Throughout NFL history, a number of legendary players have retired sooner than expected, as many fans would believe. While they were fortunate enough to play the game, breaking a few records here and there, they left the game before fans even thought of saying goodbye.
Fans want to see their favorite players play for years and years, but sometimes players make the difficult decision to leave the game behind. These guys are some of the better-known names in football who retired, maybe too soon.
NFL Players who retired too soon (Part 1)
#5 Jim Brown - Cleveland Browns (1957-1965)
Jim Brown is still considered in some discussions as not pnly the greatest running back of all-time, but also as one of the greatest overall players, as well. He led the NFL in rushing eight out of the nine seasons in which he played. He was also named MVP three times, to go along with an NFL Championship in 1964.
He is still the only player in NFL history to average at least 100 yards per game, for his career. He did though decide to call it quits after the 1965 season, much sooner than most expected. Despite the "early" exit, Brown was able to continue the action, literally in a sense, as a film actor and as a social activist, still to this day.
#4 Barry Sanders - Detroit Lions (1989-1998)
Another running back, and one who many saw as the one to one day replace Jim Brown, Sanders was the most elusive rusher in NFL history. He was Rookie of the Year (1989), and named to the Pro Bowl each of his ten seasons in the league.
He was also a two-time Offensive Player of the Year, and shared the MVP award in 1997 with fellow Hall of Famer, Brett Favre. He retired after the 1998 season, estimated at one year shy (by the pace of his rushing stats), to break the then all-time rushing record. Apart from his HOF induction in 2004, he occasionally appears at football related events, mainly involving his former team in Detroit.
#3 Andrew Luck - Indianpolis Colts (2012-2018)
As the first overall draft pick in 2012, the praise and expectations for Andrew Luck were sky-high. Despite a terrible record his first season (2-14), he was still able to set rookie records for both a season (4,374) and a single game (433). After his rookie season, he quickly gained the reputation of a skilled passer that could also beat you with his feet.
However, he was bitten by the so-called "injury bug", that caused him to miss the entire 2017 season. After bouncing back the next season, which saw him setting personal records in several offensive categories, he was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year for the 2018 season. Unfortunately, he was haunted by more injuries and retired, prior to the 2019 season.
#2 Calvin Johnson - Detroit Lions (2007-2015)
Similar to another former Lion, Calvin Johnson was highly regarded as the best at his position. This wide receiver, who was often one of the biggest guys on the field (listed at 6'5", 235 lbs), was also one of the fastest, strongest, and most agile.
With these talents, he put up monster numbers throughout his career. He set the single-season record for receiving yards with 1,964, averaging just under 123 yards per game. In the middle of being named to 6 Pro Bowls (2010-2015), he accumulated 5,137 receiving yards from 2011 to 2013, the most by any player over three straight years, a record that still stands today.
Injuries were sometimes an issue with him, but some have debated that the simple fact of his team's lack of success might've made hanging it up easier to consider, similar to what Barry Sanders experienced at the end of his career. He announced his retirement in 2016 after 9 seasons.
#1 Patrick Willis - San Francisco 49ers (2007-2014)
Yes, even defensive players can make the choice to stop playing sooner than expected. From the start of his career, Willis was an extremely athletic linebacker.
Leading the NFL in tackles that year, he was given All-Pro honors, a spot in the Pro Bowl, and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
In fact, he made the Pro Bowl each season except his last, which was unfortunately cut short due to a nagging toe injury, an injury that would eventually force him to retire. He was recently named as a Hall of Fame semifinalist for 2021.