Over the years, we’ve seen some popular NFL stars call it quits in a matter that felt abrupt and, for some, far too early. Watching women’s tennis superstar Serena Williams on her “farewell tour” reminded me of former football players who, had we known they were near the end, may have received some type of send-off into retirement.
For those of a certain age, Jim Brown is seen as the best running back to ever do it and the greatest football player of all time. Brown played nine seasons for Cleveland and was in the Pro Bowl each year. He was named All-Pro eight times, named MVP three times, won offensive rookie of the year in ‘57, and won an NFL championship.
Brown was an all-around athlete as he was also elite in the sport of track and field.
Following the ‘65 campaign, Brown retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 12,312 yards. Jim was heavily involved in the civil rights movement of the 60s and Hollywood as an actor. Brown was in search of more than what football had to offer him.
“I want more mental stimulation than I would have playing football,” Brown said after retiring.
Back in the 60s, they weren’t doing farewell tours, but had he come along a few decades later, Brown indeed would’ve received one.
Sanders called it a career after 10 seasons in Detroit, where he accumulated over 15,000 yards rushing and was the most electrifying running back in the NFL during the 1990s. The argument was always Barry or Emmitt Smith. Who’s better? As a kid during that era, I would never have admitted this since I grew up a Cowboys fan, but Sanders was the best running back in the league from the first snap of his rookie year in ‘89.
Barry started 13 games in his first season and rushed for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was named All-Pro, Rookie of the Year, and selected to the Pro Bowl. During his 10-year career, Sanders never rushed for less than 1,100 yards.
It sounds like he had a long-storied career which he did, but I was clear after another near 1,500-yard rushing season in ‘98 that Barry had a lot left in the tank. Instead of continuing to play for the woeful Lions, Barry opted for retirement. Sanders retired less than 1,500 yards shy of Walter Payton’s all-time mark at the time.
Had it leaked publicly even during his final season that retirement was looming, that would’ve been the biggest story of that NFL season. Today, Barry would surely receive a retirement tour or something honoring his contributions on the field. Although, that’s not something Barry would’ve endorsed.
There haven’t been too many franchises that go from one all-time great to another. Had Andrew Luck played another five to seven years, we would probably include him among the greatest NFL quarterbacks in league history.
Luck replaced Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and led the Colts to 11 wins in each of his first three NFL campaigns. He was a four-time pro bowler and even helped Indy reach an AFC championship game. Coming out of Stanford, many scouts and pundits compared Luck to John Elway. Early on, it looked like he might live up to that billing one day.
Multiple injuries began to catch up with Luck which seemed to overwhelm him, leading to his early retirement out of nowhere before the start of the ‘19 season. Luck may not have received a league-wide tour at the time, but I’m sure Colts fans would’ve loved a proper goodbye during his last game had they known that was it.
When your nickname is “Megatron,” you’ve got to be a bad mamajama. That’s exactly who Calvin Johnson was on the football field. We’re talking about a wide receiver who beat triple coverage on more than one occasion.
Johnson played nine years for the Lions, went to six Pro Bowls, and was All-Pro three times. He’s also a Hall of Famer. In 2012, Johnson set the single-season record for receiving yards with 1,964. That record had been held by Jerry Rice for 17 years before Johnson came along and crushed it.
Calvin was the evolution of the Randy Moss archetype introduced to the league in the late 90s. That tall 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-5 wideout who 10 years before Moss likely would’ve been pushed aggressively toward basketball. Megatron had a much bigger frame than Moss, playing at around 240 pounds during his career. Johnson’s quiet retirement following the ‘15 season fit his personality in the same fashion as Sanders years earlier.
Willis became a household name quickly upon entering the NFL with a vaunted 49ers defense. Patrick was selected to the Pro Bowl in seven of his eight years in the league. For five of those years, he was also All-Pro.
Willis was the unquestioned leader on defense for Jim Harbaugh’s Niners, who went to three consecutive NFC championships, which included a Super Bowl appearance. That’s why most of the NFL community outside of the Niners facility was shocked to see Willis hang up his cleats before age 30. Multiple feet and hand injuries played a big part in his retirement decision.
Even if it were only among the 49er faithful, surely fans would have loved one last chance to say goodbye to Willis on the field.
