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Early NFL Retirement: Lessons Learned From Luck, Brown, Sanders & Johnson

We’ve seen it several times now, Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson, Jim Brown and now Andrew Luck... are there any lessons we can learn from them?

Chicaog Bears vs. Detroi Lions
Chicago Bears defensive back Charles Tillman (33) breaks up a pass intended for Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) in the second quarter. The Chicago Bears defeated the Detroit Lions, 37-13, at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois, Sunday, November 13, 2011
Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

Players who make it as far as the NFL are some of the most driven, dedicated athletes on the planet. They have put up with years of pain, hard work and sacrifice to even get to an NFL camp, so it’s not surprising that most players leave the league kicking and screaming.

In truth, even few of the great ones get to leave on their own terms... and those that do generally have seen their skills greatly diminish.

That’s why it’s such a shock not only around the NFL fan and media community, but also in locker rooms, when a young player, in the prime of his career, leaves years of production (and money) on the table and walks away from the game.

I think there are a few lessons that can be learned from these four famous cases, all of which revolve around one central factor: All of the players involved are men of exceedingly high character who were not only their team’s superstar on the field, but the positive face of the franchise off the field (there wouldn’t be much to be learned if a basket-case guy like Antonio Brown retired early because... well... Antonio Brown).


The most recent retirement, obviously, is Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, so I’m going to start with him.

We tuned in to watch our backups fight for jobs Saturday night, what we ended up seeing was something entirely unexpected.

In a very bizarre developing story during our Saturday pre-season game against the Indianapolis Colts word leaked out that Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was retiring.

I was commenting on the Windy City Gridiron Game Open Thread when somebody dropped the Andrew Schefter tweet that Luck was retiring. Like many, the first thing I did was look in the upper part of the tweet for the blue checkmark showing that the user was authenticated.

He was. This was actually coming from Schefter. It didn’t say he was thinking about retiring, or that he was frustrated enough to want to retire. It said in no uncertain terms that Luck was done.

I’ve got to be honest, there are a lot of reporters who I would have just rolled my eyes had I seen this... for example, if it was Jason La Canfora reporting it I would read it as “Colts and Luck work out 10 year extension” because that’s the level of accuracy we expect from his kind of sourcing.

But this is Schefter, and I’ve never known him to miss on something like this.

Turns out, he was dead on accurate.

Somebody in the know had tipped Schefter off. Personal guesses? It was either somebody within the Colts organization who was angry at Luck’s decision who wanted to embarrass him during the game or a Luck family member who was just bursting to tell somebody. Hopefully, it was either the latter or something else not quite as mean spirited.

After the game, I watched Luck’s press conference... a conference hastily scheduled after the unexpected news leak, and I could see that Luck was right. He should never step onto an NFL field as a player ever again. He’s done.

This coming off of the greatest year of his career. The 2018 NFL Comeback Player Of The Year, an MVP candidate, his fourth Pro-Bowl, leading his team to an underdog playoff win over the Texans, 4593 yards with the highest completion percentage of his career (67.3), 39 TD’s vs 15 INT’s and only 18 sacks.

It was the first time in his entire career that he stood behind a competent offensive line.

Seemingly, he had everything going for him except a couple of “nagging injuries” to deal with.

So why now? Because despite 2018’s successes, Luck was broken from taking an absolute beating for the first five years of his career. As late as 2016 (the year new General Manager Chris Ballard arrived and started to fix the horrific offensive line problem) Luck was sacked 41 times, tying his career high. Not only was he getting sacked, he was getting pounded regularly despite having a quick release.

The man took an absolute beating, as his well documented injury list from 2015 on shows:

  • Sprained shoulder
  • Lacerated kidney, torn abdominal muscle
  • Torn cartilage in his ribs
  • Concussion
  • Shoulder surgery
  • 18-month IR recovery to be able to throw again
  • Calf strain
  • High ankle issues

Luck literally lived in pain for four years, and that pain (and wanting to be well again and live life without major injury rehab every single day sapped the love of the game for him.

