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Top 10 NFL Players Who Retired Too Young

Aug. 03, 2020 - Michael Stewart

Top 10 NFL Players Who Retired Too Young

By Michael Stewart/@golferbad

Introduction: With many players opting to not play in 2020 due to COVID-19, It made me wonder how many great players in NFL history retired while still in their prime. I’m not talking about players who were hampered by injuries and decided to retire, so you won’t see names like Bo Jackson, Gale Sayers and Troy Aikman; but rather players who walked away at the top of their game at the time. Believe or not, you can put together a solid team with the talented players who decided to walk away from football and leave millions on the table. Here is my top 10 NFL players who retired way too young.

10. Robert Smith-RB (1993-00): Smith NFL career started out bumpy as he battled through some minor injuries that only allowed to play 23 games during that span. However; Smith emerged fully healthy and in 1997 until he retired in 2000; was a dominant rusher for the Minnesota Vikings rushing for 1,521 yards in his final season. Smith was only 28 years old when he walked away and he has always stated that he left at the right time.

9. Lynn Swann-WR (1974-82): Swann was a four-time Super Bowl champion for the Pittsburgh Steelers back in the 1970’s and his acrobatic catches during his career will forever be etched in my mind. Swann had an opportunity to get into broadcaster before the start of the 1983 season and decided to make the transition sooner rather than later.

8. Luke Kuechly-ILB (2012-19): Kuechly is the latest NFL star to walk away from football while still being one of the best at his position. Only 28 years old, Kuechly’s decision took the NFL and more directly the Carolina organization by surprise when he announced that he will be retiring before the start of the 2020 season. Kuechly was quoted by NBC sports “I just knew that, you know, I had given everything I had, to be honest with you, I was don at that point”.

7. Terrell Davis-RB (1995-01): Davis was the catalyst for the Denver Broncos two Super Bowl wins in the 1990’s, but decided to call it quits after the 2002 season at the age of 29 years old. Davis did sustain a serious knee injury in the 1999 season, the decision to retire was purely wanting to walk away from the game on his own terms. Davis only played 78 games in the NFL, but was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2017.

6. Andrew Luck-QB (2012-18): After being drafted as the #1 overall pick in the NFL 2010 draft, Luck became one the top quarterbacks in the NFL with his combination of throwing and running arsenal that propelled the Colts as a legitimate playoff contender. Luck had injuries along throughout his career that even forced him to miss the entire 2017 season. Luck returned in 2018 and had one of his best seasons of his career; which led to a selection to the Pro Bowl. However; Luck shocked the football world announcing that he had decided to retire from football and walk away on top.

5.Calvin Johnson-WR (2007-15): Johnson was without question one this century’s best receivers with his freakish combination of speed, power, size and not to mention his incredible soft hands. Johnson was only 30 years old when he decided to walk away from football following the 2015 season.

4. Tiki Barber-RB (1997-06): Barber walked away at the age of 30 years old after rushing for 1,662 yards (5.1 YPG) in his final season in 2006. Barber currently holds many New York Giants records at RB; which includes total rushing yards, total yards from scrimmage and three seasons of over 2000 total yards from scrimmage.

3. Earl Campbell-RB (1978-85): During his 1st three seasons in the NFL, Campbell led the league in rushing and was a punishing running back with the Houston Oilers. In fact, his combination of power and speed reminding many football historians of the great Jim Brown. Although Campbell had his share of injuries, the decision to retire before his 31st birthday was not the reason.

2.Barry Sanders-RB (1989-98): Barry Sanders retirement was arguably the second biggest shocker behind Jim Brown as Sanders rushed for over 2000 yards (2053) a year earlier. At only 31 years old, Sanders was only 1,457 shy of surpassing Walter Payton for the all-time rushing leader; which was later broken by Emmitt Smith in 2002. Sanders decision to walk away in good health was the reason as no other running back could make an opposing defender look so helpless than Sanders did throughout his Hall of Fame career.

1. Jim Brown—RB (1957-65): Without question, the greatest offensive player in NFL history and the greatest player to walk away from football on his own accord. Brown was so dominating that despite being targeted by every opposing team they played, he still averaged 5.2 yards per carry throughout his career and totaled 12,312 yards rushing; which was the benchmark until the great Walter Payton surpassed it in 1984. Brown walked away from football to pursue an acting career.


Final Thoughts: As I mentioned earlier that my top 10 list would be a solid start to build a team. There were other notable players that I had to leave off the list such as: Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Aaron Schobel, Fred Dwyer and Jason Worilds to name a few. As long as football evolves, we will continue to see productive players walk away from the game they love while they are still physically able to. NFL salaries plays a big part in this decision as players are able to financially prepare for their families future and their own early retirement.