8 Athletes Who Retired In Their Prime

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There's enough drama in professional sports to script a thousand melodramatic films, with retiring in your prime possibly being the most dramatic. Sports fans never want to see their heroes, be they male or female, age and lose their game and drive. With that in mind, many athletes have retired at the just the right time, and gone on to enjoy successful careers outside of professional sports. Still others have retired in their prime, only to experience unexpected surprises and setbacks. The reasons for retiring can be complex. Consider these 8 athletes and their stories.

  1. Michael Jordan

    Now former professional basketball player Michael Jordan holds the distinction of retiring not once, not twice, but three times over the course of his career. Each time, fans were surprised. Jordan first retired in 1993, after the murder of his father, with whom he was close, earlier that year. He returned to the Chicago Bulls, leading them to three championships. But with teammates Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman preparing to depart, Jordan chose to retire again in 1999. He returned to the game in 2001 to play with the Wizards, with the intention of donating his salary as a player to victims of the September 11 attacks. He retired for a final time in 2003. At his final game on his old home court in Chicago, Jordan received a four-minute standing ovation.
  2. Rocky Marciano

    Legendary boxer Rocky Marciano is the only heavyweight champion to hold his title and remain untied and undefeated for his entire career. In fact, 43 of his 49 victories came from knocking out his opponent. Marciano retired at the age of 32 in 1955, and only briefly considered returning to the sport. He was able to avoid chronic and debilitating injuries as a result of bowing out of the sport when he did.
  3. Jim Brown

    Hall of Fame member Jim Brown played from 1957-1965 for the Cleveland Browns before retiring, and enjoying a second career as an actor. Brown helped pave the way for other African-American athletes who faced discrimination and rejection in the 1950s era of professional sports. He is considered the best running back ever to play football, and his retirement took fans by surprise. Brown went on to break new ground in the movies, filming the first interracial sex scene with Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles.
  4. Barry Sanders

    Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders retired, not without some controversy, in 1998, healthy and having come extremely close to Walter Payton's career rushing mark of 16,726 yards, second only to Emmit Smith's record. After news of his retirement reached his hometown newspaper, The Wichita Eagle, Sanders was later quoted as saying he left the Lions because he felt the front office wasn't committed to building a winning team. Sanders entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
  5. Pat Tillman

    Pat Tillman was a linebacker for Arizona State University before debuting with the Arizona Cardinals in 1998. He distinguished himself with the Cardinals, with a record totaling 238 tackles, 2.8 sacks, and three interceptions. In 2001, after the September 11 attacks, Tillman turned down a $3.6 million dollar contract to instead enlist in the U.S. army and fight the war in Afghanistan. He was killed by what the Pentagon ultimately ruled as "friendly fire" in 2004.
  6. Annika Sorenstam

    Annika Sorenstam is one of the most successful golfers in history, having won 72 official LPGA tournaments, including 10 majors and 18 other international tournaments. She retired in 2008, choosing to focus on her family and her own ANNIKA brand, which combines her passions for golf, fitness, and charitable work into ventures that include designing golf courses, and partnering with other businesses to produce a clothing line, wine label, and fragrance.
  7. Lorena Ochoa

    Mexico-born Lorena Ochoa took up golf as the age of five, and left college in her sophomore year to pursue a career as a professional golfer. Over the course of eight years, she finished in the top-10 in her 2003 rookie season, and eventually surpassed fellow golfer Annika Sorenstam as the No. 1 female golfer. By then, Ochoa had compiled 27 wins and two majors in seven seasons on tour, and was earning more than $4 million in a season. In 2010, she retired in her prime.
  8. Bjorn Borg

    Disregarding a brief and unsuccessful post-retirement comeback, tennis rock star and fashion label owner Bjorn Borg left the sport at the age of 26, mentally and physically exhausted from annexing 11 Grand Slam singles, six French and five Wimbledon, in the space of just eight years. After spinning out of control shortly after his retirement, Borg somehow got it together and debuted his own fashion label that has gone on to outsell Calvin Klein in Borg's home country of Sweden.
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