By Derek Rosenfeld
At some point in all of our lives, we will have to retire, whether by our own choice or somebody else’s. For professional athletes, especially the most accomplished ones, this is usually decided by somebody else and can lead to a very public and sometimes acrimonious breakup between them and the team, the fans, and the media. In Part 1 on this topic, I explained how very few elite athletes truly call it quits on their own terms, many times consigned to spend their final days in the spotlight in the unfamiliar position of being on the bench; used as a part-time player; or left to sit at home, waiting for the phone to ring.
However, this has led to a more recent phenomenon that has seen several high-profile athletes announce, sometimes dramatically, their retirements, only to return to the game weeks—even days—later. One can hardly be blamed for being skeptical after yet ANOTHER player who “retired” just a month ago announces that he has signed a new contract with a new team. Can any of these athletes be taken seriously when they presumably walk away from their sport with something “left in the tank”? After NFL Quarterback Kerry Collins “retired” on July 7, it was hardly a surprise when, on August 24, he was signed by the Indianapolis Colts and announced as their starting quarterback after Peyton Manning was lost to injury. Even Babe Ruth, the greatest American sports figure of all time, hung on until his last athletic breath, playing 28 games for the Boston Braves in 1935 after being released by his beloved New York Yankees, who did not want to adhere to his frequent requests to be made its manager.
Let’s take a look at some of the most famous—and infamous—retirements and unretirements in modern sports history, announced by athletes who were gone today, here tomorrow.
Any list of the most famous retirement flip-flops in sports history must begin with Brett Favre. The most prolific quarterback in NFL history (for better and for worse), Favre first announced his retirement from the Green Bay Packers on March 4, 2008, only to inform the team a few months later that he wished to rescind that decision, accusing the Packers of forcing his hand. Eagerly waiting to place future Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the Packers decided to trade Favre to the New York Jets later that year.
During a 2008-09 season in which his new team appeared playoff bound, Favre’s Jets collapsed, losing four of its last five games, finishing with a 9-7 record. On February 11, 2009, Favre announced his retirement for a second time. After he was placed on the Jets Reserved/Retired list, Favre signed with the Minnesota Vikings, his original first choice after the Packers, where he narrowly missed taking the team to the Super Bowl following an overtime NFC Championship Game loss to the eventual champion New Orleans Saints.
Favre returned to the Vikings in 2010 amid grumblings from teammates for his having missed most of training camp; he repeatedly said that 2010 would be his final season. The 40-year-old Favre was constantly pummeled throughout the year, taking particularly vicious hits in games against the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears. On January 17, 2011, 15 days after he was unable to pass the NFL’s mandated postconcussion tests (keeping him out of the Vikings’ final regular season game), Favre officially filed his retirement papers with the NFL, concluding the most drama-filled end to a career American sports had ever seen.
Before Favre set the gold standard for unretirements in professional sports, that honor was held by the greatest basketball player of all time. Prior to the 1993-94 NBA season, months after leading the Chicago Bulls to its third consecutive NBA championship, Jordan announced his retirement from basketball at the age of 30, telling everyone that he “had nothing left to accomplish.” Little did we know that, motivated by his father’s murder at a North Carolina truck stop in July of that year, Jordan signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox, looking to play the game his father loved. Jordan spent the spring and summer of 1994 playing for the White Sox’s AA minor league affiliate, the Birmingham Barons, and the Arizona Fall League’s Scottsdale Scorpions.
On March 18, 1995, after batting .202 with three home runs and 30 stolen bases for the Barons the previous summer, Jordan announced, “I’m back” in an NBA press release. He proceeded to lead the Bulls to another “three-peat” of championships (1996-98), then retire again on January 13, 1999, “99.9 percent certain” that he would never play again.
Of course, that changed one year later. Jordan became president of basketball operations and a part owner of the Washington Wizards in January 2000. When he became unsatisfied with the team’s roster and overall play, he took matters into his own hands and jumped back onto the court after the start of the 2001 season. Although he no longer was the high-flying slam dunk artist of his heyday, Jordan still possessed the scoring touch that made him a legend, averaging more than 21 points per game in his two seasons with the club. He played his final game on April 13, 2003, at the age of 40.
