25 NFL Careers That Ended Way Too Soon
When you are trying to compile a list of 25 NFL players that had their careers end too soon, what are some legitimate reasons that would be viewed as acceptable criteria? We will try to distinguish what are reasons to be included and what are reasons to be excluded from this list. You will not see any players on this list that hung on until the bitter end that were told that nobody wanted them any longer.
While doing research for this list, I came across a study from 2008 that the average NFL career only lasts for three and a half years. The average age of a player in the NFL is only 26.68 years old.
I think an injury to a player that was in the prime of his career and forced into retirement is an acceptable reason for making this list. If for some reason the player made a decision that their career needed to go in a different direction other than the NFL, that is an acceptable reason as well.
Some players succumb to family pressure to leave too early, or take advantage of an opportunity to go out on top when they clearly could have kept playing, as other acceptable reasons to make our list.
As for reasons why we exclude a player from this list, we start with when somebody was physically worn down, or they had clearly lost a step or two. Trying to stay in the league for financial gain, even though they had no business trying to be on a roster any more, would also be a reason not to appear on this list. If a player just lost the will to compete mentally, but their body was still physically fit, that would also qualify as a reason to exclude them.
Every year in the NFL we see a certain percentage of players that no longer are going to appear on an NFL active roster. Those players in question may not realize it at the time, but they are in the process of retiring from the NFL. They just don't realize that their career is about ready to end. It is over.
Either nobody has the courage to tell them directly to their face, or there is an agent, spouse or other family member that has selfish reasons for the player to try to hang on for another year or two.
We are going to list 25 players in NFL history that we feel left the game too early. We will also nominate some players for honorable mention on the second slide. If you are aware of others that also could or should have been included in this presentation, please let us know in the comments.
This list of NFL players are individuals that basically had a long NFL career, but for whatever reason, they weren't able to leave the game on their own terms. In each case, the player in question, could have played for more years, whether by personal decision or being forced out due to injury. As a result, they comprise our honorable mention list of NFL careers that ended way too soon.
Michael Irvin, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver
Tiki Barber, New York Giants running back
Tarik Glenn, Indianapolis Colts lineman
Joe Cribbs, Buffalo Bills running back
Steve Young, San Francisco 49ers quarterback
Jake Plummer was a quarterback that played for the Arizona Cardinals from 1997 to 2002 and for the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2006.
Plummer was benched by head coach Mike Shanahan in 2006, in favor of Jay Cutler. With the Broncos going with Cutler, Plummer was expendable, so the Broncos began to explore the market.
Plummer was only 32 years old when the Broncos traded him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2007. But Plummer had no interest in playing for the Bucs, so rather than join the team, he decided instead to retire from the NFL, never to be seen on a NFL roster again.
Some players leave the NFL for deeply personal or mysterious reasons, and that pretty well describes the Plummer situation.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman had a career that spanned 12 NFL seasons. Most people would consider that a pretty full career by NFL standards.
But since Aikman played predominately in the 1990s to 2000, the ability of NFL players to train year round, take better care of their bodies and prolong their career was much different than when Don Meredith and Roger Staubach led the Cowboys offense.
The big issue for Aikman was concussions. With every successive concussion, Aikman was running the risk of suffering further damage, not just on a short-term basis, but for his long-term health as well.
Aikman got out of the game before it was too late. He still sounds coherent most of the time on his NFL telecasts with Jack Buck, although I suppose that is a matter of opinion.
Barry Sanders, running back of the Detroit Lions, was one of the all-time great running backs in the history of the NFL.
Sanders played his entire career for the Lions, but the problem was that while Sanders was an elite player, the rest of the team was not very good. Sanders had to endure one losing season after another, and the desire to compete and the juices needed to play in the NFL slowly faded away until he decided to walk away from the sport he loved.
Sanders was only one full season away from topping the all-time career rushing totals of Walter Payton. The ironic part was that Sanders was still healthy when he retired, so passing Payton was something that seemed like a realistic goal.
For his career, Sanders gained 15,269 yards on the ground, 2,921 yards in pass receptions and scored 109 total touchdowns (99 rushing TDs and 10 receiving TDs).
Sanders is currently ranked No. 3 all time behind Emmitt Smith and Payton. Sanders did lead the Lions to the playoffs in 1991, but they lost in the NFC Championship Game. Sanders was voted the MVP in 1997. Sanders played in only 10 NFL seasons, from 1989 to 1998.
