With Andrew Luck’s surprise announcement this weekend that he would retire as the Indianapolis Colts quarterback at age 29, seemingly in the prime of his career despite struggles with injuries, let’s look at other athletes who left in their prime.
Koufax, considered one of the greatest pitchers ever, shocked the sports world and Los Angeles Dodgers fans when he retired at age 30 after the 1966 season — right after winning his second straight Cy Young Award for the best pitcher in the league. Koufax blamed an ongoing injury to his pitching elbow. He finished with four no-hitters and 2,396 strikeouts, 50th most all-time despite playing only 12 years.
Koufax certainly left additional earnings on the table, quitting as the highest paid player in baseball in 1966 with a $125,000 salary. Koufax made more money in a short, six-year broadcast career after he left the game than he did as a player.
November 18, 1966 Sandy Koufax retires at the age of 30 after winning the Cy Young in 3 of the last 4 seasons pic.twitter.com/rBCrLgsyEt
— Dodgers History (@Dodgers_History) November 19, 2013
There was something about 1966. The same year Koufax retired, legendary NFL running back Jim Brown hung up the cleats at age 30 after just nine seasons, and left as football's all-time leading rusher at the time. Brown was the league's most valuable player in his last season and led the Cleveland Browns to the NFL title game that year.
Brown was late reporting to training camp that year because he was filming a movie, "The Dirty Dozen," and team officials threatened to suspend him. He quit instead, saying he was leaving to focus on his movie career.
Brown left $60,000 for on the table forgoing the final year of his contract, but would make far more in his movie acting career — earning double his final year football salary just in his first starring movie role, 1969's "The Split," one of dozens of movies he made in a post-playing career that also included TV sports commentary.
— Packers Dynasty (@packers656667) July 13, 2016
Hall of Famer Gale Sayers cut short his career because of injuries, after just 68 games in seven NFL seasons, all with the Chicago Bears. The 1965 Rookie of the Year, who once scored six touchdowns in an NFL game, led the league in rushing in two seasons, but was plagued by knee injuries and retired at 29.
Sayers signed a four-year, $150,000 contract with the Bears in 1965, but made more in a post-playing career that included a stint as a collegiate athletic director as well as his own sports marketing firm, and a computer business he started.
Hockey fans almost universally consider Orr one of the greatest ever to play the game, and he remains fourth in NHL history in points-per-game average even though he was a defenseman. Orr is also the only defenseman to ever lead the league in scoring, which he did twice.
Orr played most of his career with the Boston Bruins, but near the end, plagued by injuries that made the Bruins skittish about his future, Orr went to the Blackhawks. He played few games though the last few years of his career and hung up his skates in the 1978-79 season at age 30, and remains the leading defenseman in league history in goals, assists and points.
Orr was among the highest paid NHL players, but was essentially bankrupt when he retired, and his personal accountant was accused of mismanaging Orr's money. Orr eventually restored his financial stability through endorsements and public appearances and later became an agent.
Jones was the most successful amateur golfer ever, and routinely beat professionals in 13 of golf's majors that he won in the 1920s, including four U.S. Opens. He won the sport's Grand Slam of four major tourneys in 1930, but at the end of that year stopped playing tournaments to focus on his law career, after having been working as a lawyer on the side during his playing career.
Jones was just 28 when he stopped competing, but playing as an amateur he'd always made more money as a lawyer. After his "retirement," he continued to make more money from golf as a non-player, as a founder and designer of the Augusta National Golf Club and co-founder of The Masters.
Borg's rivalry with Jimmy Connors dominated men's tennis in the 1970s, and the Swede with he headband and the flowing blond locks was one of the early icons of the sport in the TV era. He was five times ATP player of the year and played in 16 Grand Slam finals, winning 11, including five straight at Wimbledon. But Borg burned out after having been in the spotlight from an early age and quit the professional game at age 26 in 1983.
In 1979, Borg had become the first player to earn more than $1 million in prize money in tennis in a year. Borg earned $3.6 million in prize money in his short career, but earned much more in endorsements. He later had a fashion label that was successful in his native Sweden. His companies collapsed and went bankrupt in the late 1980s, but his fashion line later rebounded. Borg also has coached some tennis.
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Johnson was the second overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft and broke several receiving records in a 12-year career with the Detroit Lions after, which he was considered by many to be among the game's top receivers ever. He's the Lions' career receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns leader.
Johnson also cited injuries. "I got chronic stuff that everybody has when they're done playing football for any length of time. So the good thing is I'm able to walk," he said at the time.
Johnson is now in the cannabis industry, and recently announced an effort to work with Harvard University to research the role of cannabis in treating pain.
Smith retired from the NFL in 2001 at age 28, citing concerns that his injuries would permanently disable him. Smith, who played his entire career with the Minnesota Vikings and is their second-leading all-time rusher, was a free agent when he retired, and likely could have made as much as $25 million more had he continued to play.
Since retiring, he has worked as a football analyst on TV.
Life is so short. Just us about all of us would pay anything to get our health back if we lost it. What amount of money is worth the very real chance that continuing to play will damage your health and reduce your quality of life? Luck made the right choice.
— robert smith (@Robert26Smith) August 25, 2019
Photo credit: KA Sports Photos, Flickr
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