Famous Athletes Who Decided Retirement Was Not for Them

Famous Athletes Who Decided Retirement Was Not for Them

Knowing when to retire as a professional athlete is a difficult decision. (Just ask Tom Brady who announced he was retiring again but this time it was “for good.”) Players must consider their families, their contracts, their desire to play, and the long term ramifications of a full season of wear and tear on their bodies. Walking away is a tough call, and Brady is one of many players who have made the decision to retire only to decide later on they want to keep playing.

To compile a list of notable athletes who came out of retirement, 24/7 Tempo reviewed a number of sources, including the Sports Reference family of sites, to find pro athletes who stepped away from their sport, then came back. The star athletes on this list are from different sports and have generally made successful comebacks.

This list is far from comprehensive, as dozens and dozens of athletes have retired then walked back their decision later. The players on this list have all retired for their own reasons – some had injury issues or severe illnesses that hampered their abilities, others stepped away to try their hand at something other than sports. Many players thought that their competitive fire had gone out, only to discover they had plenty left after announcing their retirement.

It can be difficult for an athlete to know exactly when is the right time to step away. Though some leave too early and want to come back to their sport, others leave too late. These players struggle and spend their last seasons as a shell of their former selves. 

Yet some players time it exactly right. These athletic legends walk away just before their skills decline – often winning one last title or earning a final All-Star game appearance before hanging it up for good. These are the athletes with the most memorable final seasons.

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1. Tom Brady
> Career: 2000-2021, 2022-2023
> Team(s): New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
> Accolades 15 Pro Bowl, 3x MVP, 7x Super Bowl

Just 40 days after announcing the end of his storied career, Tom Brady decided he was not done just yet. The QB announced his retirement following the 2021 season, but less than two months later tweeted “my place is still on the field and not in the stands.” Brady has won a record seven Super Bowls and five Super Bowl MVPs. He announced he was retiring “for good” on Feb. 1, 2023.

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2. Dara Torres
> Career: 1984-1992, 2000, 2008
> Team(s): Team USA
> Accolades 4x gold medal, 4x silver medal, 4x bronze medal

Swimmer Dara Torres is one of the most decorated Olympians of all time. Torres competed in her first Olympics as a teenager in 1984, helping Team USA take home gold in the 4×100 meter freestyle relay. Torres retired following the 1992 Olympics but made a comeback ahead of the 2000 Summer Games. There, she had her best ever showing, winning two golds and three bronzes in Sydney.

Shortly after, Torres stepped away from top level competition and retired again – only to make another comeback. Torres came out of retirement in 2007, shortly after giving birth, and made it to her fifth Olympics in 2008. There, Torres won three silver medals as a member of three different relay teams.

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3. Michael Jordan
> Career: 1984-1993, 1994-1998, 2001-2003
> Team(s): Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards
> Accolades Hall of Fame, 5x MVP, 6x NBA Champion

Michael Jordan perhaps had the two most well-known retirements and comebacks in sports history. Following a third straight championship with the Chicago Bulls and the murder of his father, MJ stepped away from the basketball court to try his hand at baseball in 1993. After a little over a year away, Jordan returned to the Bulls. He led the team to a second three-peat from 1996-1998, then retired again, only to come back as a Washington Wizard in 2001.

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4. Satchel Paige
> Career: 1927-1931, 1933-1934, 1936, 1941-1949, 1951-1952, 1965
> Team(s): Kansas City Monarchs, St. Louis Browns
> Accolades Hall of Fame, 8X All-Star, 2x World Series

Satchel Paige had one of the longest, most-storied careers in baseball history. Starting his career in the Negro Leagues in 1927 at age 20 (or so, Paige was always cagey about how old he really was), the Hall of Fame pitcher did not make his MLB debut until 1948 because of segregation laws.

In his first MLB season, Paige helped the Cleveland Indians win the World Series, then made the 1952 and 1953 All-Star teams for the St. Louis Browns. After a long hiatus away from the Majors, Paige came back in 1965, at age 59 – pitching three shutout innings in his lone appearance of the season.

