Rob Gronkowski, Calvin Johnson and Top NFL Players to Stop Playing by Age 30

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2019

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots celebrates his team's victory in the Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. The New England Patriots defeat the Los Angeles Rams 13-3. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Rob Gronkowski entertained the idea of retiring last offseason, only to return to the New England Patriots and win another Super Bowl. The five-time Pro Bowl tight end left no doubt Sunday, announcing on Instagram his NFL career is over.

Gronkowski seemingly walks away with a lot left in the tank. He'll only turn 30 in May, so he could have played at least two or three more years and remained an effective pass-catcher.

Dan Orlovsky @danorlovsky7

Man Gronk changed the game. Respectfully, there is no Kelce/Ertz/Graham/Olson types without Gronk... https://t.co/oeHUrvZ4Hf

His choice isn't a surprise, though. He has suffered a number of injuries throughout his time in the league and hadn't played a full 16-game season since 2011.

Most notably, Gronkowski tore his ACL and MCL in December 2013 and underwent surgery in February 2013 to address an infection on a forearm he had previously broken.

Given the timing of Gronk's retirement, some fans are likely to start looking at his contemporaries who hanged up the cleats at a relatively young age.


Notable NFL Players to Stop Playing by Age 30

  • Tony Boselli, OT (five-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro)
  • Jim Brown, RB (three-time MVP, nine-time Pro Bowler, eight-time All-Pro, 1964 NFL champion)
  • Earl Campbell, RB (1979 MVP, five-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro)
  • Terrell Davis, RB (1998 MVP, three-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro, two-time Super Bowl champion)
  • Kenny Easley, S (five-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro)
  • Rob Gronkowski, TE (five-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro, three-time Super Bowl champion)
  • Calvin Johnson, WR (six-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro)
  • Barry Sanders, RB (1997 MVP, 10-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro)
  • Gale Sayers, RB (four-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro)
  • Sterling Sharpe, WR (five-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro)
  • Dwight Stephenson, OL (five-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro)
  • Patrick Willis, LB (seven-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro)


Seeing news of Gronkowski's departure will immediately call to memory Calvin Johnson's retirement.

In what proved to be his final season, Johnson caught 88 passes for 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns, and he earned a trip to his sixth straight Pro Bowl.

Beyond just the wear-and-tear he absorbed during his nine years in the league, he later admitted he had grown weary of suiting up for the Detroit Lions.

"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," he told reporters in July 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."

A similar motivation was likely at play when Barry Sanders suddenly exited ahead of the 1999 season. He helped the Lions reach the playoffs five times but enjoyed just one postseason win.

Mike Kaye @mike_e_kaye

Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson are the ones off the top of my head. https://t.co/x0z71eZ9of

Sanders racked up plenty of individual accolades, though. He was the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1997 and was a Pro Bowler in each of his 10 seasons. His 99.8 rushing yards per game are the third-most in NFL history.

Jim Brown sits atop that list (104.3 yards per game) and is the gold standard for retiring on top in football.

Brown spent nine years with the Cleveland Browns. During that time, he was the NFL's leading rusher on eight occasions. He ran for 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns in 118 games and delivered the Browns' last championship in 1964.

Had he played in the era of social media, Brown would've broken Twitter when he announced his retirement.

Whereas Gronkowski, Brown, Sanders and Johnson all played at a relatively high level immediately preceding their retirements, the same couldn't be said of Terrell Davis, Tony Boselli and Kenny Easley were essentially forced to do so for health reasons.

Davis ran for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1998 and suffered a knee injury four games into the 1999 season. He only played for two more seasons.

Boselli was the first pick of the 2002 expansion draft for the Houston Texans. Before he could play a game for the Texans, persistent shoulder injuries forced him out of the NFL.

Easley was one of the most dominant pass defenders of his era, going to five Pro Bowls in seven seasons. The Seattle Seahawks traded him to the Arizona Cardinals ahead of the 1988 season, but his physical with the Cardinals flagged significant kidney damage.

Both Davis and Easley were enshrined in the Hall of Fame, with Boselli a finalist in 2018.

It's probably only a matter of time before Gronkowski carves out his own place in Canton, Ohio. Considering everything he achieved on both an individual and team level, he has little reason to regret Sunday's decision.