The business of the NFL can be frustrating for players. It allows players some say in where they’ll play, but sometimes, great guys get stuck in really bad situations. The game that was once sugary sweet becomes bitter and boring, and the men who serve as supremely entertaining, exceptionally talented athletes decide it’s time to move on to other life ambitions. Sometimes, this happens when a guy is in his prime or playing at the top of his game. Here are 11 NFL players who retired with fuel left in the tank.
12. Carson Palmer
Okay. We know we said 11 players, but we get one cheat on this list at #12. A player to serve as an example of how fine the line is between “I’m in my prime,” and “I’m retiring.” Carson Palmer had a bittersweet run with the Cincinnati Bengals. He suffered a devastating knee injury when he was reaching the pinnacle of his career, and his two playoff appearances with the team were duds. After the 2010 season, in which the Bengals finished 4-12, Carson requested a trade. His request was rejected. Carson opted for the “trade me, or I’ll retire” route, and nobody believed him. Then, he didn’t show up to camp. At that point, everyone believed it: Carson was done. The first nine weeks of the season passed, and rookie QB Andy Dalton was capably leading the Bengals. At that point, Oakland reached out to Cincinnati and a deal was done, sending Carson to the Raiders. Now with the Arizona Cardinals, the 36-year started every game in 2015 and got all the way to the NFC Championship game. Not officially retired and still kind of in his prime at 36, Palmer is an anomaly on this list.
11. LeCharles Bentley
LeCharles Bentley could still be playing in the league if he hadn’t come up against some bad luck and bum deals. The beastly offensive lineman was drafted by the Saints in 2002 and enjoyed an impressive rookie campaign. Sports Illustrated named LeCharles their Offensive Rookie of the Year. Following the 2003 season, he was elected to the Pro Bowl. In 2004, he moved back from guard to center and started all 16 games. The following season, he was elected to the Pro Bowl at center. At that point, LeCharles wanted out of New Orleans. He eventually landed in Cleveland, tore his patellar tendon before the 2006 season, and missed the entire campaign. After his operation, he contracted a staph infection in his knee that kept him out of play even longer. He never returned to form, and he officially called it quits after the 2007 season at just 28-years old.
10. Al Toon
Al Toon was a stud at the wide receiver position. He was an incredible athlete who accomplished feats in high school track and field that few can claim. For example, three jumps over 50 feet in the triple jump. As an NFL professional, he played his entire career for the New York Jets. Al played from 1985-1992 and was forced to leave the game early due to concussions. He was quick to the defense of Calvin Johnson when the rumors began to swirl that Megatron might retire at the age of 30. Toon experienced nine concussions in his eight year career, and even before the “protect the players” rhetoric swept through the NFL, Al knew he was in danger of losing his long-term health. Unfortunately, Al was still producing great numbers and had fuel left in the tank when he said farewell to the league.
9. Tiki Barber
If twin brother Ronde was an example of how long Tiki could have played, he retired too early. Most NFL fans will say that Tiki left the game at the right time, and on his own terms. The counterpoint suggests he was playing his best football, and in his prime, though it came a bit later in his career. What we know: Tiki tried to come back after retiring but couldn’t get a squad to give him a legitimate look. It seemed everyone was ready to move on. Was this because of his play, or because he was known to have a mouth and run it outside of the locker room? The whole incident with kicking his pregnant wife to the curb also suggested some character issues. Whatever the case, there’s no denying his physical attributes and abilities when he retired.
8. Jason Worilds
Here’s one of the oddest entries on this list. Remember Jason Worilds? He was a young stud for the Pittsburgh Steelers boasting a tremendous upside at the linebacker position. After playing his rookie contract with the Steelers, he was considered one of the top free agents available at the position going into the 2015 free agency period. Instead of fielding offers, Jason was stuck fielding the same question: “Why?” Jason announced his retirement at the age of 27. This was shocking to fans, and the league. After some digging, it was reported that Jason wanted to dedicate his life fully to his faith, and very niche camp of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jason never elaborated on the exact reason he stepped away from the game and suggested that he probably never will. We imagine the church loves him, and that $10 million he made in 2014.
7. Jake Plummer
Jake Plummer was everything the NFL needed when he joined the circus. He was born and raised in Boise, Idaho, a collegiate legend for the Arizona State Sun Devils and he began his career with the Arizona Cardinals. Jake showed promise everywhere he went, and was quite effective in Denver, until the Broncos drafted a fella by the name of Jay Cutler. Jay eventually usurped Jake based on what we know now as one hell of a reputation. Jake was offered an opportunity in Tampa Bay, with then-head coach Jon Gruden. Jake was initially interested, and signed a good deal worth good money, but he lost interest as Tampa’s quarterback roster continued to expand, and he considered his recent burn in Denver. Jake decided to retire, even after being lured by Coach Gruden to stay and play. He was 33.
