Sports Stars Who Turned Down Millions and Quit

Giving Up the Cash for Other Priorities

Sports Stars Who Turned Down Millions and Quit
October 1, 2015

Who would walk away from a job that pays millions of dollars and earns the support of thousands of cheering fans? It happens periodically in the sporting world, and on occasion, the early retirements come in clusters.

The recent NFL offseason saw an unusual number of stars, or budding stars, leave the game early and on their own terms, for a variety of reasons. Jake Locker, former quarterback of the Tennessee Titans, walked away from a potential free-agent contract because he no longer had "the burning desire necessary to play the game for a living." Jason Worilds, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, retired at the age of 27 in order to devote more time to his faith. However, an increasing number of NFL players are retiring not because of current health concerns, but because of the potential for future ones — especially with the risk of head trauma and related disorders.

Veteran linebacker Patrick Willis and running back Maurice Jones-Drew also retired this offseason with money left on the table. In both cases, cumulative injuries were taking their toll and played a factor in their decision to retire.

The shocker of this offseason was linebacker Chris Borland who retired after one impressive season, specifically over concerns about head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In Borland's own words, "from what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."

Early retirement may be a recent trend in football, but it is not a completely new development, nor is it limited only to football. Here are a few other athletes who retired short of fully cashing in on their sporting talents.

  • Björn Borg – The Swedish tennis star had a seven-year run of dominance including five straight Wimbledon championships and six French Open titles, but he lost the passion for the sport and abruptly retired in 1983 at age 26. He went on to establish a successful fashion label under his name. Then, surprising many, Borg (pictured below) attempted a comeback nearly ten years later, but ultimately failed. Speaking about it more than a decade later, Björn admitted to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, “'I can't explain except to say I wanted to play again. It was madness.”


  • Annika Sörenstam – Sorenstam is one of the top female golfers ever to play, with 72 victories on the LPGA tour. She retired in 2008 to pursue other interests, from a sport where it is possible to earn significant money well into older age. Arguably, she made a wise choice, as her successful enterprises range from a golf academy and course design group, to financial advisory services.

  • Sandy Koufax – Probably the most stunning retirement in baseball history was the 1966 retirement of Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers at the age of 30. Koufax (pictured below) had just led his team to the World Series and captured his third Cy Young award earlier that year. He had a fastball so nasty that Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell likened hitting it to "drinking coffee with a fork." Koufax retired because he was afraid of further damaging his arm, which was plagued by chronic arthritis.


  • Barry Sanders – After ten straight Pro Bowls, the Detroit Lions running back hung up his cleats at age 30, saying that he had lost his passion for the game. It is possible that the team's inability to regularly advance in the playoffs and the relative lack of talent around him influenced his decision to hang it up early.

  • Pat Tillman – Tillman may be the most well-known of the early NFL retirees for tragic reasons. Motivated by the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., he rejected a multi-million dollar deal with the Arizona Cardinals to join the service. Tillman became an Army Ranger and was killed almost two years later by friendly fire.

  • Jim Brown – While he may not have made millions given the salary structure at the time, it is worth ending with Jim Brown (pictured below,) the famous running back from the Cleveland Browns who turned artist, actor, and activist. He retired at 29 and in 2002 was named by Sporting News magazine as the greatest professional football player ever.

There will always be outliers who retire early from any sport, but given the way the game is played now, and the increased awareness and risk of injury, expect football players to lead the list of early retirements in the future. Rest assured that the folks at NFL headquarters are thinking hard about ways to retain their players, despite the risks associated with the sport.


Header photo ©iStock.com/paparazzit | Bjorn Borg photo by Anefo / Croes, R.C. [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons | Sandy Koufax publicity still (N.Y. Public Library Picture Collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Jim Brown By Malcolm W. Emmons (The Sporting News Archives) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  Conversation   |   35 Comments