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5. Kim Clijsters
> Career: 1997-2007, 2009-2012, 2020-2022
> Team(s): N/A
> Accolades 4x singles Grand Slams, 2x doubles Grand Slams

Kim Clijsters is still in the midst of the second comeback of her remarkable career. The former world No. 1 ranked tennis player first retired in 2007 to have a child, only to come back two years later. Before retiring, her lone Grand Slam singles title came in the 2005 U.S. Open. Since coming back, Clijsters won the 2009 and 2010 U.S. Open as well as the 2011 Australian Open, bringing her Grand Slam total to four. Clijsters retired again after the 2012 U.S. Open but began mounting a second comeback bid in 2020, though she had since struggled with injury and illness in her third stint as a tennis pro. She retired for a fourth and so far final time in April 2022.

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6. Jacques Plante
> Career: 1952-1965, 1968-1975
> Team(s): Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs
> Accolades Hall of Fame, 6x Stanley Cup, 7x Vezina Trophy

Before his first retirement, NHL goalie Jacques Plante had amassed numerous accolades – six Stanley Cups, six Vezina trophies as the league’s top netminder, and one Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, all with the Montreal Canadiens. Following the 1962-1963 season, Plante was traded to the New York Rangers, where he played a season and a half before retiring.

Four years later, at age 40, Plante returned to pro hockey and suited up for the St. Louis Blues. In his comeback 1968-1969 season, Plante won his seventh Vezina Trophy. He continued playing for many more years, later going to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and then the Quebec Nordiques and Edmonton Oilers of the upstart World Hockey Association before hanging up his skates in 1975.

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7. Eric Weddle
> Career: 2007-2019, 2021-2021
> Team(s): San Diego Chargers, Los Angeles Rams
> Accolades 6x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, 1x Super Bowl

Eric Weddle retired in 2019 following 13 excellent years in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens, and Los Angeles Rams. As the 2021 Rams were gearing up for a playoff run, two of their top safeties were injured late in the season, so the team turned to Weddle for help.

His sure tackling and veteran leadership helped propel the Rams through the playoffs. Weddle even played through a torn pectoral muscle to help the Rams win the Super Bowl. Just after getting his ring, Weddle retired again, opting to coach high school football in San Diego.

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8. Gordie Howe
> Career: 1946-1971, 1973-1980
> Team(s): Detroit Red Wings, Hartford Whalers
> Accolades Hall of Fame, 4x Stanley Cup, 6x Ross Trophy

Gordie Howe is undoubtedly one of the greatest hockey players ever. He played 25 seasons for the Detroit Red Wings, hoisting the Stanley Cup four times, winning six MVPs, and leading the NHL in points six times. Though he initially hung up his skates at age 42, Howe came back three years later, this time to the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association, to play with his sons Mark and Marty.

The family helped Houston win two straight league titles in 1974 and 1975. After the 1976-1977 season, all three Howes moved on to the Hartford Whalers. Gordie Howe’s final season was the 1979-1980 season, when the Whalers were absorbed into the NHL. Even into his 50s, Howe played in all 80 games that year before finally retiring for good at age 52.

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9. Randall Cunningham
> Career: 1985-1995, 1997-2001
> Team(s): Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings
> Accolades 4x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro

Randall Cunningham was one of the most electrifying players ever at the QB position. He starred for the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1980s and early 1990s, making three Pro Bowls. Cunningham later struggled after a string of injuries and eventually lost his starting job and retired ahead of the 1996 season. But after one season away, he came back to the NFL, this time with the Minnesota Vikings.

Though he was not the starter in his first year back, Cunningham eventually became Minnesota’s top QB in 1998. That year, he had his best season and led the Vikings to a 15-1 record, though they lost in the NFC Championship game. Cunningham played three more seasons before retiring again.

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10. Michael Phelps
> Career: 2000-2012, 2014-2016
> Team(s): Team USA
> Accolades 23x gold medal, 3x silver medal, 2x bronze medal

Even before his first retirement, American swimmer Michael Phelps may have had a claim as the greatest Olympian of all time. He won 22 medals, 18 of which were gold, in his first four Olympics – 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012. Following the 2012 games, Phelps announced his retirement.