Sugar Ray Leonard
Boxing may be the sport most notorious for comebacks. From George Foreman to Larry Holmes to Muhammad Ali, the allure of the ring, the next big payday, immeasurable pride, and the fear of conceding to age all factor into why so many of boxing’s best refuse to walk away, despite its being the sport with the potential for the most bodily damage.
Leonard was certainly one of the greatest pound-per-pound fighters ever. He had compiled a 32-1 record (his only loss was to Roberto Duran) and won several world welterweight titles when, after defeating Bruce Finch in February 1982, Leonard retired for the first time that November at the age of 26, citing a detached retina and a lack of desire to ever box again. That retirement lasted slightly more than a year, as he announced he would return for a series of fights against the top welterweight competition in the field, much to the dismay of boxing fans who thought he was risking his eyesight. He fought one fight—a TKO victory against Kevin Howard—in May 1984 and announced his retirement for the second time.
In March 1986, Leonard sat ringside at the Marvelous Marvin Hagler/John “The Beast” Mugabi bout. After dissecting Hagler’s performance in an 11th-round KO of Mugabi, Leonard decided to come out of retirement once again, believing he could beat Hagler. The two fought on April 6, 1987. It was dubbed “The Super Fight”; Leonard came in as a 3-1 underdog to Hagler, who at that point had not lost a bout in more than 11 years. However, a quick and flashy Leonard scored one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, outpointing Hagler for 12 rounds in a controversial split decision that still causes many boxing fans consternation today. Hagler retired after the bout (for good), as Leonard consistently waffled on a potential rematch. Leonard announced yet another retirement shortly thereafter.
November 7, 1988, brought about Leonard’s third comeback. He scored a TKO victory over Donnie Lalonde to win both the super middleweight and light heavyweight championships. He then fought two more high-profile bouts against Thomas “Hitman” Hearns and Duran, a draw and a unanimous decision victory, respectively, then suffered a loss, only his second, to Terry Norris in 1991, ending his third comeback. Leonard announced after the loss, “It took this fight to show me it is no longer my time. Tonight was my last fight. I know how Hagler felt now.”
In January 1997, the 40-year-old Leonard came back once again, this time against the popular middleweight Hector “Macho” Camacho. Camacho soundly defeated Leonard in a 5th-round TKO, prompting Leonard to once again call it quits. Leonard flirted with fighting again in 1998 before calling it a career with a 36-3-1 record.
With 11 Grand Slam singles titles (fourth-most all time), including five straight Wimbledon championships, Borg is considered one of the greatest tennis players ever and certainly the best player of the 1970s. His won/loss percentages for both Wimbledon and the French Open (where he won six titles) are still career records. In 1982, 26 years old and seemingly at the top of his game, he abruptly and shockingly retired (although he did play in one tournament each in 1983 and 1984) with little explanation. Nevertheless, it was another surprise to fans when Borg, now 34 years old, growing out his famous locks, and brandishing a wooden racket (the new graphite racket had overtaken wood by then), attempted a comeback in 1991 after much of his estate was in disarray because of failed marriages and bad financial decisions.
Beginning his comeback at his favorite tournament, the Monte Carlo Open, Borg failed to win a set in seven ATP tournaments. In the process, he garnered much criticism from peers such as John McEnroe and current stars such as Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, who called it “very, very sad.” Borg’s bizarre comeback, though, was short-lived, as he withdrew from competitions in 1993.
Since then, Borg has made a comeback of another sort: His Björn Borg fashion company is one of the most successful clothing companies in all of Europe. He continues to play on the seniors’ tour to this day.
In part 3 of this series, we will look at some high-profile athletes who did what many consider unthinkable: They retired with something left in the tank—and stayed that way.
Images found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of, top to bottom, Vinnytrix, Beezer34, Keith Allison, Steve Lipofsky, Marine 69-71, Neurofibromats – Reggie Bibbs, and Thomas C.
Derek Rosenfeld is an associate editor for Fire Engineering. He is the head baseball coach at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey, where he worked as an assistant coach from 2005-2011. He has also been an infielder in several highly competetive semipro baseball leagues throughout the tri-state area. During the mid-90s, Rosenfeld was a three-year starter at second base for the Ramapo College baseball team in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he earned all-New Jersey Athletic Conference honors and was a two-time New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association (NJCBA) all-star selection. He was named MVP of the 1997 NJCBA All-Star Game. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Ramapo College.