The old adage goes that ‘nothing lasts forever.’ Unfortunately, this proves to be the case in many aspects of life – we’re just hoping it holds true sooner rather than later for the popularity of the Kardashians. In the world of sports, fans understand this as well. Those who enjoyed the dominance of the New York Yankees under Joe Torre, the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s or Manchester United through the 1990s and early 2000s, all understand it can’t last forever. Great players come and go, teams rebuild and dynasties can come crashing down faster than Roger Goodell’s reputation. It’s what makes cheering for a team or athlete so frustrating one minute, yet so rewarding the next. Years of watching dropped passes, poor throws, stupid penalties and missed shots are cancelled out by that brief moment of breaking a record, hoisting a trophy, raising a winner’s medal or celebrating underneath a barrage of fireworks and confetti.
Of course, central to our emotional roller-coaster of being sports fans are the players. They are the friends, heroes, villains, stars and actors we watch out on the fields, in the arenas and stadiums around the world. If you follow a specific league or sport closely you can, in all likelihood, name most of the players and know a little something about their backgrounds. You probably know who the undisputed greats are, who holds what record and which players should just stop playing because they are so bad. You know that if a certain player gets hurt, your team’s chances for the playoffs are over. Alternatively, you also know certain player signings or transfers which could make your team unstoppable and help them heading into the final stretch of the season.
The following list looks at some big name players from a variety of sports from the past few decades. You’ll probably recognize every single name on this list and know each played a prominent role in their respective sport. We’re not, however, here to applaud their records and relive their glories. Instead, this list identifies which athletes should have called it a day long before they decided to retire. You’ll find athletes who came out of retirement multiple times, others whose injury records should have been a clear indicator to stop or former greats who were clearly well past their prime and fighting a losing battle. In many cases, it was hard to watch a once invincible star rust or wear out in front of our eyes. In others, we could only shake our heads and watch in disbelief as the inevitable played out on our television screens.
20 Michael Vick
Most people probably thought that the career of Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick was over when he was convicted in late 2007 on charges related to dog fighting. For most people, time in a federal prison often limits job opportunities once they get released. However, America generally has a soft spot for its sports star felons and gave Vick a second chance. For the 09/10 season, Vick signed for the Philadelphia Eagles and helped take the team to the playoffs. That’s as good as it gets from here. Since then, the 34 year old’s stats have gone continually downhill and he has battled injuries.
19 Chauncey Billups
Chauncey Billups played 17 seasons in the NBA. The point/shooting guard spent the early years bouncing from one team to the next before establishing himself with the Detroit Pistons. A few moves and several years later, Billups ended up with the LA Clippers where an injury plague indicated it was time to call it a career. Unfortunately, the 6-foot 3-inch Billups didn’t get the memo and the rest of us had to watch as he managed only 61 games in his final three years thanks to back due to achilles, foot and knee injuries.
18 Shaquille O’Neal
‘Do you want me to shoot it? “No.” Do You want me to pass it? “No.” Do you want me to slam it?” Ah yes, fortunately one of the most dominant centers the NBA has ever seen knew when to call it a career in the rap industry. Unfortunately, the darling of the media and one of the most liked NBA players hung around a little too long. After his success with the Miami Heat, his final four seasons with Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston saw the stats start to fall away and his points production drop. ‘Do you want me to retire?’ Yes, a couple years sooner would have left the legacy a little less tarnished.
17 17. Patrick Ewing
Seven foot center Patrick Ewing is an NBA and New York Knicks legend. For almost his entire 15 year career with the Knicks he averaged over 20 points per game, dropping off a bit in his final two seasons thanks to bad knees. That should have been the indicator it was time to call it an end to the career. Instead, he played for two more seasons with Seattle and Orlando. Most NBA fans will agree it was a sad sight watching a once dominant player struggle with injury during this period. Production dropped below 10 points per game and you could almost hear the collective urging of fans wishing Ewing would end it all.
16 Sugar Ray Leonard
It’s not uncommon for boxers to come out of retirement. Legendary fighter Sugar Ray Leonard did it four times. In 1982, Leonard retired because he needed surgery on a detached retina. Up to that point, he was 32-1 in a rather dominant boxing career. A series of comebacks and retirements followed with each battle showing the boxer was slipping a little with each passing year. His first knock down, questionable judging decisions in his favor and stretches where he was dominated all indicated the once great boxer should have called time on his career. It wasn’t to be and the once invincible Sugar Ray Leonard ended his boxing career in the 1990s with two consecutive losses.