Otto Graham was a quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. We are including Graham as a tribute to the players of past eras. It is difficult to know how many of the players from Graham's era retired when the time was right and how many retired way too soon.
For starters, I wasn't around to see them play to tell you who left too early. I did watch Jim Brown play as a kid, lucky to see their games since Cleveland was the "local regional" team that the NFL broadcast to Western New York.
But with athletes learning more and more with each passing decade about how to take better care of themselves, how to train year-round and with the advancements of sports medicine, it is conceivable that many of the athletes back in the days of Otto Graham would have been able to play much longer than they actually did.
They probably quit playing when they felt they couldn't perform to the levels that they used to, or didn't know how to properly rehab from specific injuries.
Graham is remembered for his unbelievable winning percentage (.810 as a starting quarterback), and losing some years from his career due to serving during World War II.
Aaron Schobel was a defensive end for the Buffalo Bills. Schobel played for the Bills from 2001 to 2009. In 2007, the Bills signed Schobel to a lucrative contract extension, which had the ability to pay him nearly $50 million over a seven-year deal. The Bills believed in Schobel that much that they were willing to pay him that much, even though he would have been in his mid-30s when the contract ended.
Schobel was fighting two issues, however. He lived in Texas and he missed seeing his children growing up. He also was getting tired of the losing seasons in Buffalo and not making the playoffs. The Bills offered to fly him back to Texas for specific dates during the season as a way of bridging the gap.
Schobel surprised many Bills fans when he announced that he was going to return to the team in 2010. Schobel was itching to play for a team in Texas and asked the Bills to release him. He was the second leading sacker in Bills team history behind Bruce Smith, and the Bills didn't want to let him walk away for nothing, so they declined.
After some time, the Bills relented and released him. Schobel then had a workout with the Houston Texans in 2010, but he was not in good enough shape, and the Texans didn't sign him.
He remains retired today. Schobel was under-appreciated around the NFL because he played in obscurity in Buffalo. From 2003-2007, Schobel was second in the NFL in sacks behind only Jason Taylor, which is something that very few football fans were probably aware of.
Schobel had three seasons with at least 10 sacks. He was named to the Pro Bowl team in both 2006 and 2007. He made three interceptions over his career.
Tony Boselli was a tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1995 to 2001. He also played for the Houston Texans in 2002, when they selected Boselli in their expansion draft.
Boselli was the first player ever drafted by the Jacksonville organization. What a great first choice. During his seven-year stay in Jacksonville, Boselli was named to three All-Pro teams, five Pro Bowl teams and was named to the NFL 1990s All-Decade team.
Boselli was injured and never played in a game for Houston. He retired after the 2002 season. He came back in 2006 and signed a one-day contract with the Jaguars so he could retire as a Jaguars player.
Boselli is a great example of a player that saw his career end way too soon due to injury.
Earl Campbell was a running back for the Houston Oilers and the New Orleans Saints. Campbell played in Houston from 1978 to 1984 and for New Orleans from 1984 to 1985.
After a career that spanned just eight seasons, Campbell retired from football in 1985.
In his first three years in the NFL, Campbell was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year (1978 to 1980). He was named to five Pro Bowl teams. Campbell was named to the All-Pro team, Pro Bowl team, Rookie of the Year and NFL Player of the Year in 1978, which is a clean sweep. He was just that good.
Campbell led the NFL in rushing for three straight years, despite defenses being set up to stop him specifically. Campbell rushed for 9,407 yards in his career and scored 74 rushing touchdowns. He had four games during the 1980 season where he topped 200 yards in rushing.
Campbell retired before the 1986 season began. Maybe if he took off a year to let his body heal up from all the pounding that he took, he might have been able to come back and been a factor.
Joe Theismann still looks like he is great shape today. Theismann has always taken good care of himself, and some people may be surprised to find out that he is 62 years old. Theismann enjoyed a long NFL career of 12 years, plus an additional three years in the Canadian Football League.
But, what we don't know is how much longer that Theismann would have continued to play if he didn't suffer the horrific injury when he was blind-sided by New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
Due to the way that Theismann took care of himself, he might have been able to play for another three to five years. To the extent that would have changed where he stands in the annals of the NFL is unknown, but I am convinced he would have continued to play if not for that fateful game in 1985.
