15 Athletes Who Retired and Came Back

In today’s society, a great athlete has more than just an outstanding ability to play his or her game of choice. It takes a lot of composure — and sometimes lack thereof — for a star to be a star. Staying in the spotlight means doing as many memorable things as possible, and sometimes that entails making a scene to keep heads turned. Here are fifteen famous athletes who retired only to make a comeback.

Michael Jordan

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His Swooshness is the most famous basketball player of all time, and arguably the greatest to ever play the game — but with great basketball skills comes a world of stress and pressure that even MJ wasn’t immune to. On October 6th, 1993; a few months after the murder of his father, Michael Jordan announced his retirement from the game of basketball.  In the Space Jam version of the story, Michael felt he wanted to honor his father’s wish to see him as a professional baseball player, so he gave up the game of basketball to play for a White Sox minor league team for about a year.

But rumors abound that Jordan’s father’s murder — and Jordan’s subsequent retirement — may have been related to large outstanding gambling debts.  It’s even rumored that the NBA commissioner, David Stern, told Jordan that because of his popularity and importance to the game of basketball he should retire for a short amount of time so the public wouldn’t find out about his gambling problems.  What is known for sure is that on March 18th, 1995, Jordan returned to the league, donning the number 45 (his baseball number), and went on to win three more of his total six championships.  Jordan would go on to retire again from playing basketball, only to return once more for the Washington Wizards in 2001.  He finally retired “for real” in 2003, this time to pursue business interests such as owning part of the Charlotte Bobcats (he had formerly been a part owner of the Wizards). He was indecisive as he was amazing.

Wilt Chamberlain

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Perhaps the most dominant center to ever play the game, Wilt Chamberlain was the kind of man who could do anything: dunk, block and sleep with 20,000 women in the course of his career. He stood over 7 feet tall and weighed as much as 300 pounds.  But after retiring from the game he loved after many successful years and two championships, Chamberlain made a very unusual comeback.  Instead of returning to the sport he had excelled in, Chamberlain instead chose to take up Volleyball.  He was pretty successful, but volleyball?  C’mon, that’s not very cool.

Roger Clemens

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 The Rocket is one of the most successful pitchers of all time.  He won over 350 games, 6 Cy Young awards and was an 11-time All Star, as well as two World Series’ with the Yankees in 1999 and 2000.  After losing in 2003 in the World Series to the Marlins, Clemens retired.  But the next year he was back, playing with his hometown Houston Astros from 2004-06.  He used this extra time to add to his already ridiculous resume when it came to strikeouts, wins and innings pitched as well as cause annual speculation on whether he was done for good or just gearing up for another comeback. 

In 2007 he came back to the Yankees again for part of the season, signing a contract that would have paid him almost $5 million a month over the course of the 2007 season.  Finally, at the end of the 2007 season, he left baseball for good.  After a long and successful career it came out that Clemens was a steroid user, which he continually denies even in the face of mounting evidence.  Steroid use was probably central to his ability to pitch for so long with so much success.  On second thought, it was definitely indispensable.

Brett Favre

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Brett Favre is a gunslinger, and a gunslinger never likes to hang up his stirrups.  After a less than glorious career in college, Favre was drafted in 1991 by the Atlanta Falcons.  The coach hated him, he didn’t play except to throw interceptions, and was traded the following offseason to the Green Bay Packers.  Wisconsin must have agreed with him, because in the following 16 seasons he would start every game, win three MVP awards and a Super Bowl ring. 

But on March 4th, 2008 Favre announced his retirement from the NFL.  He seemed to say that while he still had the ability to play, he no longer had the drive.  Soon after he would refute this, claiming he was pushed out by Green Bay and that he “never fully committed” to retirement.  The Green Bay coaching/management staff and Favre got into some whiny drama, but it ended with the Packers trading Favre to the NY Jets for the 2008 season.  It was a season marred by inconsistent play for Favre, especially in the final five weeks of the season.  The Jets didn’t make the playoffs, and after the season Favre retired again…  Only to return again with the Minnesota Vikings the following year! 

In 2009 Favre splashed on the scene with his Green Bay arch-rival Vikings and quickly got off to a 10-1 start on the season.  Although faltering towards the end of the season, the Vikings made the playoffs, beating the Cowboys to get into the NFC Championship game.  The game went into overtime, and the final play of Favre’s season was throwing an interception which led to Saints’ victory and New Orleans’ eventual Super Bowl victory.  It turns out that sometimes you should just stay retired in Mississippi, no matter how awful that sounds.  But who knows, Favre may come back next year.  In fact, it’s almost guaranteed.  Bonus fun fact:  Favre is the only player ever to defeat all 32 NFL teams during his career.

