25 Athletes Who Retired at a Young Age

25 Athletes Who Retired at a Young Age

All retired athletes have a unique story and distinct legacy to tell. Some of them spent several decades in their respective sport, while others had short-lived careers. Some athletes wrote their name among some of the greatest of all-time, while others struggled to find their way. 

Either way, there comes a time when every athlete’s career must come to an end – whether they’re ready for it or not. It’s never easy to walk away from something you love, especially something you’ve spent your entire life perfecting, but it’s a reality all athletes face eventually.

When that day comes, it’s our job – as fans – to respect and support their decision. There are usually a lot of details that the public isn’t exposed to, many of which play a role in that decision, so even if that retirement day comes earlier than expected, it’s likely what’s best for the athlete.

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Athletes Who Retired Way Too Early

25 Athletes Who Retired at a Young Age
Debby Wong / Shutterstock

Most athletes turn professional before they turn 20 and while many will try to spend 15+ years as a pro, only a select few will achieve it. It takes a lot of time, energy, skill, talent, and effort to continue playing at a high level for more than a few years – let alone more than a decade. 

There are a lot of reasons why an athlete might retire early, but some of the most common are injuries, mental exhaustion, pursuing other business ventures, wanting more time with family, loss or lack of passion for the game, death, poor performance, or simply just a change in heart. 

Throughout the history of sports, we’ve witnessed a number of all-time greats retire at an early age. It always came as a surprise and it’s something we still talk about to this day, but sometimes an athlete’s career comes to an end far too soon – let’s take a look at some of them.

25. Justine Henin

Justine Henin is a former Belgian tennis player who turned professional in 1999 and retired for the first time on May 14, 2008 after just nine years. It came at a surprise, considering she was ranked No. 1 in the world at the time of her retirement. She made a comeback 16 months later, but officially retired on January 26, 2011. She had a 525-115 record and won 43 singles titles. 

24. Ian Thorpe

Ian Thorpe is a former Australian swimmer who started competing nationally in 1996 and internationally in 1997. Between 1998 and 2004, he won five Olympic gold medals, 13 gold medals at the World Championships, and 10 gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. On November 21, 2006, Thorpe announced his retirement – despite being just 24 years old. 

23. Casey Stoner

Casey Stoner is an Australian motorcycle racer who joined the MotoGP World Championship in 2006. He found immediate success, winning championships in 2007 and 2011. On May 17, 2012, Stoner announced he would retire at the end of the season – citing a loss of motivation to compete. He finished his shortened career with 38 wins and 69 podium finishes in 115 starts.

22. Lorena Ochoa

Lorena Ochoa is a former Mexican golfer who turned professional in 2002 after two years at the University of Arizona. She joined the LPGA Tour in 2003 and had 27 wins – including two majors – before retiring on May 2, 2010. She was the No. 1 ranked player in the world for 158 straight weeks, a streak that came to an end when she retired. She spent just eight years on the tour. 

21. Chris Borland

Chris Borland is a former American linebacker who was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He had a great rookie season, finishing with 108 tackles, 1.0 sack, 12 tackles for loss, 1 fumble recovery, 2 interceptions, and 4 passes defensed. On March 16, 2015, Borland announced his retirement after just one season due to head trauma. 

20. Annika Sörenstam

Annika Sörenstam is a former Swedish golfer who turned professional in 1992 and joined the LPGA Tour in 1994. Over the next 14 years, she had 94 wins (72 on the LPGA Tour) and 10 major championships – including the ANA Inspiration, Women’s PGA Championship, and U.S. Women’s Championship three times each. She was in her prime at the time of her retirement.

19. Eric Cantona

Eric Cantona is a former French football player who started his senior career in 1983 and bounced around before signing with Manchester United in 1992. Over the next five seasons, he scored 82 goals in 182 appearances – leading them to four Premier League Championships. After the 1996 season, he abruptly retired from football at the age of 30 to pursue other interests. 