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Steffanie | 10.01.15 @ 16:03
If you have lost the passion for the sport, money doesn't matter.
Daniel Dohlstrom | 10.01.15 @ 16:03
Seems some used a little thought to leave before they were seriously injured or leave while at top of their game. Good for them
Kathryn | 10.01.15 @ 16:05
If you don't enjoy your job you shouldn't be doing it! People should take on the careers that make them happy. Whether it's millions or thousands. As long as you can support yourself (or your family) and I makes you happy, go for it.
Sarah | 10.01.15 @ 16:06
Money is not everything... they had reasons that had little to do with the money.
Erin | 10.01.15 @ 16:06
I can absolutely see retiring for health reasons. A game, no matter how much you love it, is not worth the risk to your future life.
gracie | 10.01.15 @ 16:07
I think players are becoming smarter. They enjoy the glory make enough money to enjoy their lives and move on before their body has suffered crippling damage. Kudos to them for knowing when to walk away and enjoy the rest of their lives
Sara | 10.01.15 @ 16:08
I think a lot are smart and leave before they get really hurt. Other probably got bored. Some probably wanted family time.. Hey I commend them for leaving and not just thinking about the money.
Beverly | 10.01.15 @ 16:08
It's good to see that there are some out there that are driven by more than just money out there when the joy has left them.
Jennifer Sears | 10.01.15 @ 16:10
Better to have a job that you're happy with, personally.
Carla Truett | 10.01.15 @ 16:10
Glad to know that a lot of these athletes lives were not centered around money.
Angie | 10.01.15 @ 16:10
I've always wondered if the trade-off for money over possible injuries is worth a lifetime of pain.
Kamie | 10.01.15 @ 16:14
It wasn't that they left the money, they still had money saved up everywhere gaining interest. They were done, and tired, and ready to have a "normal" life.
Elaine | 10.01.15 @ 16:17
No amount of money is worth your health, so I would retire too.
Steven | 10.01.15 @ 16:22
At least they quit before they had no choice but to.
trish | 10.01.15 @ 16:23
When you leave a job for lack of passion or due to risk of health, or for family reasons, no amount of money should force you to stay. Good for them.
Chelsey | 10.01.15 @ 16:25
It's good to hear that some of these folks looked into how dangerous their sport is before continuing. All the money in the world wont' matter if your not around to use it.
Bobbie | 10.01.15 @ 16:26
When it's no longer fun, or you feel you have a different calling, it's time to quit, and that goes for any job.
Britt | 10.01.15 @ 16:33
If you don't have the passion for what you're doing, the money can't make it better
Irene | 10.01.15 @ 16:36
Must be a hard choice to make but some things are more important than money.
Selena Walls | 10.01.15 @ 16:38
Doesn't matter how much you make, if you dislike what you are doing, you'll never be happy.
Nancy | 10.01.15 @ 16:40
A lot of legitimate reasons to walk away. For me, one of the most compelling reasons is the head trauma correlation to future brain disabilities. It some of these cases it takes bravery to walk away from such a lucrative career.
Debbie | 10.01.15 @ 16:45
Its refreshing to see that their not all in it for the money, they actually enjoy playing the sport still.
Meredith L | 10.01.15 @ 16:47
Well, for the most part, the title pulled me in. It's not that all of them left money on the table but actually went on to pursue other things and become even more successful. As my father used to say, it's good to leave when you're on top because they will love you - but when you're doing something you love, you'll never work a day in your life.
Zanna | 10.01.15 @ 16:49
Any athlete who chooses their health over a career playing a game is making the right decision in my book.
Stokes | 10.01.15 @ 17:11
Life isn't all about the money.
Christina | 10.01.15 @ 17:12
I think you definitely have to have the drive to play. If that disappears and you keep playing, you're more likely to get injured also.
Heather | 10.01.15 @ 17:18
Sometimes you have to follow your heart. If it's not in the sport anymore then you won't have the drive. Sometimes money doesn't buy you happiness.
Alec | 10.01.15 @ 17:19
If you don't like your job, you shouldn't be doing it. And I don't blame them for quitting. Especially considering how much damage can be done to the players. Best to get the money and get out, doing a safer job.
Kailie | 10.01.15 @ 17:45
I don't blame them for wanting to quit. Sometimes if the passion isn't there, it's just not there.
Kyle | 10.01.15 @ 17:49
That is a lot of money to give up
Katie | 10.01.15 @ 18:02
This is interesting. You always hear how much people are making playing those sports, but you never hear about those who walked away from it.
Jo Ann | 10.01.15 @ 18:08
I respect those who quit and followed their dreams in other ways. Life is too short to continue in something that doesn't give you great joy, or honor. Money isn't everything, health and being able to enjoy life is important also.
Ron | 10.01.15 @ 18:13
I applaud those who made the decision for themselves and their families. There is more to life than fame and fortune, but making a small fortune and calling it a day isn't a bad idea, either.
Tina | 10.01.15 @ 18:18
This is fascinating. I'm glad to see money doesn't control these people who have lost their passion.
Leslie | 10.01.15 @ 19:09
I think it's great to see these athletes putting their health before their paychecks. It's just a shame that so many have had to suffer in the past because we just weren't aware of how dangerous some of these sports really are.
$commenter.renderDisplayableName() | 12.02.16 @ 18:05
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