Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly's decision to retire from the NFL at the age of 28 was surprising, but it is something we are seeing more of these days. Players leave the game early for a variety of reasons. Sadly, most, like Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck prior to the start of the 2019 season, 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 and Kuechly did. Those are shocking and leave you wondering what might have been. Here are the five best players that chose to retire early.
5. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
The first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft made the Pro Bowl his first three years and led the Colts to playoff appearances in each of those three seasons. However, the next three seasons were plagued by injuries and Luck was forced to miss all of 2017 because of a torn posterior labrum in his shoulder. He returned in 2018 and completed a career-best 67.3 percent of his passes and led the Colts to the playoffs, prompting the Pro Football Writers Association to name him Comeback Player of the Year. Then Luck shocked the football world when he retired during the 2019 preseason, saying that the process of injuries and rehabilitation had "taken the joy out of this game."
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.