Al Toon was a wide receiver for the New York Jets, from 1985 to 1992. Toon was just 29 years old when he retired. The reason was multiple concussions. Toon suffered at least nine concussions during his career.
Toon was a gifted receiver. He was AFC Player of the Year in 1986 and was named to three Pro Bowl teams and to three All-Pro teams.
During his career, Toon made 517 catches for 6,605 yards and 31 touchdowns. There is no way for sure to know how much longer his NFL career could have been extended with the current way that concussions are treated and the way that helmets are manufactured to prevent additional concussions.
Le Charles Bentley was a lineman for the New Orleans Saints (2002 to 2005) and for the Cleveland Browns (2006 to 2007).
During his brief NFL career, Bentley played in just 57 games and appeared on two Pro Bowl teams. Sports Illustrated gave him the rare honor of naming an offensive lineman as Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he won that award in 2002. He played both guard and center for the Saints.
Bentley was unhappy playing in New Orleans and left as a free agent. He joined the Browns in 2006, but his career in Cleveland went about the same as the way things have gone for Peyton Hillis in 2011—from bad to worse.
Bentley suffered a bad injury before the 2006 season started, and then came up with a staph infection that slowed his rehab. He was unable to return from the injury in 2007 and announced in 2009 that he has retired from football. Footnote was that Bentley sued the Browns over a number of other staph infections that occurred at the Browns' facility while he was being treated.
Robert Smith, running back of the Minnesota Vikings, only played eight years in the NFL from 1993-2000.
Smith was named to two Pro Bowl teams. He has the distinction of leading the NFL in rushing, when he gained 1,521 yards in 2000, and then walked away from the game in the same year. That is one illustration of leaving the game at the peak of your career.
During his career, Smith gained 6,818 yards and scored 32 touchdowns. He averaged 4.8 yards per rush, which is a great statistic that measures how effective a ball carrier he was. Smith's goal was to walk away from the game healthy, and he realized his goal by leaving after the 2000 season.
There was no doubt that Smith was still in his prime and would have been able to play for at least two or three more years if he decided to stick with football.
Barry Foster, Pittsburgh Steelers running back, lasted only five years in the NFL from 1990 to 1994. During those five years, Foster was named to the Pro Bowl in 1992 and 1993 and was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Year.
Foster appeared in 62 games, and his career totals were: 3,943 rushing yards in 915 carries for 26 touchdowns and an average of 4.3 yards per carry. Foster also caught 93 passes for 804 yards and scored two touchdowns on receptions.
Foster set the Steelers single-season rushing record in 1992 with 1,690 yards. He also had 12 games that topped 100 yards that year, which also set a Steelers team record. But things started to go downhill after that as he was limited in 1993 and 1994 due to injuries.
He never played in another NFL game after the 1994 season and announced his retirement in 1995, after only five years in the league.
Jamal Anderson will be remembered by Atlanta Falcons fans as a great running back. For other football fans, he will no doubt be remembered as the creator of the "Dirty Bird" touchdown dance.
Anderson only lasted eight years in the NFL (1994-2001) due to a ACL tear that ended his career. In eight years in the league, Anderson produced 6,981 yards of rushing and receiving for the Falcons.
Unfortunately, players weren't able to bounce back from ACL injuries as well then as they can today. With more advanced surgery procedures, there is no way to know how much longer Anderson would have been able to prolong his career.
We will remember Anderson for leading the Falcons into Super Bowl XXXIII and for all those "Dirty Bird" dances in the end zone.
Terrell Davis was a running back for the Denver Broncos from 1995-2002.
Davis was limited to just seven seasons in the NFL, primarily due to all of the injuries he suffered in his career. Davis had a torn ACL, torn MCL and later had surgery on both of his knees.
During his career, Davis averaged over 1,000 rushing yards per season, as he gained 7,607 yards to average almost 1,100 yards per year.
Davis helped the Broncos win two Super Bowls while in Denver, Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII. Davis was voted on as a running back on ESPN's All-Time 40-Man Super Bowl roster.
Brad Butler was an offensive tackle and guard for the Buffalo Bills from 2006 to 2009. Butler surprised many people when he announced his retirement from football just before the start of the 2010 season.