18. Gabriela Sabatini

Gabriela Sabatini is a former Argentine tennis player who turned professional in January 1985. Over the next 11 years, she had a 632-189 record to go with 27 singles titles (including the 1990 US Open). She also won the 1988 Wimbledon doubles with tennis legend Steffi Graf and an Olympic silver medal that same year. She abruptly retired in October 1996 due to an injury. 

17. Earl Campbell

Earl Campbell is a former American football player who was drafted first overall by the Houston Oilers in 1978. He spent eight seasons in the NFL, recording 10,213 total yards, 74 touchdowns, five seasons of at least 1,300 rushing yards, and five seasons of at least 10 touchdowns. He was a three-time Offensive Player of the Year and MVP, but retired ahead of the 1986 season. 

16. Ken Dryden

Ken Dryden is a former Canadian goaltender who was a third round draft pick by the Boston Bruins in 1964. Over the next eight years, he led the Bruins six Stanley Cups and won five Vezina Trophies of his own. He had a 258-57 win-loss record, allowing 2.24 goals per game with a .922 save percentage. The Hall of Famer was 31 years old when he retired on July 9, 1979. 

15. Yao Ming

Yao Ming is a former Chinese basketball player who was drafted first overall by the Houston Rockets in 2002. Over the next eight years, he averaged 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.9 blocks per game. He was an eight-time All-Star and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016. He retired in July of 2011 at the age of 29 due to nagging foot and ankle injuries. 

14. Björn Borg

Björn Borg is a former Swedish tennis player who turned professional in 1973. Over the next 11 years, he had a 654-140 singles record with 66 career titles. He was a six-time French Open winner and five-time Wimbledon winner before retiring in 1984 – he hadn’t won a major in three years at this point. He attempted a comeback in 1991, but it didn’t go well or last very long. 

13. Doug Baldwin

Doug Baldwin is a former American wide receiver who signed with the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent. Over the next eight seasons, Baldwin recorded 493 receptions, 6,563 yards, and 49 touchdowns. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and 2014 Super Bowl champion, but decided to abruptly retire on May 12, 2019. He was just 30 years old, but retired due to injuries.

12. Bobby Orr

Bobby Orr is a former Canadian defenseman who signed with the Boston Bruins in 1962 as a prospect. He made his debut during the 1966-67 season, recording 264 goals and 624 assists over the next 12 seasons (631 games). He won two Stanley Cups, was a nine-time All-Star, and eight-time Norris Trophy winner. He retired in 1978 at the age of 30 due to a multitude of injuries.

11. Luke Kuechly

Luke Kuechly is a former American linebacker who was drafted ninth overall by the Carolina Panthers in 2012. Over the next eight seasons, Kuechly recorded 1,092 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 75 tackles for loss, 7 forced fumbles, 9 fumble recoveries, 18 interceptions, and 2 touchdowns. The former DROY and DPOY retired after the 2019 season at 28 years old to avoid head injuries. 

10. Sandy Koufax

Sandy Koufax is a former American starting pitcher who made his major league debut on June 24, 1955 and played his final game on October 2, 1966 after just 12 seasons. He finished his career with a 165-87 record, 2.76 ERA, 137 complete games, and 40 shutouts in 2,324.1 innings pitched. He suffered severe arthritis in his throwing arm, which is what led to early retirement.

9. Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan is a former American basketball player who was drafted third overall by the Chicago Bulls in 1984. He abruptly retired in 1993 to pursue a career in baseball, despite being a three-time defending champion. Jordan returned in 1995 and led the Bulls to another three-peat before retiring in 1999. He made one more return in 2001 before officially retiring in 2003. 

8. Patrick Willis

Patrick Willis is a former American linebacker who was drafted 11th overall by the San Francisco 49ers. Over the next eight seasons, he recorded 950 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 60 tackles for loss, 16 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, 8 interceptions, and two touchdowns. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler and Defensive Rookie of the Year before retiring at the age of 29. 

