On Monday night the sports world received word of one of the most shocking sports retirements we’ve seen in a long time. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, just 24 years old, announced he was hanging up his cleats for good.
What made the announcement so shocking was not just the fact that Borland is young, or the fact that he had just one NFL season under his belt, or the fact that he was just one more solid season away from becoming a very rich man. Titans quarterback Jake Locker retired a few weeks ago at the age of 26, and everybody was like, huh, okay.
What made Borland’s retirement so shocking is the reason he gave. In a nutshell, he’s afraid the multiple concussions he’d suffer over the course of a long career would turn his brain to mush. And he doesn’t want to die young.
Talk about a sobering thought.
At this point, it’s still too early to assess where Borland’s retirement will ultimately rank among the most shocking sports retirements of all time. We’ll have to wait and see how it impacts the NFL and future players. But today we’re going to take a look at some of the other shocking retirements to give you a sense of context.
Have a look.
Everyone knows the story of this American hero. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, 27-year-old Arizona Cardinals linebacker Pat Tillman retired from the NFL and enlisted in the army. However, two years after joining the Army Rangers, Tillman was killed by friendly fire in the mountains of Afghanistan. The army posthumously promoted him to the rank of Corporal and awarded him a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. Meanwhile, the Cardinals erected a fantastic statue of Tillman outside the University of Phoenix Stadium.
13. Pat Tillman
In 2008, Justine Henin announced she was retiring from tennis at the age of 26. It came as a huge shock to the tennis world, not only because she had won seven career Grand Slams, but because she was not dealing with any major injuries, and she was still the top-ranked women's player in the world. As it turned out, she was just burned out on tennis, and she didn't have much left to prove.
Of course, she later made a brief comeback. But she was never the same.
12. Justine Henin
Otto Graham quarterbacked the Cleveland Browns for 10 seasons from 1946 to 1955, first in the AAFC, then in the NFL. He led his team to the championship game in every one of them, winning seven. However, after his third NFL championship in 1955, a healthy Graham decided he was done with football and announced his retirement at the relatively young age of 34.
11. Otto Graham
It's not that unusual for baseball players to retire at the age of 36. However, Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett had hit .314/.379/.515 with 23 HRs for the Twins in 1995, showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. So when he suddenly lost vision in his right eye and announced his retirement in 1996, it sent shockwaves through Major League Baseball.
10. Kirby Puckett
Rocky Marciano was crowned World Heavyweight Champion on September 23, 1952, and he successfully defended his title six times. However, on April 27, 1956, he shocked the world by announcing his retirement at the age of just 33. With a record of 49-0, Marciano is the only heavyweight champ in history without a single tie or loss.
Sadly, he did not get to enjoy his post-boxing life as long as he had hoped. Rocky Marciano died in a plane crash on August 31, 1969, at the age of 45.
9. Rocky Marciano
Baseball's original Iron Man, Lou Gehrig, played every single game from June 1, 1925, until May 2, 1939, when Gehrig took himself out of the lineup after struggling the first month of the season. Six weeks later, he announced his retirement after being diagnosed with ALS at the age of 36. And two weeks after that, on July 4, 1939, he gave his famous "Luckiest Man" speech.
Gehrig passed away two years later at the age of 37.
8. Lou Gehrig
Ken Dryden played just eight seasons with the Montreal Canadiens from 1970 through 1979. During that span, he won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie five times, and the Canadiens hoisted Lord Stanley's chalice six times. After winning it all again in 1979, at the age of 31 and still in his prime, Dryden—who'd already earned a law degree during a contract dispute in 1973—retired from hockey to become a television analyst, writer, and eventually a politician.
7. Ken Dryden
Barry Sanders was the best running back of his generation. Through 10 seasons with the Detroit Lions, he'd rushed for a whopping 15,269 yards and 99 touchdowns. In 1997 he became just the third member of the NFL's exclusive 2,000-yard club, and he followed that up with another 1,491 yards in 1998. However, in 1999—at the age of 30 with what seemed like plenty of gas left in the tank—he faxed a press release to his hometown newspaper explaining "my desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it."
6. Barry Sanders
Speaking of all-time great running backs who retired in their prime, up next we have Jim Brown. After playing nine seasons for the Cleveland Browns, leading the NFL in rushing in all but one of them and winning four MVP awards, Brown retired at the age of just 29 in 1965 to pursue a career in Hollywood.
Amazingly, despite playing just nine seasons, Jim Brown was the NFL's all-time leading rusher until Walter Payton broke his record nearly 20 years later.
5. Jim Brown
Magic Johnson blew the world away with a double whammy on November 7, 1991. Not only was the five-time NBA champ and three-time NBA MVP retiring at the age of 32, but he was doing it because he had contracted HIV.
Of course, in 1991, when you tested positive for HIV you assumed you would get AIDS and die. So Johnson retired to focus on his health and prolong his life.
Had he known then what we know now, 24 years later, he probably wouldn't have retired.
4. Magic Johnson
Sandy Koufax is on the short-list for greatest pitchers in baseball history. The man won four World Series rings, three Cy Young awards, two World Series MVP awards, a National League MVP award. He pitched a whopping four no-hitters, including a perfect game on September 9, 1965. And in 1966, he had one of the greatest seasons ever by a pitcher, with an MLB-best 1.73 ERA and MLB-best 314 strikeouts over an MLB-best 323 innings.
Needless to say, fans who didn't know about the painful arthritis in Sandy's left elbow were absolutely stunned when he announced his retirement at the age of 30, just days after that incredible '66 season.
3. Sandy Koufax
Bjorn Borg caught everyone by surprise when he announced he was hanging up his racket in 1983. The guy won Wimbledon five times and the French Open six times for a total of 11 Grand Slam titles. He was a capital L Legend. And, most importantly of all, he was only 26 years old.
In 1982, Borg had reduced his playing schedule a bit, but nobody thought the guy was about to retire at the age of 26, and nobody wanted him to retire at the age of 26. Not with so much history left to make. Borg's biggest rival, John McEnroe, begged him to return. But it was no use. Borg was burned out.
Oh, and in case you were wondering how many Grand Slam titles Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had won before they turned 27 years old, the answer is 11 for both. Just like Borg.
2. Bjorn Borg
The most shocking retirement in sports history still belongs to Michael Jordan. Obviously. The guy won his third straight championship with the Bulls in June of 1993. However, his father was murdered that July at a North Carolina highway rest area, at which point Jordan said he lost his desire to play basketball. So on October 6, at the age of 30, he announced his retirement, leaving sports fans around the world in a stunned, open-mouthed stupor.
Of course, you know the rest of the story. After trying his hand at baseball, Jordan returned to the NBA in 1995 and won three more championships, cementing his status as Greatest Of All Time.
1. Michael Jordan
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