By Ashley Scoby
News broke Wednesday that Lions star receiver (and 30-year-old) Calvin Johnson was considering retirement. Lions fans' minds immediately flashed to another time, in 1999, when their star player hung up the cleats and broke the city's heart.
But Detroit isn't the only city that has dealt with "sudden" retirements.
Dozens of athletes have called it quits at a young age – some because of perpetual injury, some doing so in their prime. Could Johnson join the list?
Here are a few that stand out:
Jackson was one of the best pure athletes of all time. But a devastating hip injury during the 1991 playoffs ended his career early. His hip was replaced, but Jackson's career was essentially done at the age of 28. However, the official retirement announcement from professional sports (he attempted a baseball comeback) didn't come until before the 1995 season. At the time of his hip injury, Jackson had played only four NFL seasons and was averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
Just after he had won his third Cy Young award and led the Dodgers to an NL pennant, Koufax stepped away from baseball. He was 30 years old at the time and was largely considered to be in his prime. In 1966, Tommy John surgery didn't exist, and Koufax was dealing with chronic arthritis in his arm. The early retirement didn't hurt Koufax's Hall of Fame chances though: He was inducted just five years later.
This one, of course, is a bit of a roller coaster. Jordan first announced his retirement in 1993 at the age of 30, after he had won seven straight scoring titles. In 1995, Jordan returned to basketball and won three more NBA titles before calling it quits again after the 1997-98 season. He's a prime example of an athlete who wrestled with a divorce from the game, and has struggled with saying goodbye. After his second retirement, Jordan returned for a stint with the Washington Wizards, finally hanging it up for good afterwards.
Before Floyd Mayweather came along, Marciano was the only boxer with a zero attached to the end of his record. At 49-0 (and only 31 years old), Marciano retired from boxing and never attempted a comeback.
A year after he was named the league's most valuable player, and after leading the NFL in rushing eight times, Brown was done with football at age 29. He finished with 12, 312 rushing yards in his career, as well as 126 touchdowns. The news came as a surprise to the Cleveland Browns, who were enjoying the running back at his prime. Brown is still considered one of the best running backs in NFL history.
Borland will probably never go down as an all-time great, and won't make it to the Hall of Fame. But he made waves in March 2015 for walking away from football at age 24. Fear of concussions inspired the choice, and he decided that safety outweighed the money he would make in the league. In his prime, Borland had started in eight games for San Francisco during his last NFL season, accumulating 107 tackles and a sack.
Borland was the second 49ers player to retire fairly young last year, after Patrick Willis (30) surprisingly announced he was done.
Retiring younger than 35 in most sports can come as a surprise, but it's not completely rare. Retiring at 28, though, from golf? Jones shocked the world when he did so in 1930 – the same year that he completed golf's "Grand Slam" and was unanimously considered the best golfer in the world. He remained involved in the game (instructional films, writing books, helping to design the Augusta National Golf Club) but never played professionally again. He was at his prime when he walked away.
If Johnson does retire this year, he will, as a wide receiver, join a list of several great running backs to retire from the game early. Sayers, who is considered one of the better running backs in NFL history, retired before his 30th birthday, in 1972. He had dealt with several knee injuries during his career and decided his body couldn't handle the NFL rigors anymore, after only seven seasons. Not long after, however, Sayers became the youngest person to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
Borg had won 11 Grand Slam titles by 1982, but had started to slip the following year, and declared the sport wasn't fun anymore. At the age of 26, he was done. Burnout was a factor for the former No. 1 tennis player in the world, even if his body was still good to go.
And of course… Barry Sanders
This week isn't the first time Calvin Johnson has been compared to Sanders. Both are once-in-a-generation talents with tons of records to their names. Both were drafted by the Lions and, at least so far, spent their entire careers in Detroit. Both saw limited team success with the Lions. And now, Johnson could go down the same route as Sanders and say goodbye to football at what many would consider their prime.
Sanders was only a season or two (less than 1,500 yards) away from Walter Payton's record for career rushing yards. But he said he had lost the drive and love for the game necessary to play in the NFL, and it was time. Fans were unhappy with how Sanders made his choice, too. Right before training camp was set to begin, Sanders sent a fax announcing his retirement to the Wichita Eagle.
Whether Johnson follows suit in the coming weeks remains to be seen. In his statement, he said his decision would come in the "not-so-distant future," which would leave the Lions time to plan how they would move on.
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