Following a DUI arrest and a stint in rehab, Phelps opted to return to the pool with a new outlook but the same dominance. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, Phelps added to his already impressive medal tally, winning five golds and a silver, bringing his total to 28.

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11. Martina Hingis
> Career: 1994-2003, 2005-2007, 2013-2017
> Team(s): N/A
> Accolades 5x singles Grand Slams, 11x doubles Grand Slams

Martina Hingis, who turned professional tennis player shortly after her 14th birthday, also became the youngest player to win a modern Grand Slam and the youngest to attain the world No. 1 ranking. After a decade of dominance, a series of nagging injuries forced Hingis to retire in 2003.

Hingis returned two years later but retired again following a positive drug test that came with a two-year ban from the WTA, though she denied taking any illegal substances. In 2013, Hingis returned to tennis, but this time played only doubles events. Hingis’ third, and perhaps final, retirement came in 2017.

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12. Brett Favre
> Career: 1991-2010
> Team(s): Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings
> Accolades Hall of Fame, 3x MVP, 1x Super Bowl

Brett Favre became infamous in his later career for his annual offseason “will he or won’t he?” retirement rumors. The NFL Hall of Famer first retired in March of 2008 after nine Pro Bowls, three MVPs, and a Super Bowl win with the Green Bay Packers. However, Favre’s retirement lasted just about five months, and he was shipped to the New York Jets.

After one season in New York, Favre again retired and again came back months later – this time with the Minnesota Vikings. At age 40, he had still played well, leading the 2009 Vikings to a 12-4 record and earning his 11th career Pro Bowl nod. The Vikings nearly made the Super Bowl, but lost in the NFC Championship game in overtime to the New Orleans Saints. Favre struggled with injuries in 2010 and retired for the third and final time after that season.

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13. Rob Gronkowski
> Career: 2010-2018, 2020-2022
> Team(s): New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
> Accolades 5x Pro Bowl, 4x All-Pro, 4x Super Bowl

Though Rob Gronkowski was consistently one of the best tight ends in the NFL throughout the 2010s, he struggled to stay healthy, only playing in all 16 games twice in his nine seasons with the New England Patriots. After winning his third Super Bowl in 2019, he retired, citing his health.

But after Tom Brady made the move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Gronk came out of a one-year retirement to join his friend in Florida. In 2020, he played in all 16 games, and even caught two touchdowns in the Super Bowl to win his fourth ring. Gronkowski played in 2021 as well, and retired in September 2022 with the fifth-most receiving yards and third-most receiving touchdowns all time for a tight end.

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14. Mario Lemieux
> Career: 1984-1997, 2000-2006
> Team(s): Pittsburgh Penguins
> Accolades Hall of Fame, 2x Stanley Cup, 9x All-Star, 6x Ross Trophy

Pittsburgh Penguins legend Mario Lemieux showed remarkable tenacity to keep his hockey career alive. At age 27, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, had about two months of treatment, and returned to the ice. But the radiation and lingering injuries took their toll, and Lemieux took the 1994-1995 season off, with many thinking he would never play again. But he did, playing three more seasons before retiring after the 1997 season.

Following three years of retirement, Lemieux returned once more in 2000. In addition to playing for Pittsburgh, he also led Canada to an Olympic gold medal in 2002. Lemieux played until 2006, when he was 40, before finally ending his career for good.

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15. Magic Johnson
> Career: 1979-1991, 1995-1996
> Team(s): LosAngeles Lakers
> Accolades Hall of Fame, 12x All-Star, 5x NBA Champion, 3x MVP

Magic Johnson was one of the most dazzling and dominant players in NBA history, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to four championships in the 1980s. However, his career initially came to an abrupt end in 1991, when he announced to the world that he had contracted HIV.

Johnson played in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game and in the 1992 Olympics but did not appear in the NBA for four more seasons, until he returned to the Lakers in 1996 for 32 games. Johnson played well, averaging nearly 15 points and seven assists per game.

