Getting older is a certainty. While aging may not be the most pleasant part of being human, the process can also give us wisdom. In the case of star athletes, that wisdom could be the realization that it's time to retire because their ability to perform is in a state of decline. That's when the tendency to reconsider things might conflict with the certainty of getting older, and the conflict really gets stirred up when factoring in the pride of a premier athlete.
Aging, indecision, and pride are the factors at the forefront of discussing the following athletes. Some were validated by coming out of retirement, while other un-retirees proved their doubters right, and we've split the list accordingly (with two legends popping up on both lists because we love swerves at the TheSportster). Before we get to the grizzled vets who inspired positive vibes, let's relive the letdowns of the guys who probably should have stayed retired.
15 Embarrassed: Michael Jordan (Wizards)
No one set higher standards of excellence for himself than MJ, which is why it's justified to include him on this list. He also raised the bar for greatness coming out of retirement as a Bull, and that's why it was such a letdown to watch him conclude his career on the Wizards. When he returned to the league in 2001, he posted respectable but diminished numbers, averaging 22.9 PPG and 5.2 APG, but his durability left him. Torn cartilage in his right knee forced him to shut it down after 60 games.
True to form, he refused to hang up his Nikes and came back for the '02-'03 season, which marked his farewell tour. While Air Jordan did play in all 82 games, his points per game fell to 20.0, a career low for one of the greatest scorers in NBA history. Worse, the Wiz failed to make the playoffs in both of MJ's seasons in Washington. In an ironic twist, Jordan lost his magic as a Wizard. At 40, he played his last game in Philly. The City of Brotherly Love treated the legend to a three-minute standing ovation just before the final buzzer sounded.
14 Succeeded: Mario Lemieux
Super Mario led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup triumphs in 1991 and 1992. Lemieux's accomplishments are made all the more impressive by the health issues he had to overcome. In addition to chronic back pain and spinal disc herniation, his bout with Hodgkin's lymphoma was a factor in his first retirement in 1997. No one else on this countdown can claim to have rescued his franchise from bankruptcy. As if that wasn't enough, Lemieux returned to the ice in 2000. He tacked on another 77 goals and 152 assists to his Hall of Fame resume. His last year as a player was Sidney Crosby's first. Lemieux was a mentor in the purest sense of the word; he even let Sid the Kid crash at his house. Crosby has since led the Penguins to three Stanley Cups. Let that be a lesson to always help put over new talent.
13 Embarrassed: Reggie White
With 198 sacks, the Minister of Defense ranks second all-time, but only 5.5 sacks in that lofty total came as a member of the Carolina Panthers when he returned to action in 2000. By contrast, in his last year with the Packers in 1998, Reggie drove opposing QBs into the turf 16 times. A 13-time Pro Bowler and a member of the All-Decade Team in both the '80s and the '90s, the new millennium saw him become what he had never been before: An average defensive end.
His number 92 has been retired by his college alma mater, the Tennessee Volunteers, as well as the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers, which magnifies how relatively forgettable he was on the Panthers. He won Defensive Player of the Year honors twice, as an Eagle in 1987 and, over a decade later, playing for the Packers in 1998. Reggie's return to the Panthers may have left us underwhelmed, but his status as a legend remains intact.
12 Succeeded: Magic Johnson
A gold medalist on the Dream Team, Magic is widely considered the greatest point guard of all-time. He led the Showtime Lakers to five titles, and his individual marks are hard to top: 12 All-Star appearances, a trio of MVP awards, and he averaged 19.5 PPG on a .520 FG%. In NBA history, his 11.2 assists per game are unparalleled, and only Oscar Robertson tallied more career triple doubles than Magic's 138. His remarkable career came to a screeching halt in 1991 when he publicly announced that he was HIV-positive.
Despite the stigma surrounding his illness and subsequent retirement, Magic played in the 1992 All-Star Game (winning MVP honors, obviously), and dominated in Barcelona alongside Jordan and Bird. It wasn't until 1996 that Magic resumed competing in official NBA contests - albeit in limited action.Magic retired a second time, on his own terms he claimed, after the '96 season. Now he's a business juggernaut with an estimated net worth of $600 million.
11 Embarrassed: Gordie Howe
While it's never pleasant to see Mr. Hockey's name on the negative side of a list, his brief stint with the Hartford Whalers to conclude his career was underwhelming. After six seasons in the World Hockey Association, Howe's hiatus from the NHL ended when the WHA folded in 1979. Incredibly, Detroit still retained his rights even though he had retired as a member of the Red Wings in 1971, but Detroit and Hartford reached a deal to let him play for the Whalers because, hey, he was Gordie Howe.