7. Bo Jackson

Bo Jackson is a former American running back who spent four years at the University of Auburn. Between 1986 and 1994, Jackson played four seasons in the NFL and eight seasons in the MLB. Unfortunately, he was forced to retire from the NFL in 1991 due to a hip injury and he retired from baseball three years later. Still, he’s regarded as one of the greatest athletes ever.

6. Calvin Johnson

Calvin Johnson is a former American wide receiver who was drafted second overall by the Detroit Lions in 2007. Over the next nine seasons, he recorded 731 receptions, 11,619 yards, and 83 touchdowns. He was a six-time Pro Bowler and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2021. After losing motivation and passion due to lingering injuries, he retired while in his prime.

5. Brandon Roy

Brandon Roy is a former American basketball player who was drafted sixth overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2006. He was the 2007 Rookie of the Year and three-time All-Star, averaging 18.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.0 steals per game. Unfortunately, a degenerative knee condition led to his early retirement in 2011 at the young age of 27. 

4. Jim Brown

Jim Brown is a former American running back who was drafted sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns in 1957. Over the next nine seasons, he recorded 14,811 yards and 126 touchdowns. He was a three-time MVP and one-time champion that was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971. He retired in 1966 to pursue an acting career, which he found a lot of success with. 

3. Ashleigh Barty

Ashleigh Barty is a former Australian tennis player who turned professional in April 2010. Over the next 12 years, she had a 305-102 singles record and won 15 career titles – including three major championships. She took a brief hiatus from tennis to play cricket in 2014. She returned to tennis shortly after, but retired from the game in March 2022. She was only 26 years old. 

2. Andrew Luck

Andrew Luck is a former American quarterback who was drafted first overall in 2012 by the Indianapolis Colts. Over the next six seasons, Luck had a 53-33 record, 23,671 yards, 171 touchdowns, and 83 interceptions. He was a four-time Pro Bowler and 2018 Comeback Player of the Year. Due to a variety of injuries that plagued him throughout his career, he retired in 2019.

1. Barry Sanders

Barry Sanders is a former American running back who was drafted third overall by the Detroit Lions in 1989. Over the next 10 years, he recorded 18,190 total yards and 109 touchdowns. He was a two-time Offensive Player of the Year and one-time MVP, but retired on July 27, 1999. Sanders was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, cementing his legacy. 

What’s Next for Retired Athletes? 

Most people think retired athletes have nothing to live for, but their lives are often just beginning. In fact, many retired athletes will sustain their success beyond retirement – whether it be as an entrepreneur, actor, personal trainer, public speaking, or any other career opportunity they get. 

What we’re starting to see with athletes today is an eagerness to begin planning for retirement early – that way, they can retire as an athlete whenever they want. We see it with some of the richest athletes on the planet – such as LeBron James, Naomi Osaka, and Serena Williams

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So, what’s next for retired athletes? To be honest, the sky’s the limit for them – especially if they’ve earned a pretty penny from their time in sport. No matter how successful or unsuccessful they were in sport, they can always turn over a new leaf in life post-retirement.

Tom Brady Un-Retires: Here are 15 Athletes Who Did the Same Thing

When Tom Brady retired from the NFL on February 1st, 2022, the football community knew it was only a matter of time before Tom Brady un-retires and returns to Tampa Bay. On Sunday, nearly six weeks after announcing his retirement, Brady shook the community yet again. 

In a social media post shared to his Twitter account, Brady announced he would be returning to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for his 23rd season in the NFL. The greatest quarterback of all-time will once again defy father time as he looks to compete with the best in the world at 45 years old.

“These past two months I’ve realized my place is still on the field and not in the stands,” Brady wrote on Twitter. “That time will come. But it’s not now. I love my teammates, and I love my supportive family. They make it all possible. I’m coming back for my 23rd season in Tampa.”

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Tom Brady Un-Retires, But He’s Not the First

With Tom Brady coming out of retirement for yet another shot at a Super Bowl, the Buccaneers have quickly re-emerged as a title favorite. And while the news of Tom Brady retiring has completely shook the football community, it’s not the first time something like this has happened. 

