Andrew Luck shocked the sports world on Saturday night when he suddenly retired as quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. Though he had informed the NFL of his intentions and planned to hold a press conference on Sunday, word leaked out and hit social media even before the end of the Colts’ pre-season game against the Bears. Luck took to the press podium after the game to confirm the news and offer a version of the speech that he would have given the next day. It was a stunning moment, ranking with several other surprise retirements in sports history. We look back at six of the biggest, one for each (complete; 2017 doesn’t count) season that Luck played in the NFL.
When “The Iron Horse” benched himself on May 2, 1939, after playing 2,130 consecutive games, fans knew that something was wrong with the Yankees slugger. He would never take the field as a player again, as in June he was diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which kills the neurons that controls the muscles of the body. The diagnosis went public on June 19, 1939; the Yankees designated July 4 as Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. At the ceremony, Gehrig delivered perhaps the most famous speech in the history of baseball, wherein he declared “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” He was given a special rush election to the baseball Hall of Fame in December of 1940, and died at his home in the Bronx on June 2, 1941. Though ALS has afflicted other giants in their fields, like physicist Stephen Hawking, ALS is frequently and colloquially referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”
Considered one of the most accomplished and dominant rushers of all time, Jim Brown would later parlay his no-nonsense, bone-crushing style of NFL play to a long-term career in film, notably featuring in action roles in The Dirty Dozen, Slaughter, and more. Brown was the first player to rush for more than 10,000 yards; he set both the single-season and all-time rushing records in his career. After nine years and still in prime shape, Brown abruptly retired from the game after Browns owner Art Modell threatened to fine him for every day he was absent from training camp due to production overruns. Brown decided to simply retire and focus on film and other endeavors, like social activism.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson was, quite simply, one of the greatest players to ever step foot on the basketball court. A fierce competitor and a passing genius, the wars between Magic’s Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics immediately became the stuff of legends. On November 7, 1991, Johnson brought almost the entire world to a halt when he announced that he had tested positive for HIV and would retire from basketball that day. Nevertheless, the fans loved Magic, and they voted him into the 1992 NBA All-Star Game; he scored 25 points and was named MVP. He was subsequently asked to join The Dream Team, the 1992 Olympic Men’s Basketball team; along with Bird, Michael Jordan, and a roster of legends, Magic brought home the gold medal. Johnson’s attitude had changed by 1994, and he returned to the league for two more years, as well as a brief stint in Europe in 1999. Johnson proved that HIV did not equate to the death sentence that it was perceived as at the time, and continues to thrive today as a business figure and activist.
As the most popular basketball player on Earth, Michael Jordan had excelled as an All-American in high school and an NCAA champion at North Carolina before setting the world on fire with the Chicago Bulls. In 1993, Jordan led his team to their consecutive championship, a vaunted “three-peat.” Unfortunately, His Airness didn’t get to enjoy that feat for long; his father was murdered by carjackers in August of that year. In October, Jordan announced his shocking retirement from basketball while expressing a desire to play professional baseball (something that his father had always wanted him to do). Jordan signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox and entered their minor league system. He played in 1994 and 1995; however, the 1995 MLB strike led to his decision to return to the court. Though the Bulls were ushered out of the playoffs by Orlando, despite Jordan’s return, they had the last laugh as the reinvigorated squad went on to put together a second “three-peat.” Jordan announced his retirement again in 2001, recanted, and played until 2003.
One of the great running backs in football, Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions led the NFL in rushing four times in the 1990s. He was even named the league’s MVP in 1997, when he posted a gaudy 2,053 rushing yards. Sanders was beloved for his trademark elusive running style, filled with an almost balletic footwork and tremendous ability to shake defenders; that showmanship stood in contrast to his generally humble attitude, as he wasn’t given to attention-getting on-field celebrations. His sudden retirement functioned in much the same way, as he first announced it with a fax to The Wichita Eagle, his hometown newspaper. Although he’d played 10 years, observers noted that he could have still had many more productive years on the field. Sanders later went on the record in the book Barry Sanders: Now You See Him…His Story in His Own Words that the major element in his retirement was frustration that the Lions organization was not committed to building a winning team around him. In that atmosphere, Sanders decided to walk away from the game.
In the shadow of 9/11, many young Americans felt compelled to join the military. So did Pat Tillman, the safety for the Arizona Cardinals. After completing his contract in 2002, Tillman and his brother Kevin (who had signed to play baseball with the Cleveland Indians) joined the Army. The idea that Pat Tillman turned down a new multi-million-dollar contract to joined the armed forces came as a surprise, but he was lauded as an American hero for putting his feelings of duty above celebrity and money. Both Tillman brothers finished Ranger Indoctrination Training and were assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion. After serving in the opening stages of the invasion of Iraq, the Tillmans finished Ranger School in Fort Benning, Georgia. He was given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2003 ESPYs. Pat Tillman was deployed to Afghanistan; unfortunately, on April 22, 2004, Tillman was killed in a friendly-fire incident, an event that sparked numerous investigations and Congressional inquiries. In 2008, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform reported that, “It is clear, however, that the Defense Department did not meet its most basic obligations in sharing accurate information with the families and with the American public.” Today, Tillman’s legacy serves as an example of a person that’s willing to do the hard thing because they believe it is right, rather than do the easier thing in comfort.
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