10 NFL Players Who Retired in Their Prime

The NFL is a brutal sport, one that forces some players into early retirement. Some retired NFL players hang on too long while others exit before they’ve peaked. Let’s take a look at 10 NFL players who retired in their prime. 

Barry Sanders

Barry Sanders was one of the most graceful running backs of all time. He had moves that could make the quickest defenders look foolish.

Unfortunately for him, he played for the Detroit Lions. In the midst of Detroit’s unending futility, Sanders called it quits in 1999 at age 30. 

Calvin Johnson

Another entry on the list, another great member of the Detroit Lions. Like Sanders before him, wide receiver Calvin Johnson knew a thing or two about being a great player on a team going nowhere.

That’s why, in 2016 and in the prime of his career, Johnson retired from the NFL. His reasoning? He said he was “fed up with football.” 

Bo Jackson

Playing both professional football and baseball, Bo Jackson remains one of the greatest athletes to ever live. Early in his career, he was a star running back for the Oakland Raiders while also being selected as an MLB All-Star with the Kansas City Royals.

A hip injury would derail both his professional pursuits, unfortunately, leading to early retirement from the NFL. Jackson would later express regret for ever playing football.

Carson Palmer

Carson Palmer retired in 2018 at the age of 38. That’s not why he’s on this list, though. Palmer is the only player here to retire twice. He also “retired” in 2010 to force the Bengals to trade him to Oakland. 

Rob Gronkowski

He may be looked at as something of a goofball by the sports media. But Rob Gronkowski may be the greatest tight end of all time. He would have put up even better numbers if not for a litany of injuries he suffered during his career.

After winning his third Super Bowl championship with the New England Patriots this year, he retired before his body gave up on him. 

Earl Campbell

Earl Campbell was one of the greatest running backs of all time, but not due to his longevity. After a successful career as a running back for the Houston Oilers, Campbell was traded to the New Orleans Saints in 1984. After a season and a half in New Orleans, Campbell retired at 31.

Terrell Davis

Along with John Elway, Terrell Davis led the Broncos to two Super Bowls in the late ’90s. In 1998 he rushed for 2,008 yards.

But that would be his last season producing at that level. Three injury-plagued seasons later, and Davis was out of the league at 29. 

Gale Sayers

Before Matt Forte and Walter Payton, the Chicago Bears had another great athlete in their backfield: Gale Sayers. Sayers was a five-time All-Pro.

A bad knee stayed with him for most of his career, and in 1972 he retired after only seven seasons in the league. 

Tiki Barber

At 30 years old and rushing for 1,662 yards, Tiki Barber was on top of the football world in 2006. That’s what made it so puzzling when he retired from the New York Giants.

Despite missing Barber’s athleticism, the Giants would go on to shock the football world by defeating the undefeated Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl. 

Jim Brown

Another one of the great running backs of all time, Jim Brown left in the middle of one of the great NFL careers.

While acting on the set of the film The Dirty Dozen, Brown made the decision to leave football at the age of 30. He then pursued a lucrative career appearing in movies.