In fact, players coming out of retirement is more common than you’d think. You have to keep in mind that athletes dedicate their entire life to perfecting their craft. Walking away from that isn’t always easy, even for players like Brady that have endless opportunities outside of football. 

And for many athletes, they don’t truly understand how much they’ll miss their sport until they actually leave. When they finally get a sense of what retirement is like, only then will they know for good if retirement is the right path. Let’s take a look at some other examples similar to Brady.

15. Björn Borg

Björn Borg is one of the greatest Swedish tennis players of all-time. He made his professional debut in 1973 and won his first Grand Slam in 1974 when he won the French Open. Over the next seven years, he won five more French Open titles and five consecutive Wimbledon titles. 

Between 1973 and 1981, Borg had a 654-140 singles record. He won 66 career singles titles, which ranks eighth in the Open era, and was the year-end ATP No. 1 player in the world in 1979 and 1980. He made it to the US Open finals four times, but never did so at the Australian Open.

Despite his dominance, Borg shocked the tennis world with an early retirement in 1982. It lasted nearly 10 years before attempting a comeback in 1991. He lost his next nine matches between 1991 and 1992, failing to win a single set. He didn’t win in 1993 either before retiring for good.

14. Deion Sanders

Deion Sanders, also known as ‘Prime Time,’ is a Hall of Fame defensive back that was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons with the fifth overall draft pick in 1989. Over the next 12 seasons, he scorched the NFL with his amazing ball hawk abilities, trash talk, personality, and return skills.

After a 2000 season that saw Sanders record four interceptions, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and 41 tackles for the Washington Guardians, he announced his retirement from the NFL. He remained retired for the next three seasons before making a comeback in 2004. 

Over the next two seasons, Sanders played 25 games for the Baltimore Ravens. During that time, he recorded 38 tackles, 5 interceptions, and 10 passes defensed. After the 2005 season, he retired for good. He has been a high school and college football coach since 2012. 

13. Brandon Roy

Brandon Roy is a former three-time NBA All-Star and 2006 Rookie of the Year. He was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the sixth overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, but was quickly dealt to the Portland Trail Blazers where he played a bulk of his shortened career. 

The first four years of Roy’s career were phenomenal. He improved every year and while he had minor injuries here and there, he was still playing a majority of the season and producing well. In the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, he averaged more than 20 points per game. 

During the 2010-11 season, Roy’s ailing knees were really starting to bother him and he eventually announced his retirement after the 2011 NBA Lockout due to a lack of cartilage in his knees. He made a five-game comeback in late 2012, but suffered a season-ending injury. 

12. Mario Lemieux

Mario Lemieux is a Hall of Fame hockey player that was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins with the first overall pick in 1984. He was a nine-time All-Star and won the Stanley Cup twice in his career, which spanned 17 years. He finished with 690 goals and 1,033 assists in 915 games. 

Between the 1984 and 1996 seasons, Lemieux won the Calder Memorial Trophy, the Ted Lindsay Pearson Award four times, the Art Ross Trophy six times, the Conn Smythe Trophy twice, the Hart Memorial Trophy three times, and the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy once. 

He did, however, miss most of the 1993 season and all of the 1994 season due to being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. He eventually retired in 1997, but returned in 2000 and played for the next five seasons, but struggled to stay on the ice due to several injuries. 

11. Kevin Johnson

Kevin Johnson is a former three-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA player that won the Most Improved Player award during the 1988-89 season. He was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the seventh overall pick in 1987, but was traded to the Phoenix Suns his rookie year. 

Over the next nine seasons, Kevin Johnson was one of the Suns’ best players on the court. He averaged north of 20 points per game in five of those nine seasons, but saw some decline in a limited role during the 1997 season where he played just 50 games and started just 12 games. 

Johnson retired after that season, but eventually made a comeback ahead of the 1999-00 season. He played in six games that season and averaged 6.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. He then helped the Suns win a playoff series, but retired for good. 

10. Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones

Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones, as you might imagine, was a tall human being. He stood 6-foot-9 and played defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, who drafted him first overall in 1974. He had 31 sacks over the next five years, including three Super Bowl appearances and one championship. 

After the 1978 season, which ended in a Super Bowl loss, ‘Too Tall’ Jones retired from the NFL to pursue a boxing career. He enjoyed a brief 6-0 boxing career over the next year before returning to the Cowboys ahead of the 1980 season. He didn’t skip a beat in his return. 

Over the next 10 seasons, ‘Too Tall’ Jones had 75.0 sacks – including a career-high 13.0 sacks in 1985 and 10.0 sacks in 1987. He was selected to three consecutive Pro Bowls during that time, as well as earning his first and only First-Team All-Pro selection during the 1982 season. 

9. Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. is one of the best boxers of all-time. He made his professional debut in 1996 with a TKO victory over Roberto Apodaca and fought in 50 bouts over the next 21 years. He was 50-0-0 in those bouts, including 27 knockouts. He was definitely difficult to knock down. 

With a 39-0 record after defeating Ricky Hatton in 2007, Mayweather Jr. announced his retirement from boxing. He wanted to focus more time on his promotional company, but eventually returned to the ring after 21 months against Juan Manuel Marquez in 2009. 

Mayweather won his next 10 fights to bring his record to 49-0 before retiring in 2015. Of course, he would once again come out of retirement in 2017 for his famous TKO victory over Conor McGregor. With a 50-0 record, Mayweather retired for good – though he does exhibition fights. 

8. Marshawn Lynch

Marshawn Lynch is a former NFL player that was drafted by the Buffalo Bills with the 12th overall pick in 2007. Over the next three and a half seasons, he ran for 2,765 yards and 17 touchdowns for the Bills before being traded to the Seattle Seahawks during the 2010 season.

Lynch exploded onto the scene in 2011, when he returned to his 1,000+ yard form. He hit that mark in each of the next four seasons, including a career-high 1,590 yards in 2012. He also hit 10+ touchdowns in each of those four seasons, including a career-high 13 touchdowns in 2014.

After a down year in 2015, Lynch retired from the NFL and sat out the entire 2016 season before returning with the Oakland Raiders in 2017. He played two seasons with the team before retiring again. He returned again during the 2019 season as part of a late-season push for Seattle. 

7. Rob Gronkowski

Rob Gronkowski is a current NFL player that was drafted by the New England Patriots in the second round of the 2010 draft. He spent the next nine seasons with Tom Brady and the Patriots, winning three Super Bowls and recording 7,861 receiving yards and 79 touchdowns. 

During his time in New England, Gronkowski amassed 1,000 receiving yards in four different seasons and amassed 10 touchdowns in five different seasons, including a career-high 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011. He also won Comeback Player of the Year in 2014. 

After the 2018 season, Gronkowski abruptly retired from the game of football and sat out the entire 2019 season before returning to the NFL in 2020. He played the last two seasons with Tom Brady in Tampa Bay and there are rumors he might play again with Brady returning. 

6. George Foreman

George Foreman is a former boxer and world heavyweight champion who is also known for being the face of the George Foreman Grill. He made his professional boxing debut in 1969 with a TKO victory over Don Waldhelm. He wouldn’t lose a single match until October 30, 1974. 

With a 40-0-0 record, Foreman was matched up with the great Muhammad Ali. In what was the 1974 Ring Magazine Fight of the Year, Ali defeated Foreman via knockout in the eighth round. It was a tough loss that resulted in Foreman taking a year off of boxing throughout 1975. 

Foreman returned in 1976 and won his next five fights before suffering a loss to Jimmy Young in 1977. He then took a 10-year hiatus from the sport before making another comeback in 1987, despite being 38 years old. He won 35 of his next 38 fights before officially retiring in 1998. 