In one sense, it was mind-blowing to see a man of 52 appear in every game and put up solid numbers as a right wing in the NHL. In another sense, though, greatness entails lofty expectations. Gordie may have astounded fans by strapping up his skates after a half-century of life, but legends are held to the highest standards. Part of Gordie's legacy was the way he defined what it meant for an athlete to retire long past his prime.
10 Succeeded: Randy Savage
Whatever logic exists within pro wrestling was destroyed when The Ultimate Warrior kicked out after Macho landed FIVE elbow drops from the top rope, but it was for the best that Warrior went over in their classic Retirement Match at WrestleMania VII. In reality, Macho wanted some time off to start a family with Liz. (The couple never had children and divorced in 1992, but hey, don't let that make you give up on true love.) Macho sure used the term "retirement" loosely, getting reinstated in time to win the Heavyweight title from Ric Flair at WrestleMania VIII. In 1994, Macho was part of a wave of WWF vets who jumped ship to WCW. There he added another four Heavyweight straps to his legacy and played a prominent part in the New World Order stable that dominated wrestling. The man who made Slim Jim famous last appeared in the ring for TNA in late 2004 - over 13 years after that initial "retirement."
9 Embarrassed: Ric Flair
A few years before The Undertaker ended the career of Shawn Michaels in spectacular fashion, the Heartbreak Kid gave Ric Flair a perfect sendoff at WrestleMania XXIV, or so it seemed. Like many great wrestlers, Flair struggled to separate his character from his true self, which explained his extravagant spending habits. The Nature Boy kept up luxurious appearances, but he always stretched his budget thin in doing so. He took on a massive debt in back taxes. He made bad investments. His breakups were expensive. For these reasons and more, Flair began wrestling for TNA in 2010, when he was in his early 60s, past his prime by decades. Among other storylines, ancient feuds with Hogan and Sting were rehashed. Flair suffered torn triceps taking a bump against Sting in his final TNA match.
8 Succeeded: Ryne Sandberg
A fan favourite at the Friendly Confines in the '80s and '90s, "Ryno" represented the Cubs in the All-Star Game in ten consecutive seasons. His slick fielding earned him nine Gold Gloves, he took home MVP hardware in 1984, and for a brief moment in time, he was the highest paid player in the Majors. As the Cubs transitioned into the Sammy Sosa era and life without ace pitcher Greg Maddux, Chicago's other #23 decided to hang up his cleats midway through the strike-shortened '94 season. Two years later, Sandberg was struck by the desire to retrieve those cleats he had hung up. The second baseman drove in 92 runs, scored 85, and belted 25 homers to give fans of the North Siders a little something to cheer for as the team struggled. The next season told a similar story, only worse, as the Cubs went 68-94 and Sandberg's numbers dipped in what was his final year.
7 Embarrassed: "Sugar" Ray Leonard
A repeat offender of the phony retirement, Sugar Ray helped carry boxing in the post-Ali era. At the age of 20, he made his pro debut in 1977. Leonard didn't lose a fight until his 28th bout, when he dropped the Welterweight Title to Roberto Duran in the epic Brawl in Montreal. It was the only match Leonard lost in the '80s. The best boxer of the decade amassed a fortune, becoming the first fighter to exceed $100 million in payouts.
Suffering a detached retina factored into his decision to retire in November of 1982, but the decision was unmade 13 months later. Leonard prevailed in his comeback fight only to announce his retirement after the match. Then he got back in the ring to beat Marvin Hagler in 1987. After a rare defeat in '91, Leonard retired... PSYCH! Turns out, in 1997, he realized he wanted a piece of Hector Camacho. Forty is a dubious age for athletes, and Sugar Ray was not an exception to the rule. For the sole time in his illustrious career, he was the loser by knockout.
6 Succeeded: Randall Cunningham
With Cunningham as the signal caller of the Eagles from 1985-1995, Philly was a perennial contender. The scrambling dynamo earned a trip to the Pro Bowl three years straight, and the stat line he posted in 1990 was astounding: 3,466 passing yards and 30 scores through the air, 942 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. Injuries began to plague him in '91 when he tore his ACL, and after the '95 season, he retired.
