The 17 Biggest Sports Retirements In History

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In sports, you never know how long your favorite athlete will stick around. Athletes walk away from their sport every year, whether it’s injuries, other interests, or some other reason. Sometimes, athletes retire far earlier than expected and some athletes retire only to return to their sport soon after. 

Regardless of why, retiring athletes can be a big downer for a sport, city, and fanbase. The good news is that there is always a new athlete waiting to take over. Even so, there are still some retirements like Michael Jordan that you wish never happened. With this in mind, let’s take a subjective look at some of the most important retirements in sports, in no particular order. 

1. Barry Sanders

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Barry Sanders would have set more rushing records had he not retired.

No matter if you were a Detroit Lions fan or not, if you follow the NFL, you know the name Barry Sanders. Upon announcing his retirement in 1999, Sanders shocked the NFL and sports world. He was at the top of his game and the highest-paid player in the league. Sanders was also just shy of the all-time rushing yards mark set by Walter Payton. However, Sanders indicated he had lost his love for the game and stepped away with 15,269 rushing yards to his name. 

2. John Elway

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John Elway will be best remembered for his last two seasons.

Playing his entire 16-year career for the Denver Broncos, John Elway will go down as one of the best quarterbacks in the game. When he finally retired in 1999, Elway had the most victories of any starting quarterback. However, it was the last years of Elway’s career that were the most memorable. After losing in the Super Bowl three previous times, Elway finally made it back in 1998. Over the next two seasons, Elway beat both the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons, the latter of which was his last game. 

3. Rob Gronkowski 

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Rob Gronkowski is arguably one of the best tight ends in NFL history.

Rob Gronkowski will be forever remembered as one of the greatest tight ends ever to play football. A dynamic duo with Tom Brady, Gronk as he’s affectionately known, won four Super Bowls over his career. All of them were won with Brady. As injuries plagued his career, Gronkowski would retire in 2019 only to return and win another Super Bowl in Tampa Bay. According to CBS Sports, Gronk is the second-best tight end to play the game. 

4. Andre Agassi

2017 French Open - Day One
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Andre Agassi was a tennis giant and continues to be involved with the sport.

Long considered the “bad boy” of tennis due to his explosive personality, Andre Agassi left a big gap when he retired. Winning over 60 titles including 8 grand slams, Agassi held the number one world ranking for 101 weeks over his career. Agassi would retire in 2006 after issues with his back finally became too much to overcome. Agassi’s rivalry with Pete Sampras will also go down in tennis history as one of the great battles. 

5. Roger Federer 

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Arguably one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Roger Federer is a tennis legend.

A tennis giant, Roger Federer became the first player in history to win 20 major singles titles. Federer also has the honor of being the oldest number 1 player in the world at 36. Of course, more memorable are the 310 total weeks Federer spent holding down the number one position. Well-known for being one of the most versatile tennis players ever, Federer’s popularity made him massively popular and his retirement in 2022 was a disappointment to many. 

6. Wilt Chamberlain

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Will Chamberlain will be forever remembered for scoring 100 points in one game.

The only man in NBA history to score 100 points in a game, Wilt Chamberlain’s retirement saddened the league and the country. “Wilt the Stilt” as he was known walked away from the game as the NBA’s all-time leader in both points and rebounds. In his last series, Chamberlain’s Los Angeles Lakers lost to the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals. After playing 1,045 games and averaging 30.1 points per game, Chamberlain walked away from the NBA in 1973. 

7. Mia Hamm

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Mia Hamm helped put U.S. Women’s soccer on the map.

When Mia Hamm finally retired from U.S. Soccer, she was the leading scorer in women’s soccer history. With a total of 158 career goals in international play, Mia Hamm will forever be remembered as one of the best soccer players of all time. Most importantly, Hamm won two FIFA World Cup titles with the U.S. women’s team. Hamm, at only 32 years, went out on top retiring after the U.S. won Gold in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

8. Sandy Koufax

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One of the best pitchers of all time, Sandy Koufax did it all.

There have been plenty of dominant pitchers in Major League Baseball, but none had a final season like Sandy Koufax. Going 27-9 would make any baseball pitcher happy, but to do it in their final season would be more than memorable. Of course, a 1.73 ERA is equally jaw-dropping as are the 300-plus strikeouts Koufax earned in his final season. These numbers were unsurprisingly good enough for him to win his third Cy Young award in 1966. 