15 Rickey Henderson
If you ever saw Rickey Henderson play you knew he was a pretty good all-round player. It was also fun to taunt him from the stands and get a reaction but that’s off topic here. Henderson was a great hitter and excellent base-runner with a record 1406 stolen bases. His MLB career is often associated with the Oakland Athletics, who he had four separate stints with. He also played for several other teams. Many agree that Henderson had difficulty letting his career go – or not talking about himself in the third person. A likely retirement point was around 2000 when his stats clearly showed he wasn’t the same player anymore. There’s no doubt he loved the game and this was demonstrated in 2003 when he split his time between the minor league Newark Bears and MLB Dodgers.
14 Ed Reed
Players often use a championship season to go out on a high note. In the NFL, Steelers’ legend Jerome Betis and Ravens' warrior Ray Lewis both used their team's Super Bowl wins as a point to bow out gracefully. Safety Ed Reed should have taken the cue from his Ravens teammate, Lewis, and ended a good NFL career in 2013. Instead, he moved onto the Houston Texans and New York Jets where he has faced injury, the loss of his starting position and now sits as a free agent.
13 Deion Sanders
Look up the definition of ‘all-round athlete’ and there should be a picture of Deion Sanders. Look up ‘go with your first instinct’ and he should also be there. Now an analyst for CBS, Sanders’ exceptional athleticism saw him play in both the NFL and MLB. In the NFL, Sanders played on both offense, defence and special teams, adding to his reputation as a complete athlete. A decade long NFL career saw him win two Super Bowls and be named to the Pro Bowl eight times. Sanders retired at the age of 33 having had, to that point, a very colorful and rewarding career. He then decided to come back in 2004 with the Baltimore Ravens. Nostalgia made people welcome him back but it was soon clear his best days were long behind him.
12 Johnny Unitas
Arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks to play in the NFL, Johnny Unitas enjoyed a very successful career which included 10 Pro Bowls and three NFL Championship titles. He played the vast majority of his career with the Baltimore Colts, playing a final year with the San Diego Chargers. Despite all of his success, Unitas’ final few seasons were not very good and have many arguing he should have retired sooner. It was evident his arm was in decline thanks to years of abuse and a muscle injury in 1968. His final seasons saw him throw for nearly twice as many interceptions as touchdowns – a clear indicator his career was at an end.
11 Steve Nash
Steve Nash is a two-time NBA MVP. With Dallas and Phoenix, the Canadian-born point guard has enjoyed a lot of success in the NBA including being named an All-Star eight times and holding numerous awards for assists. The last few seasons have shown that the 40 year old is in decline with his stats, generally, dropping. This past season with the LA Lakers was, perhaps, a clear indicator it was time to think about hanging it up as Nash made only 15 appearances and averaged 6.8 points per game in an injury plagued season.
10 Emmitt Smith
The NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith is one of the greatest running backs the NFL has seen. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and everyone but Smith saw when that should have happened. If Smith had retired after the 2002 season, when the Dallas Cowboys released him, it probably would have been the best time. With his stats and skills in decline, Dallas and most of the footballing world recognized the end was near – but not Emmitt Smith. He decided to move on and play for two more seasons with the Arizona Cardinals in a phase of his career everyone could have done without.
9 Chuck Liddell
You live and die by the sword in the UFC. Chuck Liddell was one of the reasons UFC took off in popularity in North American and around the world. The Iceman, as he was known, was brutally effective in the octagon and was known for having a devastating punch. From 1998 to 2007, opponents feared meeting Liddell head-to-head. Then, in 2008 at UFC 88, Liddell was defeated and question marks started concerning his future and whether he should retire. UFC 97 was to be the last fight and another defeat seemed to confirm the Iceman was done. Despite attempts by UFC President Dana White to stop Liddell, he fought yet again. At UFC 115 he was beaten for the third consecutive time. As if proving that the third time is a charm, Liddell finally called it a day.