The Vikings resurrected his career in 1997. His mobility was lost, but he stepped his game up as a pocket passer who could throw a dazzling deep ball. By the next season, he was named the starter, and he was surrounded by weapons like running back Robert Smith and the receiving trio of Cris Carter, Jake Reed, and rookie Randy Moss. The 15-1 Vikings fell short of reaching the Super Bowl by a field goal in overtime of the NFC Championship, but they still put on a great show. After the 2001 season as a backup in Baltimore, Cunningham retired a second and final time.
5 Embarrassed: Bret "The Hitman" Hart
He got duped into a Screwjob in Montreal. He was misused in WCW. Then Goldberg concussed him, forcing him into an early retirement. With those sad facts in mind, you'd think the Hitman's comeback would've been satisfying and redemptive, but aside from some solid promo work, it wasn't. When The Excellence of Execution returned to the ring at WrestleMania XXVI he was 52, and while the buildup to his No Holds Barred Lumberjack match with Vince McMahon included cool swerves, heat, and trickery, the bout itself was a dud, a lopsided squash match that just kept dragging on. Without performing a single wrestling move in his arsenal, The Hitman brutalized Vince with a lead pipe and a steel chair. It felt contradictory for a hero who once wrestled so masterfully to be aided by weapons and outside interference in his victory.
4 Succeeded: Brett Favre (First Season in Minnesota)
A three-time MVP with the Packers, Favre excelled in 2007, leading Green Bay to the division crown and a postseason win. With Aaron Rodgers emerging, a misty-eyed Favre announced his retirement in March of 2008. He changed his mind four months later. Still set on the transition to Rodgers, the Old Gunslinger was dealt to the New York Jets for a forgotten season. The following April, Favre retired again. Naturally, it didn't take long for him to change his mind.
With the regular season looming, Favre inked a deal with the Vikings on August 18th, 2009. Packers fans were dismayed to see him sign with a bitter rival, but Favre was driven by the controversy he had started. In an MVP-caliber campaign, #4 regained his country swagger.Favre and his Vikes thrived until the NFC Championship Game, when Favre threw an ugly pick in OT to set the Saints up for a game-winning field goal. The mistake did not erase his achievements in 2009.
3 Embarrassed: Bob Cousy
One of the premier point guards of old school basketball, Cousy was a vital part of the Celtics' dynasty in the late '50s and early '60s. He appeared in 13 All-Star Games, and earned six championship rings. He was chosen for the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team and given sweet nicknames like Cooz and The Houdini of the Hardwood. After retiring as a Celtic, he added no accolades to his legacy by returning to the NBA as a player-coach for the Cincinnati Royals.
Cooz was 41 when he came out of retirement. It was a spectacle to boost falling ticket sales, and Cooz would later admit that his stint was entirely motivated by money. Six years had gone by since his last game as a Celtic, and it's safe to assume that rust was a factor in Cousy's seven games on the court in 1970. His comeback was abysmal. On the bright side, a small miracle: Somehow the plan to boost ticket sales at Royals games worked.
2 Succeeded: Michael Jordan (Bulls)
He was indisputably the alpha dog of the NBA and fresh off his third straight title run with the Bulls when Air Jordan dropped a bombshell by announcing his retirement on October 6th, 1993. Whether his gambling problem was a factor or MJ was truly determined to honour the memory of his deceased father (or both) remains open for debate, but the fact remains that #23 went from NBA royalty to the Birmingham Barons of the Southern League. As a Double-A ballplayer in the White Sox organization in 1994, he hit for a .202 AVG and struck out 114 times.
With 30.4 points per game, MJ got back to leading the league in scoring and holding MVP hardware. Chicago finished with a record of 72-10 en route to another title, which began another three-peat. The man who bristles at crying memes retired a second time just as he had done on the first occasion, as the premier player in basketball. When he un-retired a third time, however, things turned out differently.
1 Embarrased: Brett Favre (Second Season in Minnesota)
His run in 2009 was a triumph, but the next season was a disaster in Minnesota. The team finished 6-10, but it got much worse than that. They reacquired Randy Moss, but he clashed with Head Coach Brad Childress immediately and was released in a matter of weeks. Childress got the axe shortly after Moss did. The roof of the Metrodome literally caved in, and Favre's consecutive start streak was snapped at 297. He suffered brutal hits, was ravaged by injuries, and played terribly.
The Gunslinger couldn't resist the urge to play for one more year after the Vikings' Super Bowl hopes were dashed by the careless throw he made late and over the middle of the field in an overtime loss to the Saints in the NFC Championship Game. Typically, he didn't confirm his return until mid-August of 2010. Even though he did surpass 500 TD passes and 70,000 yards through the air as the season progressed, the Vikings struggled, and Favre suddenly looked downright old.