5. Randy Moss

Randy Moss is a Hall of Fame wide receiver that spent 14 seasons in the NFL. He was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings with the 21st overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft and went on to win SN, PFWA, and AP Rookie of the Year that season. He had 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Over the next 12 seasons, Moss amassed the 1,000-yard mark 10 times and the 1,300-yard mark six times – including a career-high 1,632 yards in 2003. He also recorded 10+ touchdowns in nine different seasons, including an NFL record 23 touchdowns in 2007 with Tom Brady.

Moss had a down year in 2010 that included being featured on three different rosters – he played four games with the Vikings, three games with the Patriots, and eight games with the Titans. He retired for the entire 2011 season before making a comeback in 2012, which was short-lived. 

4. Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson is a Hall of Fame basketball player and is widely regarded as the greatest point guard of all-time. He revolutionized the game with his size and ability at the position, proving that big guys can do it all. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers first overall in the 1979 draft.

Over the next 12 seasons, Johnson made 12 All-Star appearances, won three MVP awards, five NBA championships, three Finals MVP awards, 10 All-NBA selections, and led the league in steals twice and assists four times. He also averaged 7.2 rebounds per game in his career. 

Ahead of the 1991-92 season, Johnson was diagnosed with HIV and immediately retired. He tried to make a comeback the following year, but he retired before the season began. He eventually made a comeback in 1995, but only played 32 games before officially retiring. 

3. Jason Witten

Jason Witten is a former NFL tight end and likely future Hall of Famer. He was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the third round of the 2003 NFL Draft and spent the next 16 seasons with the team. During that time, he only missed one game – a Week 6 matchup his rookie season. 

Witten was named to 11 Pro Bowls during his time with the Cowboys, including two All-Pro selections and winning 2012 Walter Payton Man of the Year. He had 1,152 receptions, 12,448 receiving yards, and 68 receiving touchdowns in 239 games played between 2003 and 2017. 

After the 2017 season, Witten announced his retirement from the NFL. He sat out the entire 2018 season before making a comeback in 2019 with the Cowboys. He had 63 catches for 529 yards and four touchdowns. Witten played for the Raiders in 2020 before retiring for good. 

2. Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan is a Hall of Fame basketball player and is widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all-time. He was drafted by the Chicago Bulls with the third overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. Over the next nine seasons, he led the league in scoring seven times. 

During that time, Jordan won three consecutive titles in 1991, 1992, and 1993. He averaged more than 30 points per game in seven straight seasons before sitting out the entire 1993-94 season to play minor league baseball. This would become his first of three retirements. 

Jordan returned for the 1994-95 season and completed yet another three-peat between 1996 and 1998. He retired again after the 1997-98 season and didn’t play for three years. He returned again in 2001 with the Wizards for two years and consistently scored 20+ points per game.

1. Brett Favre

Brett Favre is a Hall of Fame football player that’s widely regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time. He was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft. He was traded to the Green Bay Packers and spent the next 16 seasons with them.

During that time, Favre dominated the league. Though his interception rate was high, he made up for it with a flurry of touchdowns. With the Packers, Favre had a 160-93 record with 61,655 yards, 442 touchdowns, and 286 interceptions. He won three consecutive MVP awards. 

During the 2008 offseason, Favre announced his retirement. Several months later, Favre unretired and eventually signed with the New York Jets. He went 9-7 before having a dream season with the Vikings in 2009 where he went 12-4. After a down year in 2010, he retired. 

More Examples of Athletes Coming Out of Retirement

The 15 athletes highlighted above – as well as Tom Brady – are some of the most prolific names to unretire, but they’re far from the only ones to say goodbye too soon. In fact, it’s something that has happened hundreds of times in major professional sports in the United States. 

Some other notable athletes to unretire include LaMarcus Aldridge, Randall Cunningham, Steve DeBerg, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, Donny Lalonde, Claude Lemieux, Dara Torres, Ricky Williams, Michael Phelps, Shannon Briggs, and Martina Hingis.

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Not only that, but there are a number of athletes that retired far too soon and never came back. Some of those athletes include Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis, Andrew Luck, Annika Sörenstam, Pat McAfee, Tiki Barber, and Khabib Nurmagomedov.

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