The Bills didn't have much warning from Butler that he was planning to retire or they could have attempted to find a replacement in the draft. Instead, they were forced to scramble to come up with a warm body and settled on Cornell Green, which did not work out very well.
Butler cited his desire to get into politics as the main reason for quitting. He wanted to devote more time to his new career, and that was it. He gave up a starting job in the NFL and just walked away from the game at the age of 27.
Here is a photo of Sterling Sharpe catching a touchdown pass in a Pro Bowl game. Do you remember the time when NFL players actually tried to play football in the Pro Bowl?
Anyway, Sharpe was a wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers from 1988-1994. Sharpe's career lasted for only seven years. He was in great shape, and no doubt would have played as long as his brother Shannon Sharpe played if not for a neck injury that derailed his career.
Sharpe was a gifted receiver. He wound up leading the NFL in receiving yards, receptions and touchdown catches in the 1992 season. He managed to pull off the same feat in 1993. In 1994, his final year in the league, he caught 18 touchdown passes, which was the second-most in NFL history at that time.
It helped that Sharpe had Brett Favre throwing him the ball, because his number started to take off when Favre was his quarterback. It is too bad that the neck injury happened when it did, because there is no telling how many other records that Sterling Sharpe would have set in Green Bay.
Gale Sayers was a running back for the Chicago Bears from 1965 to 1971. Sayers seemed to be ready to run for a dozen years or more with his athleticism but, unfortunately, bad knee injuries required him to retire after just seven years in the NFL.
During that short career, Sayers was named to four Pro Bowl teams and was a five-time All-Pro pick. He was a member of the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and was also on the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team. He was the 1965 NFL Rookie of the Year.
Sayers scored an amazing 22 touchdowns during his rookie season. He scored on runs, pass receptions, punt returns and kickoff returns. Sayers had a career rushing average of 5.0 yards per carry, scored 39 total touchdowns in his career and carried the ball 991 times for a total of 4,956 yards.
In his rookie year, Sayers scored an improbable six touchdowns in a game against the San Francisco 49ers. He score three different touchdowns from at least 50 yards out, including a running play, pass play and a punt return.
His knee injuries were just too damaging and robbed him of his electric running style. He was forced to retire prior to the 1972 season. It seemed that he was primed to do so much more.
Glen Coffee was a running back for the San Francisco 49ers that had the shortest of NFL careers on this list.
Some NFL players follow the beat of a different drummer. One such player is Glen Coffee. Coffee was drafted in 2009 by the 49ers in the third round of the NFL Draft. Coffee played just one season in San Francisco, before shocking the team with his announcement that he had decided to retire from football.
Coffee played well as a rookie, and the 49ers were counting on him to serve as backup to Frank Gore. When the 2010 season rolled around, Coffee was there with the rest of the team. He went through all of the OTA's, the minicamp and the first two weeks of training camp.
Before any preseason games began, Coffee decided that his heart was not in the game, and that God wanted him to follow a different path. Just like that, he was out of the game, and left the 49ers scrambling to find a suitable replacement.
Steve Emtman played defensive end for the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins. Emtman was with the Colts from 1992 to 1994, the Dolphins from 1995 to 1996 and was with the Redskins in 1997.
Emtman was the first overall draft pick in the 1992 draft. Despite being deemed as the top player, Emtman was only able to last in the league for a mere six seasons. He was plagued with a number of injuries that included both knees and a ruptured neck disc that caused nerve damage.
At the young age of 27, Emtman was already retired from the NFL. It is ironic that Emtman, a former Colts first overall draft pick, suffered nerve damage from a neck injury, as did fellow Colts first-round draft pick Peyton Manning. Hopefully Andrew Luck does not follow in their footsteps.
Napoleon Kaufman was a promising running back for the Oakland Raiders. Kaufman played for the Raiders for six seasons, from 1995-2000. During his career, Kaufman gained 4,792 rushing yards— what was most impressive was his 4.9 average yards per rush.
Kaufman was the featured back for the Raiders in 1997 and 1998. He averaged over 1,000 yards in those two years, and then he mysteriously decided at the conclusion of the 2000 season that he was going to retire from the NFL to become a Christian minister.
This is further proof that the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Ickey Woods was a running back for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1988 to 1991. Just a brief whirlwind of a four-year career was all that Woods was able to muster.