The playmaker was one of the vocal leaders on the field for the Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the 90s. His overall career numbers seem pedestrian by today’s inflated standards, but Michael Irvin was a substantial factor in Dallas winning three championships in four years.
One thing that gets overlooked about that era of the NFL is that it was still a run-heavy league. So, catching 80 balls as a receiver then, compared to now, is a world of difference. Any WR who reaches 75-80 receptions in 2022 is considered average. In the 90s, that could get you a big payday for the time.
If not for Irvin’s personal battle off the field with substance abuse, he probably could’ve done more. While Michael played for 12 years, it felt like his career was cut short by a neck injury he suffered in Philadelphia against the Eagles in 1999. Irvin probably could have stretched his career out a few more years were it not for such a severe injury.
Aikman is another part of that Cowboys dynasty that feels like he could’ve played a few more years, if not for injuries. For Troy, concussions played a significant role in his early retirement, and knowing what we do now was probably for the best.
Troy is probably better known as an NFL analyst by many fans at this point rather than captaining that Cowboys ship to three Super Bowl victories. Aikman was never considered the top QB in the league, but the Cowboys were so balanced he didn’t need to be. He stood behind what might have been the greatest offensive line in league history for about five years.
To this day, Aikman is still the standard in Dallas, along with Roger Staubach. It doesn’t matter how many TDs Dak Prescott throws until he brings home another Lombardi trophy like Aikman and Staubach. Nothing else matters.
Terrell Davis came into the league like a whirlwind, and before you knew anything, it was over. As a sixth-round pick out of Georgia (by way of Long Beach State), Davis immediately impacted the Broncos in ‘95, rushing for over 1,100 yards his rookie season.
In a span of seven years, Davis was a league MVP, Super Bowl MVP, Offensive Rookie of the Year, three-time Pro Bowl, and All-Pro selection. After climbing to the top of the mountain so quickly, the fall felt even faster as Terrell played in just 16 more games after the Broncos’ second of back-to-back Super Bowl wins. Davis barely touched the field from’ 99-01 due to injuries.
Terrell’s Hall of Fame candidacy was frequently debated due to the length of his career. Though he was finally inducted into the Hall as part of the class of 2017. So, fans in Denver got a bit of a goodbye but probably not in the way they would’ve preferred
Everyone knows about the greatness of Jerry Rice during the 80s and 90s as the best pass catcher in football. But many don’t know that there was at least one real challenger to the throne in the early part of the 90s, and his name was Sterling Sharpe. Shannon’s big brother was neck and neck with Rice for a while before his career was cut short by a neck injury.
Sharpe’s final year in ‘94 saw him produce 94 catches and over 1,100 receiving yards with 18 trips into the end zone. Seeing how Sharpe got up from the hit that caused his injury, it was hard to believe that he didn’t return for the ‘95 season.
Pat Tillman is undoubtedly an honorable mention for what he gave up by enlisting in the Army following the ‘01 season. Tillman was a late-round pick by Arizona in ‘98, playing safety for the Cardinals for four years.
In April 2004, Tillman was killed in the line of duty while serving in Afghanistan. Although Tillman hadn’t reached star level on the field, giving up a lucrative career to fight in the war is truly remarkable.
If anyone knows about having a short window of success, it’s Bo Jackson. He was a star on the football and baseball fields. Playing with the Raiders in the Tecmo Super Bowl video game was like using a cheat code. The man could not be stopped in that game.
But Bo is also a player whose overall statistics don’t precisely quantify what he was on the field. Bo was beast mode long before Marshawn Lynch made that term famous. Jackson played for the Raider for four years and never eclipsed 950 yards rushing. He also never played an entire 16-game season.
That’s not because he wasn’t any good. It’s because he split his time between two sports. Having made it to one professional sports league is challenging enough. But possessing the ability to play in two simultaneously is freaking insane. And that’s what Bo did. The man averaged 6.8 yards per carry in his rookie year. Had he been able to play more games, he would’ve been the consensus offensive rookie of the year.
Bo’s career was cut short in ‘91 against the Bengals when he suffered a hip injury limiting him to only playing baseball moving forward. Imagine if we’d been able to get 10-12 years a Jackson full-time in the NFL. We might be looking at the best running back of all time.