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Andrew Luck’s decision leads the most surprising retirements in NFL history

Touchdown Wire logo Touchdown Wire 8/25/2019 Doug Farrar

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When an athlete retires in his or her prime, it's always a surprise, and the news is always met with sadness-and a sense of what might have been. When Andrew Luck announced his retirement on Saturday, the 29-year-old former Comeback Player of the Year was walking away from a rolling snowball of injuries and a future that was harder and harder to face.

It's more common among great players than people may think, and it's the primary reason for such surprise announcements. Here are the most shocking retirement announcements in NFL history.

9. Gale Sayers, Chicago Bears, 1972

Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers are posing for a picture: Getty © Getty Getty

Perhaps the most electric player in pro football history, Sayers scored 22 touchdowns in his rookie season alone, including six against the 49ers-a performance that Bears owner George Halas called the greatest he'd ever seen. Three years later, against against the 49ers, Sayers suffered a knee injury on a swing pass in a season where he was leading the league with a 6.2 yards per carry average. He came back to lead the league in rushing with 1,032 yards in 1969, but the physical decline was on the way-he played in just four games in his last two seasons.

Sayers retired in the 1972 preseason after an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals in which he fumbled twice.

"The leg felt fine, but just hitting the Astroturf and getting on the leg made it very sore, and I felt I'd better give it up," Sayers concluded. "I hate to leave football, but I know I'm finished, and I know I cannot go on this year."

8. Chris Borland, San Francisco 49ers, 2015

a close up of a baseball player holding a bat: File photo © Getty File photo

The 49ers' third-round pick in 2014, Borland performed at a near-Defensive Rookie of the Year pace for one season, amassing 84 solo tackles, 12 tackles for loss and two interceptions. But he retired after one season following his own extensive research on the effects of head trauma. Around that same time, the 49ers had three other key players-linebacker Patrick Willis, defensive lineman Justin Smith, and offensive lineman Anthony Davis-leave the game due to injury concerns.

"At times, I would oscillate between feeling trapped and feeling aimless," Borland told USA Today's Mike Jones in April 2018. "I really, at times, wanted to avoid this issue. There's a degree of irony. I quit not to deal with CTE and at least intellectually deal with it as much as anyone, and I laugh at that irony sometimes, and that stress. But on the other hand, I had opportunities walking away, but didn't know what I wanted to do. … Ultimately, I'm very fortunate to have my health and different opportunities and I've settled into a place and I've embraced the role."

The irony is that Borland now works with After The Impact Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps treat both former NFL players and military veterans who suffer from traumatic injuries. Borland has found his mission beyond the game, and though he may still feel a pull from what the game can give you, the bargain ultimately wasn't worth it.

7. Robert Smith, Minnesota Vikings, 2001

a baseball player wearing a helmet: Getty © Getty Getty

The Vikings' first-round pick in 1993, Smith was just as crucial to the team's explosive offenses of the late 1990s as Cris Carter and Randy Moss were. IN 2000, his final season, Smith ran 295 times for 1,521 yards and seven touchdowns, and his additional skills as a receiver were highly prized. He added to those regular-season totals with 118 rushing yards and a touchdown on 32 carries in two playoff games.

And then, he walked away from it all. Multiple knee injuries were a factor, but the desire to pursue a career in medicine was another.

"I'd rather walk away early than limp away late," Smith told The MMQB's Don Banks in 2015. "It just doesn't make any sense to push it further than you want to push it."

6. Tony Boselli, Jacksonville Jaguars, 2003

Tony Boselli et al. standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Getty © Getty Getty

Boselli was the first pick in Jaguars history, as the new franchise took the USC star with the second overall pick in the 1995 draft. And over seven seasons, Boselli allowed just 15 1/2 sacks while making five straight Pro Bowl rosters and three straight First-Team All-Pro lists. But by the time the Texans made him the first pick in the 2002 expansion draft, Boselli had had enough.

"I am retiring because of medical reasons, specifically my left shoulder, which did not continue to improve to the point where I could play," Boselli said in July, 2003. "I'm disappointed that I will not be able to play for the Texans and do what I was brought here to do."

5. Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns, 2018

Joe Thomas et al. performing on a counter: Getty © Getty Getty

The best left tackle of his era, Thomas played for the Browns from 2007 through 2017-a time in which the team never made the playoffs and won more than seven games just once. But his greatness is told through his 10 Pro Bowls and six First-Team All-Pro nominations. The Browns' first-round draft pick in 2007 out of Wisconsin decided to hang 'em up after multiple knee injuries, which created a situation that would have any player thinking twice about his NFL future.

"I remember a time during the season last year, where I was standing in front of the media at the podium - this was before I got hurt - and I had Mobic, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory, in my body," Thomas said in 2018. "I had Tylenol and Vicodin, and I couldn't stand for more than a minute or two without excruciating bone pain in my knee and my back. It was almost at that point where I was saying to myself, 'I don't know how I'm going to make it through the rest of this season.' Now luckily my elbow snapped before anything happened with the rest of my body, but you just start thinking in you head, like I don't know how much longer I can do this."

4. Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns, 1966

Jim Brown wearing a hat: Getty © Getty Getty

Art Modell made several interesting decisions during his time as the Browns' owner. He fired Paul Brown, known as the game's greatest innovator, and the founder of the franchise. He moved the team to Baltimore, which gave him a place in NFL infamy. And he once gave Jim Brown an ultimatum, which is something you just don't do.

Following the 1965 season, when he led the NFL with 289 carries, 1,544 rushing yards, and 17 rushing touchdowns, Brown went off to England as part of the cast of the film The Dirty Dozen. Modell told Brown that he was expected to report to training camp on time and threatened him with a fine if he didn't. Brown said in his retirement announcement that he had intended to play football in 1966, but that the timing of the film put the team in an awkward position.

"I am leaving the Browns with an attitude of friendliness and cooperation," Brown said in July, 1966. "Once I return to Cleveland, I'll do everything I can to help the Browns-other than playing."

3. Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions, 2016

Calvin Johnson in a blue uniform holding a football ball: Getty © Getty Getty

Matt Millen made a large number of horrible draft decisions during his time as the Lions' general manager from 2001 through 2008, but the decision to take Johnson with the second overall pick in 2007 was a relative masterstroke. Around a set of teams that generally ranked among the worst in the NFL, Megatron transcended it all. In 2012, he set the NFL's single-season record for receiving yards with 1,964, and in 2015, his final season, he caught 88 passes for 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns.

But the wear and tear of the game-and playing for a team that gave him no opportunity to reach a Super Bowl-took a toll.

"I was stuck in my contract with Detroit, and they told me, they would not release my contract, so I would have to come back to them," Johnson said in 2017. "I didn't see the chance for them to win a Super Bowl at the time, and for the work I was putting in, it wasn't worth my time to keep on beating my head against the wall and not going anywhere.

"It's the definition of insanity."

2. Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions, 1999

Barry Sanders wearing a suit and tie: Getty © Getty Getty

At the time of his retirement, Sanders ranked second in NFL history behind Walter Payton in rushing yards with 15.269. He carried the ball 343 times for 1,491 yards in his final season of 1998, and that was just one season after he gained over 2,000 yards on the ground. Clearly, Sanders could have played more seasons and continued to frustrate opponents with his peerless ability to juke defenders right out of their socks.

But the Lions went 5-11 in 1998, Sanders didn't see the team becoming competitive under the constraints of the salary cap, he made his retirement public by faxing a letter to the Wichita Eagle, his hometown newspaper.

1. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts, 2019

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: File photo © USA TODAY File photo

Luck was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year after a 2018 season in which he set career highs in passing attempts (639), completions (430), completion percentage (67.3%), while throwing for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns. But the shoulder injury that caused him to miss the entire 2017 season, the lower-leg issues that had kept him out of the 2019 preseason, and a number of other injuries throughout his career eventually conspired to steal the joy away from the game for the 2012 first-overall pick.

"This has been my personal journey in football," Luck said during Saturday's retirement announcement. "Everybody's journey is different. Over the past week, I was thinking, 'Am I going to have a bunch of resentment toward the game or spite coming into this building?' And I don't. All I feel is love for this game and love for my teammates. I know my journey has had some ups and downs and it has taken a toll over the last four years and the mental and emotional toll that that takes as well. I didn't imagine retiring until two weeks ago."

These are questions every player will eventually ask, and answers they will eventually hope to find.

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Lessons to be learned from Andrew Luck’s surprising retirement

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