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16. Dominik Hasek
> Career: 1990-2002, 2003-2008
> Team(s): Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings
> Accolades Hall of Fame, 6x Vezina Trophy, 2x Stanley Cup

Hockey Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek is one of the greatest goalies of all time, winning six Vezina Trophies as the best netminder in the league. Though Hasek racked up individual accolades as a younger player with the Buffalo Sabres, it wasn’t until he was 37 and traded to the Detroit Red Wings that he was able to win his first Stanley Cup in 2002.

Hasek retired after winning the Cup but made a comeback after one season away, suiting up for the Red Wings again. He played for the Ottawa Senators after the 2005-2006 was canceled due to a labor dispute but came back to Detroit again. In his final season of 2007-2008, he helped the Red Wings to another Cup, this time as a backup.

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17. Deion Sanders
> Career: 1989-2000, 2001, 2004-2005
> Team(s): Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens
> Accolades Hall of Fame, 8x Pro Bowl, 6x All-Pro, 2x Super Bowl

Deion Sanders has the unique distinction of leaving from and returning to two different major pro sports. Sanders played both football and baseball at a high level from 1989-1995, suiting up for the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, San Francisco Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, and San Francisco 49ers during that period. He won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1994 and 1995 with the 49ers and Cowboys, respectively.

In 1996, Sanders stepped away from baseball to focus on his NFL pursuits. He continued racking up Pro Bowl appearances and returned to the MLB to play for the Reds in 1997, before leaving baseball again. Following the 2000 season, Sanders retired from the NFL and went back to the Reds for the 2001 baseball season. Though that would be his last MLB season, he wasn’t done playing just yet. In 2004, Sanders returned to the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, where he played for two seasons before calling an end to his remarkable professional athletics career.

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18. Justine Hennin
> Career: 1999-2008, 2010-2011
> Team(s): Belgium
> Accolades 7x singles Grand Slams, 1x gold medal

Justine Henin was on top of the tennis world when she announced her shocking retirement in 2008. Just a year earlier Henin won her sixth and seventh Grand Slams in the U.S. Open and French Open and was still the world No. 1 ranked female tennis player when she decided to step away.

Though Henin said “I won’t go back on this decision,” she did return to competitive tennis just over a year later in 2010. However, the return was short-lived, as Henin suffered a recurring elbow injury that made it difficult and painful for her to play.

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19. Ed “Too Tall” Jones
> Career: 1974-1978, 1980-1989
> Team(s): Dallas Cowboys
> Accolades 3x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, 1x Super Bowl

Ed “Too Tall” Jones was the first overall pick of the 1974 NFL Draft and became a key piece of the Dallas Cowboys defense that propelled them to a Super Bowl title in 1977. The 6’9″ defensive end had his best season to date in 1978 but retired to pursue a career in boxing, his favorite sport.

Jones was successful in the ring as well, winning all six of his bouts. But after a year away from football, Jones returned to the Cowboys in 1980 – complete with a new set of skills that fighting had given him. Feeling quicker, Jones became one of the NFL’s best defenders. He made three straight Pro Bowls from 1981-1983, earning All-Pro honors in 1982. Jones played for several more years before retiring after the 1989 season.

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20. Ryne Sandberg
> Career: 1981-1994, 1996-1997
> Team(s): Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs
> Accolades Hall of Fame, 1x MVP, 10x All-Star, 9x Gold Glove

Ryne Sandberg was one of the most iconic baseball players of the 1980s and 1990s. He won the 1984 NL MVP and earned 10 straight All-Star game appearances from 1984-1993. However, his 1994 season was a struggle, and his .238 batting average was on pace to be by far the lowest of his career. So after 57 games, Sandberg announced his retirement, saying he was frustrated with his production.

However, Sandberg came out of retirement for the 1996 season, again with the Cubs. Though his average was down, he did hit 25 home runs and drive in 92 RBIs. After another solid season in 1997, Sandberg retired for good.

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