Ricky Williams

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When Ricky Williams entered the NFL draft in 1999 as the top rusher in college history and a former Heisman winner, there was a lot of interest in him.  No one had more than Mike Ditka and the New Orleans Saints, who traded all their draft picks in order to grab Williams.  Using Master P as his agent, Williams signed a contract laden with incentive clauses, essentially to make the kind of money a star of his magnitude would ordinarily make just for showing up.  It didn’t work out in New Orleans, where he was plagued with injuries and eventually was traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2002. 

After two seasons with the Dolphins, going into the 2004 season, Williams tested positive for marijuana for the second time and was subsequently suspended for four games.  Instead of just taking the suspension and returning later in the season, Williams instead chose to retire, mainly because he didn’t want to be told what to do.  But what happened next?  Williams returned to the Dolphins in 2005, served his four-game suspension and came back with a passion.  His best year since his return was in 2009 when he rushed for 1,000 yards for the first time in six years, and 2010 looks brighter than ever.

Lance Armstrong

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Who pedals fast as Lance in the Tour de France?  No one does.  But what few people know is that he didn’t even win the event until being diagnosed with testicular cancer.  In 1996, when he was 25, Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer and retired from professional cycling.  He returned in 1998, finishing fourth in the Vuelta a España, and then went on to win 7 consecutive Tour de France titles.  After winning the 7th, in 2005, Armstrong officially retired from pro cycling.  He came back to the sport once again in 2009, racing to raise awareness about global cancer.  He continues to race, and plans to compete in this year’s Tour de France.

Magic Johnson

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Perhaps the freshest player to ball, Earvin “Magic” Johnson was a stellar point guard for the Lakers.  Magic was a former NCAA champion, and led his team to a championship as a rookie in the NBA. Johnson was even named the Finals MVP.  In the coming decade he won four more titles, as well as three MVP awards and created the most compelling and dynamic rivalry basketball has ever seen between his Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics. 

Before the 1991-92 season, Magic tested positive for HIV and immediately declared his retirement.  But his fans voted him into the All-star game, and despite the paranoid fears of some players (even former teammates) that Magic would contaminate them with his HIV (which everyone knows is transmitted primarily through playing basketball) Johnson played in the game and was crowned its MVP.  He went on to play in the 1992 Olympics with the dream team, as well as a brief stint again with the Lakers in 1996, after which he retired permanently.  He continues to raise awareness about HIV as well as be a central figure in analyzing the game of basketball.

Allen Iverson

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The Answer didn’t take too long to get into the NBA.  He played two seasons in college at Georgetown and then was selected #1 overall in the 1996 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.  In the coming years, scoring titles, MVP’s, and a trip to the Finals (he lost) would follow.  But Iverson was plagued by his selfishness, and no matter how well he played individually he was unable to win a championship because he couldn’t facilitate team play successfully.  His attitude and unwillingness to cooperate ended up forcing the 76ers to trade him in 2006 to the Denver Nuggets. 

He was then traded again to Detroit in 2008, but was deactivated in the second half of the season.  In 2009, Iverson signed a one-year contract with the Memphis Grizzlies, played three games and then left for “personal reasons.” It appeared Iverson’s career was over as the Grizzlies released him from his contract.  But it was all a trick so he could return in the same season with the…76ers!  Apparently they hadn’t learned their lesson from the first round.  Iverson continued to be a bum, and it was rumored (more like taken for granted) that much of his personal problems were related to alcohol and gambling.  He played for a little while, and then claimed he had to leave for family related issues once more; the 76ers released him halfway through the 2009-10 season.  Hopefully, he’s done for good — he sucks, both as a human being and a basketball player.

Michael Vick

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Everyone knows about the dogs, but a lot of people forget the rest.  After impressive high school and college quarterbacking, Michael Vick was selected by the Atlanta Falcons with the first overall pick (they traded up with the Chargers to get the pick).  Once in the league he became a dynamic player, but demonstrated time and again that he was way better as a scrambler than a true passer. 

In 2007 he was suspended indefinitely by the NFL after pleading guilty to federal charges for his role in a Virginia dog-fighting ring.  He was also forced to pay back almost $20 million to the Falcons.  Vick didn’t retire as much as he was forced into retirement by a prison sentence which ended in July 2009.  Vick has since returned to play football with the Philadelphia Eagles as a backup quarterback in the 2009-10 season, during which he wasn’t given very much playing time.  He has been named the starting quarterback for the Eagles in 2010, after the trade of Donovan McNabb to the Washington Redskins.