But during that time we got the "Ickey Shuffle" and some good football, too. Woods scored 27 touchdowns in his brief career. He rushed for 1,525 yards and had a career average of 4.6 yards per rush. He was named to the 1988 All-Pro team.
Woods started out like gangbusters when he scored 15 touchdowns as a rookie for the Bengals. He rushed for over 1,000 yards that year (1,066) and went on to score three touchdowns in the Bengals' playoff run in 1988. Woods was the leading rusher in Super Bowl XXIII, but the Bengals lost the game.
Woods suffered serious injuries to his left knee in 1989 and then to his right knee in 1991. Woods was replaced by Harold Green and was basically gone from the NFL at 26 years of age. Gone way too soon.
Bo Jackson knows football. He also knows baseball and how to stay in fantastic shape. Unfortunately, it was due to an injury on the football field that robbed Jackson of many years of production because Jackson was simply an amazing running back.
Jackson was the first athlete that was named an All-Star in two major team sports, which illustrates how great an athlete Jackson was. His NFL career was way too short, lasting only four years, from 1987 to 1990.
Jackson played for the Los Angeles Raiders in those four years and served the Raiders as the backup to Marcus Allen. Despite playing second-string, Jackson saw the ball enough to gain 2,782 rushing yards and score 16 touchdowns. He averaged a whopping 5.4 yards per carry during his career.
His most memorable game was on Monday Night Football in 1987 against the Seattle Seahawks where he rushed for 221 yards, which set a record for Monday Night Football. He had only been in the league for less than one month. Other highlights of that game were when Jackson flattened Brian Bosworth for a touchdown plunge and sprinting down the sidelines for a 91-yard touchdown and running straight to the locker room.
We will never know how Jackson would have changed the fate of the Raiders' fortunes. In a playoff game in 1990, Jackson injured his hip on a tackle from Kevin Walker of the Cincinnati Bengals. Legend has it that Jackson popped his own hip back into the socket. Bo knows his body, too.
Some of the greatest running backs were able to retire early on their own terms, but some were forced to retire early because of bad injuries. Such was the case with Detroit Lions running back Billy Sims.
Sims was only able to play in the league for five years, 1980 to 1984. During those five years, Sims racked up over 5,000 yards in rushing and was named to the Pro Bowl team three times.
Sims led the Lions to the playoffs in 1982 and 1983, which was a tribute to how much of an impact he made on the team. But Sims suffered a devastating knee injury in 1984 and had to retire during that season. If that injury happened in 2011, he would have been able to continue his career with the advancements in medicine, surgery and rehab processes.
Pat Tillman was an American hero. He played safety for the Arizona Cardinals for a short four-year career, from 1998-2001. Even though he was a low seventh-round pick, Tillman excelled at what he did and was named to the NFL All-Pro team in 2000.
When the terrorists hijacked the planes that crashed into the World Trade Towers on 9/11, it bothered Tillman greatly. He was so moved that he decided, after the conclusion of his season, that he would walk away from his NFL career to enlist and fight the war against terrorism.
Tillman went to Afghanistan and was part of a combat group made up of Army Rangers. Sadly, Tillman passed away during the war, and it was later determined by the Pentagon that Tillman died from friendly fire.
There are other examples of NFL players that have left their NFL career to be part of the Armed Forces. Another example of a player that gave his life was Bob Kalsu, who was a starting lineman for the Buffalo Bills and later died while fighting in Vietnam.
We want to take a moment to reflect on the many players that passed away while they were still in the midst of their NFL careers. There are too many to list, but we wanted to single out Tillman, because he chose on his own accord to walk away from the NFL to follow his heart and his conviction.
While Barry Sanders played for 10 seasons in the NFL, Jim Brown, Hall of Fame running back for the Cleveland Browns, only played for nine seasons (1957 to 1965).
When Brown retired, he had already set all of the NFL career rushing records, so there were no major individual records left for him to pursue. He was healthy and wanted to leave football on his own terms, which he did.
One reason that Brown's accomplishments were so amazing was that the NFL regular season was only 12 games long when Brown entered the league. The league expanded to a 14-game regular season in 1961.
Brown was only 29 years old when he retired, and was still in his prime. He still holds many NFL records to this day. To give you an idea of how dominating he was, Brown was named to the Pro Bowl every year of his career. He was the MVP three times. He was NFL First-Team All-Pro eight times. He was on the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. He was a member of the NFL 1960's All-Decade team.
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