9. Lou Gehrig 

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Lou Gehrig was a dynamic baseball player who still had more to give.

Known to the world as “The Iron Horse,” Lou Gehrig remains one of the biggest names in all of baseball. After 17 incredible seasons with the New York Yankees, Gehrig retired from baseball in 1939. Giving one of the most memorable speeches in sports history, Yankee legend Gehrig called himself the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Unfortunately, Gehrig suffered from a disease that would claim his life and be named for him a few years later. 

10. Jim Brown

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Jim Brown will be remembered as one of the best football players ever.

Unless you have seen Jim Brown play, it’s hard to understand just how dominant he was in the game. During his nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, Brown was nothing short of outstanding. He would lead the league in rushing every season but one. Better yet, Brown remains the only NFL player to average over 100 rushing yards per game. Brown was the most dominant player on the last Cleveland Browns team to win a league title, in 1964. 

11. Tom Brady

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There is little question that Tom Brady is the best quarterback of all time.

Arguably the greatest quarterback and NFL player of all time, Tom Brady is a legend. Leading the Patriots to 6 Super Bowls, Brady spent 20 years in New England. After deciding he needed another challenge, Brady took his talents to Tampa Bay where he won his seventh Super Bowl title. A five-time Super Bowl MVP and 15-time Pro Bowler, Brady has more accolades than you can hope to count. Selected 199th in the NFL draft, Brady would retire from football in 2022. 

12. Rocky Marciano 

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Ending his career with 49 wins and 0 losses, Rocky Marciano is boxing royalty.

Unless you follow boxing, you may not know the name Rocky Marciano, but you should. Rejected from the Chicago Cubs’ farm system, Rocky Marciano switched his interest to boxing. The rest, as they say, is history. As a heavyweight boxer, Marciano had a very short reach but that didn’t stop him from holding the heavyweight title belt from September 1952 to April 1956. Ending his career at 49-0, Marciano remains a boxing legend for all the right reasons. 

13. Bill Russell

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Winning 11 championships during his career, Bill Russell is a basketball legend.

One of the greatest NBA players ever, Bill Russell was a superstar in every sense of the word. This is a player who won the MVP award five times and was selected to be an All-Star 12 times. However, what Russell is best remembered for are his 11 NBA championships. In his last season, Russell’s Boston Celtics beat Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers to win his 11th championship. After this win, Russell was done and with his 11th title, retired as a champion. 

14. Wayne Gretzky

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Wayne Gretzky did everything in the NHL before retiring from the sport.

Considered by many to be the greatest hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky lives up to his nickname of “the Great One.” Playing 20 seasons in the NHL across four teams, he remains the leading goal scorer, assists producer, and point scorer in NHL history. His talents were well regarded and his ability to anticipate where a puck would be was legendary. With four Stanley Cup titles to his name and 61 different NHL records, Gretzkey’s retirement in 1999 was well-earned. 

15. Michael Phelps 

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It’s hard to imagine Michael Phelp’s Olympic medal record will ever be broken.

There are dominant athletes in a sport and then there is Michael Phelps. The record holder for Olympic medals, Phelps has an astounding 13 medals in individual events for 29 total medals. During the 2004 Olympics, Phelps tied the world record of 8 medals in a single Olympics only to win 8 gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. On top of his Olympic success, Phelps won 82 medals from international competitions. His retirement after the 2016 Olympics set the bar for athletes for years to come. 

16. Usain Bolt

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The fastest man of all time, Usain Bolt kept breaking his own world records.

An eight-time Olympic gold medalist, Usain Bolt made quite an impression during his Olympic career. With his big personality, Bolt quickly became a fan favorite, for all the right reasons. As of 2024, Bolt is the current record holder in both the 100 meter, 200 meter, and 4 x 100 meter relay. Bolt was also the first man to hold both the 100-meter and 200-meter records simultaneously. What’s even more inspiring is that Bolt has beat his world record twice before retiring in 2017. 

17. Michael Jordan

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Arguably the most popular athlete of all time, Michael Jordan needs no introduction. What is of note is that Jordan has retired not once or twice, but three times. Playing a total of 15 seasons in the NBA, Jordan won 6 NBA championships, both 3-peats. He’s a six-time NBA Finals MVP award holder and holds 10 different scoring titles. His moves on the court are legendary and his determination to win is second to none. Jordan finally retired from the league in 2003 to carry on other business ventures.

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