Deion Sanders

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Neon Deion (or “Prime Time”) is an athletic freak.  He was a professional baseball and football player, and he played the two sports at the same time.  Over the course of his career, Sanders played for a myriad of teams such as the Yankees, Cowboys, 49ers, Braves, and Redskins.  During this time he was the premier cornerback in the NFL; he won two Super Bowl rings, and went to eight Pro Bowls.  It was after playing with the Redskins for a year that he retired originally in 2001 (he retired from baseball for good in 2001 as well).  He contemplated a return in 2002, but ultimately decided to stay put…until 2004, when he came back with the Ravens. Wearing number 37 (his age at the time), Sanders clearly knew his days in the league were numbered, despite his precocious abilities.  After two more years of playing for the Ravens (and getting his 9thinterception return touchdown), Sanders hung it up for good in 2006 to become an analyst for the NFL network.

Mario Lemieux

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Lemieux was a Montreal Forward who played his career for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and was known for his prolific scoring as well as his domineering size.  He won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992, and led Canada to a gold medal in the Olympics in 2002.  After breaking on the scene with seasons that challenged Wayne Gretzky’s dominance over the sport, Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the middle of the 1992-93 season. He was forced to undergo two months of radiation before returning against the Flyers (where the Philadelphia fans gave him a standing ovation) and getting right back to where he left off. Lemieux’s return to Pittsburgh led to winning an NFL record of 17 consecutive games.  Lemieux was having issues from radiation and back problems that sidelined him for much of the following season. 

In 1997 Lemieux decided to retire. Soon after, the Penguins management went under — in an unusual twist, Lemieux used the $30 million they owed him to purchase the failing team.  By 2000 he had decided it was time to come back as an owner-player.  He played the next 6 seasons, but could never play them in their entirety due to his health issues.  In 2006 he retired for good, as one of the most famous hockey players ever to get on ice.

George Foreman

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Unfortunately for him, Foreman is most famous for getting knocked out by Ali in “The Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974.  But what few people know is that the year before he knocked out Joe Frazier quite handily.  He had eleven children, and named all the boys George because he thought it would be funny.  In 1977, after losing a decision to Jimmy Young, Foreman had a near death experience that convinced him to become a born-again Christian.  For the next ten years he didn’t step into a ring.

In 1987 at the age of 38, Foreman returned to prove that 40 wasn’t a death sentence and that he could still compete.  For the next 7 years he proved this, winning most of his fights and performing admirably in his losing bouts.  Then in 1994 at the age of 45, Foreman reclaimed the heavyweight title from Michael Moorer (age 26), 20 years after he last owned the belt.  He continued to fight for three years after, but this was the highlight of his comeback.  In 1997 Foreman fought for the last time, retiring to become a boxing analyst and grill salesman.

Muhammad Ali

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Born Cassius Clay in 1942, he would be known as Muhammad Ali, Olympic gold medalist and three-time heavyweight champion of the world.  Ali beat the crap out of brand names such as Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.  But in 1967, after refusing to fight in Vietnam when he was drafted, Ali’s boxing license was revoked.  For the next three years he would be unable to fight —  but in 1970, with the help of a Georgia state senator (and later the New York Supreme Court),

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 In the past, fighters such as Foreman, Ali and Frazier ruled the boxing landscape.  Today, only one man has that kind of staying, intrinsic fame within the sport:  Floyd Mayweather Jr.  Mayweather is undefeated in 41 bouts and has won 25 by knockout.  He has won world boxing championships in 5 different weight classes.  After a much publicized bout with Ricky Hatton (which Mayweather won), he surprisingly chose to retire in June 2008.  However, even Mayweather’s own father said he would be back — and he was right. 

On September 19th, 2009 Mayweather slaughtered Juan Manuel Marquez in 12 rounds.  Since then he has gone on to fight and defeat Shane Mosley in a unanimous decision.  He is considered by many to be the best pound for pound boxer in the world, and is looking for his next big money bout.


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Perhaps the most famous soccer player of all time, Pele got his start in professional football at the age of 16, playing for Santos in Sao Paulo in 1956.  That year he was the leading scorer in the league.  At 17 he won his first World Cup, leading Brazil to a victory over Sweden in the final match in 1958.  Two more World Cup victories followed, and Pele’s devastating offensive skills were showcased across the globe.  In 1967, two feuding Nigerian factions called a 48 hour ceasefire of the Nigerian civil war to watch Pele play an exhibition game in Lagos.  In 1969, 13 years after he debuted, Pele scored his 1000th goal (O Milesimo).

After playing 17 seasons with Santos, in 1972 Pele decided to semi-retire.  He would occasionally come out for some matches, but he stopped playing football consistently.  Two years later he signed with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League to play for three more seasons just because he could. 

The presence of Pele raised American interest in soccer drastically.  In his final match, Pele played in an exhibition match between his original club Santos and the Cosmos, playing a half for each team.  Pele scored in the first half for Cosmos, who ended up winning the game 2-1.  At the end of the match Pele ran around the field holding a Brazilian flag in one hand and an American flag in the other.  Everyone cheered.

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