8 Chris Chelios
Have you ever owned a really old car that just keeps on going and your friends were amazed every time they ran into you to find that the car was still going? That’s kind of like Chris Chelios and his NHL career. Defenceman Chelios played 26 seasons in the NHL, winning three Stanley Cups and being named to the All-Star game 11 times. That said, there are many who think he should have hung it up instead of pushing on for the final few seasons. Why? Yes, he was old, but when a player starts finding themselves playing in minor and farm league teams after having a career such as Chelios’, it’s a good indicator that it’s time to move on.
7 Evander Holyfield
One of the big names in the world of boxing, Evander Holyfield enjoyed a career which lasted from 1984 to 2011. He fought in 57 bouts and won 44 against some of the biggest names in the history of the ring. In addition to defeating Buster Douglas and Riddick Bowe, Holyfield also fought Mike Tyson, a meeting which involved the infamous ear biting incident. Looking back, perhaps Holyfield should have called it quits around 1999/2000. Out of the final 18 fights, the now retired boxing legend only managed 8 wins.
6 Muhammad Ali
In the boxing world they don’t come any bigger. Everyone knows who Muhammad Ali is and what he did to opponents in the ring. A spectacular career was disrupted by a ban imposed on Ali from 1967 to 1970 for refusing to be drafted for service in Vietnam. Coming out of an imposed ‘retirement’ Ali picked up where he left off. However, the last five years of his career demonstrated his declining dominance with questionable calls in his favor and stretches where he was being dominated by opponents. The two fights with Leon Spinks were the real turning point. Although winning one of the matches, it was clear Ali was not the same. His final two bouts were both losses and brought about the end of an era in boxing.
5 Michael Schumacher
Michael Schumacher is arguably the greatest driver to ever handle a Formula 1 car. While there is definite evidence to support arguments for the likes of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, Schumacher’s seven Driver’s Championships and 91 Grand Prix wins definitely make him a front-runner when considering the greatest drivers ever. Nevertheless, when the German retired in 2006 after a second-place finish with Ferrari, you could say he was leaving on a high note. Schumacher couldn’t stay away from the track and returned in 2010 to drive for Mercedes. In three seasons, the best GP result he managed was a single third place finish. Some blame the car Mercedes was using but to most it was obvious that the best days were far behind this legendary driver.
4 Martin Brodeur
One of the greatest goaltenders of all time, Martin Brodeur played 21 seasons with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. The Canadian-born goalie holds dozens of records in the league, has won three Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals. Statistically, Brodeur still appears to have some gas left in the tank. His save percentage and goals-against average remain relatively consistent with previous years. However, at 42 years of age and with a back injury which could likely return, it may be a message from the hockey gods to end this one on a high note.
3 Jerry Rice
We could sit here all day and list all of the awards and everything that was great about Jerry Rice’s career. Let’s just say he is rated at #1 on NFL.com and is the best wide receiver the NFL has ever seen. The three-time Super Bowl winner played the bulk of his career with the San Francisco 49ers. Near the end of the 1990s, his stats began to dip, thanks in large part to a bad knee injury he sustained against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. From 2001 to 2003 he played well for the Oakland Raiders. After the 2003 season, it was clear to everyone but Rice that he should retire. He stayed on for two more agonizing seasons, including one with Seattle.
2 Brett Favre
Some people know how to bow out gracefully – and then there is Brett Favre. There is no doubting Favre is a great quarterback who had a great career. He won a Super Bowl and was named to the Pro Bowl 11 times. From 1992 to the 2007 season, Favre wore the green and yellow of the Green Bay Packers. Many think he should have retired that way. Instead, he came out of retirement to play for the Jets for the 2008 season. He then retired again only to return and play for the Minnesota Vikings. During the whole rollercoaster drama, Favre faced various injuries as his body pleaded with him to stop.
1 Michael Jordan
The greatest basketball player ever? While you continue your Kobe versus Jordan debate, there is no doubting that Michael Jordan was the greatest Chicago Bull ever. Following a ‘three-peat’ championship in the early 1990s, Jordan retired to try his hand at baseball. That didn’t work out so he returned to the NBA and helped the Bulls to another ‘three-peat’ from 1995-98. Jordan retired for a second time in 1999 and everyone agrees he should have ended it there. Yet again, Jordan returned in 2001 to play two seasons for the comically named Washington Wizards. Age and injury had caught up with the once great player and it pained many fans to watch their idol become more and more mortal with each passing game. Despite managing 20+ points per game average with Washington, it was a far cry from the 30+ averages and overall performances he had given us while wearing the iconic #23 of the Chicago Bulls.