6. Chris Borland
Here’s another league anomaly that may soon become common practice. Young players losing their love for the game and becoming concerned for their own health and safety due to the latest concussion and brain studies. Chris Borland was only 24 when he bailed on the game of football, citing health concerns. Chris walked from the NFL after one season with the San Francisco 49ers—an impressive rookie campaign. Borland started eight games, logged over 100 tackles, two interceptions and a sack in his only season. When asked why he made the decision he did, he suggested health was more important than a football career. As it stands, Chris Borland is outspoken on his football views, calling the game “inherently dangerous.” That it is. And people who choose to play should do so at their own risk. Chris opted out, and immediately returned a large chunk of his signing bonus.
5. Calvin Johnson
He is the catalyst for this list. Calvin Johnson is still at the top of his game. Though his top end speed may have waned slightly since coming into the league, the player dubbed “Megatron” by peers and fans has a lot of artillery shells left in his arsenal, but…he’s been playing in Detroit. How many disappointing seasons can one player endure before their interest completely dies? And Calvin was loyal to the Detroit Lions fans. He probably considered life in another city on another team as potential career rejuvenation, but when he considered all of this potential options, he settled on retirement. Whether Calvin has other career interests, or was concerned about long-term health, we don’t really know at this point. We’re guessing he was tired of playing for a sucky team in a city that is locked in a perpetual struggle.
4. Jake Locker
Who saw this one coming? Jake Locker gave the NFL a shot, and apparently it didn’t vibe with his future interests. For a lot of guys, they may be fine with making some coin and functioning as a quality backup. Jake wasn’t feeling that vibe. To quickly breakdown his short career: Jake was taken 8th overall in the 2011 draft. By 2014, he was the man in Tennessee, prepped to lead the Titans to a quality season. Things didn’t go as planned. After a very promising show to begin the season, 2014 ended with Jake on the bench watching rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger start. By the free agency period of 2015, Jake announced that he was done with football, as he’d lost the desire to play. Honestly, what could be worse than being a highly touted top draft pick QB on a crappy team?
3. Jim Brown
Let’s address the running backs, shall we? It is the position on the field that takes the biggest beating of them all. How Emmitt Smith played and remained effective for as long as he did…? We must tip a cap to quality offensive lines. Enough digression, let’s get back to the legendary Jim Brown. When Jim was running the ball, he looked like a man playing with high school kids. It’s not that he couldn’t be tackled, it was just a terrifying task. Jim was a standout at Syracuse, and went on to be the greatest thing that has ever come through Cleveland (sorry, LeBron). He walked away from the game while he was still dominant, and his reasoning was simple: he loved movies and had talent as an actor. The offers were on the table and he was ready to do something else.
2. Robert Smith
Robert Smith—and we’re talking Robert Smith of the Minnesota Vikings, as opposed to Robert Smith of The Cure—was another running back who retired early by all accounts. Robert struggled with injuries early in his career, but once he got his motor running, and running without any knocks or pings, he was a force to be reckoned with. It didn’t hurt that he had Randy Moss on the edge, demanding respect from defenses. Robert played from 1993-2000, and in the 2000 season he rushed for 1,571 yards, leading the NFC in rushing. (Edgerrin James went for 1,709 in Indy, if you’re curious.) After that season, at the pinnacle of his career, Robert called it quits. He was 28. His decision was based on seeing retired players, and their physical struggles, and his desire to do other things in life. He had no desire to live a debilitated life.
1. Barry Sanders
Who else could sit at #1 on this list? When Barry Sanders walked away from the NFL, it was met with an immediate response: “He’s probably retiring to get out of his contract, then he’ll come back in a year and play for a contender.” Nope. When Barry walked away, he stayed away. The Wichita, Kansas, native had enjoyed his fill of football and he never stepped on the field in uniform again. The biggest shock of Barry’s retirement wasn’t his exhaustion of playing for a hapless Detroit Lions franchise, it was the fact he was less than 1,500 yards from breaking Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record. Barry averaged about 1,500/season. He had multiple years on his existing contract, but couldn’t deal with playing for a losing team any longer. After years of dodging the question, he finally admitted: the mismanagement of the franchise had taken its toll.