How much so? Well, again, you have to be driven to play as hard as Luck played as banged up as he was. This isn’t some guy who refused to play in pain, he soldiered through a lot of injuries.

Let’s be clear, he was well compensated for his troubles... VERY well compensated.

Luck walking away from the kind of money he could make shows a ton of character on his part. He could have just mailed it in and taken his paychecks. I think a lot of people would have done just that. He didn’t.

This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen superstar athletes walk away from the NFL despite being at the top of their game and being well paid.

Perhaps the two greatest running backs in the history of the NFL not named Walter Payton both walked away early. The first was Jim Brown, who left the Browns in his prime despite dominating the league for a decade. The second was Barry Sanders, who also left during his prime.

Each of the two had their own reasons.

Brown was 29 when he retired before training camp in 1966, leaving the game as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 12,312 yards. In truth, while Brown was well paid for the time, the salaries that NFL players made in the 1960’s in no way compare to modern players contracts.

Why did Brown leave? Because he had done the NFL thing for a long time, and he had other things to do with his life, including a budding acting career (he had just signed on as one of “The Dirty Dozen” for example).

Brown left the game healthy, and baring injury he probably easily left 3-5 more years of production on the field.

With Sanders, the situation was different.

I don’t remember Brown retiring (I was four years old) but I certainly remember how absolutely shocked I was when Sanders retired in 1999. Not only was Sanders completely healthy, with his 15,269 yards he was in easy reach of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record of 16,726 yards.

I remember people asking Sanders why he was hanging them up, and he was pretty closed mouth about it. Later on we learned that what most suspected was true, that Sanders was sick and tired of the fiasco that was the 1990’s Detroit Lions from top-to-bottom (excluding him).

Despite five playoff berths in eight years (the Lions made the playoffs the season after he retired with an 8-8 record), despite winning a lot of games, Sanders was fed up with the organization and rather than deal with it any more he walked away.

Yet another dissatisfied Detroit superstar to retire early was Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, who was not nearly as quiet about his reasoning for ending his career early as Sanders was. He’s also not been pleased about how the organization has treated him post-retirement, as our excellent SB Nation sibling site, Pride of Detroit, reported in 2017:

Calvin Johnson unhappy with how relationship ended with Lions - Pride Of Detroit - "I don’t even like to talk Lions too much just because the way our relationship ended," Johnson said when asked about his No. 81 being retired. "If they see me around here, we’ll see. But hey, I don’t know.

"I just didn’t feel like I was treated the way I should have been treated on the way out. That’s all. I mean, it’s all good. I’m not tripping. I don’t feel any kind of way, just hey, that's what they did. Hey, it is what is."

Asked to explain how he was treated, Johnson declined to go into specifics. "I mean, it’s simple," he said. "It’s simple. It’s easy when you think about it."


When you have four different players in four different eras... all superstars, all high character men, who walk away, are are lessons to be learned from all of these situations.

Here’s what I’ve come up with. I’d like you to consider each of the men and add more observations to this list if you have them in the comment section below.

  • The biggest mistake a team can make is to not build a strong supporting cast around a star player simply because that player is good enough to carry a mediocre club on his shoulders.
  • There is no more important supporting position in the game of football on offense than the offensive line.
  • Don’t let your players take beatings. If the Colts had fixed their line problems, Luck would not be retired.
  • Build the locker room with men of high character around your high-character stars.
  • If you can’t put together a competitive team with your star, then trade them. Stars like these men will not just “mail it in” they will walk away. After all, Detroit made the playoffs after both Johnson & Sanders left the team... had they traded them they would have had more ammunition to use building in the future.
  • Don’t expose a young quarterback to constant beat-downs. Ken’s Note: The Texans might want to seriously start considering this advice, after destroying David Carr and being in the process of sending Deshaun Watson to an early NFL grave as well...

Spill the beans!

So what do you think? Any lessons you see that you wish to add?