5 Best NFL Players Who Chose to Retire Early

Andrew Luck joins a small group of players who chose to leave the game while they were still young

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's decision to retire from the NFL at the age of 29 was shocking, but not unique. Players leave the game early for a variety of reasons. Sadly, most are forced to do so because of injuries.


However, few choose to walk away at what seems to be the height of their career the way Luck did. Those are shocking and leave you wondering what might have been. Here are the five best players that chose to retire early.


5. Robert Smith, RB, Minnesota Vikings

Smith also quit football when he was at Ohio State, sitting out the 1991 season to focus on track and field before rejoining the team in '92. After being selected by the Vikings in the first round of the 1993 draft, he struggled with injuries before hitting his stride. Smith record four straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons and led the NFC with 1,521 yards in 2000. Then at 28 and at the pinnacle of his career, Smith retired to avoid serious injury. He is currently an analyst for Fox Sports and the Big Ten Network.


4. Otto Graham, QB, Cleveland Browns

After winning the NFL championship in 1954, Graham retired, but Cleveland head coach Paul Brown convinced him to come back for one more season and made him the highest-paid player in the league. Graham led the Browns to one more title and then retired for good at the age of 35. Given that he had played in 10 straight championship games and won seven of them, one has to wonder if Graham left any more titles on the field.


3. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions

In his nine-season career, "Megatron" had established himself as the best receiver in the league. Not only did Johnson set the NFL record for receiving yards with 1,984 in 2012, but his 5,137 yards from 2011-13 are the most during any three-year stretch in league history. He recorded 1,214 yards in 2015 and then retired at the age of 30 saying, "I truly am at peace with it."


2. Jim Brown, RB, Cleveland Browns

Having led the league in rushing with 1,544 yards in 1965, Brown went to London to play one of 12 convicts/soldiers assigned to take out a German officer's meeting in the classic film, "The Dirty Dozen." When bad weather caused a delay in production and cut into Cleveland's training camp, owner Art Modell threatened to fine him $1,500 for every week he missed. Brown chose to retire and pursue acting full time. He left the league as its all-time leading rusher at the young age of 30.


1. Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions

In his 10 seasons with the Lions, Sanders was the most exciting running backs in the NFL... and one of the strangest. But he saved his most random act for the end. Shortly before training camp in 1999, Sanders announced his retirement at the age of 31 through a faxed letter to his hometown Wichita Eagle. Not only was it abrupt, but Sanders also only needed 1,457 more yards to catch Walter Payton for the career record. Sanders has since made it clear that stats weren't important to him — winning was — and success in Detroit had been fleeting. Nevertheless, his retirement remains the most shocking in NFL history.


— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.

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