. In addition to winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, he was a ten-time Pro Bowl selection, a two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1997.

"He makes you miss so bad, you kind of lookup in the stands and wonder if anybody's looking at you," D.J. Johnson, former cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons, once said. "You've got 60,000 people in there and you wonder if anyone saw you miss that tackle." Sanders amassed 1,491 yards in 1998, and fans were expecting another spectacular year the next. What nobody expected Sanders to retire at age 30. 

Sanders announced his retirement by faxing a letter to his hometown newspaper. "Shortly after the end of last season, I felt that I probably would not return for the 1999-2000 season," the Wichita, Kan. native wrote (via the Detroit Free Press). "I also felt that I should take as much time as possible to sort through my feelings and make sure that my feelings were backed with conviction. Today, I officially declare my departure from the NFL." Sanders was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.