Becoming a professional athlete requires a lot of hard work, sacrifices, endless hours of practice, having a good support system and, of course, good luck. The average length of a sporting career varies due to several different reasons. However, it is always a shocker to see athletes retiring prematurely or when they are in their prime.
There are a myriad of reasons for which an athlete could retire early. It could be due to injuries, lack of motivation, falling out of love with the game, or even reasons pertaining to their personal lives.
In this article, we take a look at some of the greatest athletes who ended their careers early due to various reasons and whose retirements came as a shock.
Tennis player Ashleigh Barty was ranked No. 1 in the world when she announced her retirement from the sport at the young age of 25. The Australian also took an indefinite break from the game back in 2014.
While announcing her retirement in 2022, Barty stated that she was physically and emotionally spent, and had “given her absolute everything” to tennis. Barty departs the sport at the peak of her powers and as the reigning Australian Open and Wimbledon champion, who also held the World No. 1 position since winning the 2019 French Open.
Björn Borg was described as a rockstar both on and off the court for his looks and icy demeanour during his sharp rise through the tennis world. It was a shocking news, thus, when in 1984 he decided to retire at just 26 years of age. Having won 11 Grand Slams, Borg retired citing mental burnout as the reason. He attempted to make a comeback in 1991, but he was largely unsuccessful on the court and retired again in 1993.
Yao’s time in the NBA was relatively short as it came after a stellar career in China. Already was already a celebrity by the time he arrived in the NBA. He had also excelled on the court, averaging 19 points and 9 rebounds per game in eight full years in the league. Unfortunately, due to chronic foot injuries, he has to end his career early.
In this situation, we are talking about Michael Jordan’s first retirement from basketball. In October 1993, the G.O.A.T. shocked sports fans by announcing he was stepping away from the court, saying he had lost his love for the game. It later became clear that the death of his dad, who had been murdered three months earlier, played a big role in his decision. Jordan didn’t only shock fans by quitting basketball, though; he also did it by signing a Minor League Baseball contract with the Chicago White Sox in February 1994.
After putting up meagre numbers on the plate, MJ announced his return to the hoops in March 1995, amid the MLB strike. He announced his return to the Chicago Bulls in classic MJ fashion, with a two-word press release that simply said: “I’m back.”
And he was. Jordan led the Bulls to yet another three-peat from 1995-1998, led the league in scoring all three seasons, and won two more MVPs (1996 and 1998). His Airness retired from the NBA again in 1998, only to return with the Washington Wizards, playing for them from 2001 until 2003.
Barry Sanders played ten seasons in the NFL and made the Pro Bowl ten times. He was a four-time NFL rushing leader and a six-time first-team All-Pro. Yet he retired in 1999, at the age of 31, only one year after winning league MVP and while still being one of the biggest offensive threats in the NFL.
Sanders’ retirement was both shocking and controversial. He signed a six-year extension deal with the Detroit Lions just two years earlier, so there were still four years left on the deal. The Lions naturally demanded him to return some of his signing bonus, but the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma State refused, so Detroit sued him. He ended up having to pay part of the bonus back to the team after the dispute went to court.
The former French footballer still remains famous for his role in reviving Manchester United Football Club as well as for his temperamental playing style. Cantona retired in 1997 at the age of 30, at the conclusion of the 1996-97 season, and revealed that he was retiring from the game because he had lost his passion and was unwilling to make sacrifices needed to play at the top level.
Cantona joined Manchester United from Leeds United in 1992 and was the focal point in the Red Devils winning four out of five Premier League titles between 1992 and 1997. He also led the club to two FA Cups.
Cantona has gone down as a cult hero in football and is one of the major icons that embodies the Manchester United legacy.
The former English footballer announced his retirement from football in 2009 at the meagre age of 26. The former Crewe Alexandra, Norwich City and West Ham United striker retired so early having failed to recover from a long-term injury which he sustained during an international break with England.
Ashton first got his injury in his debut call-up for England in 2006, when they were training for a friendly game against Greece. Due to this injury, he was out for a full year and only came back during the 2007-08 season. A striker by trade, Ashton scored 103 goals in 274 games. In September 2008, he sustained another injury to the same ankle during a West Ham training session, which then sealed his premature retirement from the game in 2009.
Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson
Magic Johnson is considered as one of the all-time NBA greats. The power forward won five NBA titles in his time with the LA Lakers and was always Michael Jordan’s closest competitor. However, in 1991, coming off the back of an NBA final loss to the Chicago Bulls and aged just 31, Magic Johnson announced his retirement from the game. The three-time MVP announced that he was retiring from the game because he was HIV positive. Johnson did make a brief comeback, though, playing 32 games for the Lakers, but ultimately retired again.