20 Great Athletes Who Unretired
Tony Gonzalez was "95 percent" sure he was going to retire. Then he changed his mind.
By: Nathan Rush | 3/14/13, 5:45 PM EDT
Turns out, Tony Gonzalez is not retiring after all. Arguably the greatest tight end in history is returning to the Atlanta Falcons for the 2013 season, his 17th year in the NFL — despite previously being “95 percent” sure that 2012 would be his last season.
“I’m happy to say that after speaking with my family, I’m coming back,” Gonzalez said in a series of tweets on Tuesday.
“The lure of being on such a great team and organization, along with unbelievable fan support was too good to pass up.
“We have a great shot to get to the Super Bowl, RISE UP ATLANTA!”
Gonzo is the latest — but not the only and surely not the last — high-profile athlete to have one foot out the door before pivoting back to the pros for another run. These are the top 10 athletes to “unretire,” in order of the success they had upon their respective returns.
1. Michael Jordan
Retired: 1993, 1998, 2003
Unretired: 1995, 2001
His Airness uttered the most famous comeback line ever in 1995, when Jordan returned to the NBA following the first of three retirements. After playing minor league baseball in the Chicago White Sox organization, MJ jumped back onto the court to lead the Chicago Bulls to three more NBA championships and the greatest single-season record (72–10) in history.
Jordan walked away from the game again after hitting the championship-clinching final shot in the 1998 NBA Finals. But MJ couldn’t stay away, so he unretired again in 2001, playing two seasons with the Washington Wizards before finally retiring — for the final time? — as a 40-year-old.
“One day you may look up and see me playing a game at 50,” Jordan said during his infamous Hall of Fame induction speech in 2009. “Don’t laugh.”
2. George Foreman
Retired: 1977, 1997
Following a life-altering, near-death experience in a loss to Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico, Foreman took a decade off before making an historic comeback at 38 years old. The former champ more than held his own, going a full 12 rounds with Evander Holyfield as a 42-year-old in 1991 and becoming the oldest heavyweight champion in history after knocking out Michael Moorer as a 45-year, 299-day-old 250-plus-pounder in 1994.
3. Brett Favre
Retired: 2006 (kind of), 2008 (sort of), 2009 (maybe), 2011 (definitely)
Unretired: 2007, 2008, 2009
The undisputed king of the fake retirement, Favre became synonymous with indecisiveness to the point where Super Bowl commercials mocked his inability to make up his mind. Favre’s emotional final press conference as a Packer in 2008 was followed by a change of heart and a trade to the Jets. A sex scandal and retirement later, Favre was off to play for the Vikings, where he had one of his best seasons ever as a 40-year-old before being knocked out of the game for good.
4. Floyd Mayweather
Retired: 2006, 2008
Unretired: 2007, 2009
“Money” Mayweather returned to the ring in 2007 for a cool $25 million to fight Oscar De La Hoya — in a fight that set a new record for most pay-per-view purchases in boxing history, as 2.4 million households paid the price. Then, in 2008, Mayweather canceled a lucrative rematch with De La Hoya and “decided to permanently retire from boxing.” Floyd’s fought four times since, making an estimated $100-million-plus over that stretch. Imagine how much cash Mayweather could bag if he fought Manny Pacquiao?
5. Randall Cunningham
Retired: 1995, 2001
One of the most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks of all-time, Cunningham retired as the scrambling Tecmo Bowl legend “QB Eagles,” then returned to post arguably his finest season in the NFL — throwing for 3,704 yards, 34 TDs and a 106.0 passer rating for the 15–1 Vikings in 1998.
6. Roger Clemens
Retired: 2003, 2006, 2007
Unretired: 2004, 2007, 2012
Just last season, a 50-year-old Rocket was pitching in the Independent League for the Sugar Land Skeeters, sparking speculation that the seven-time Cy Young Award winner would pitch again for MLB’s Houston Astros. Clemens was the ace of the short season, arriving in midseason form — at midseason — in his early-to-mid-40s for both the Astros and New York Yankees.
7. Mario Lemieux
Retired: 1997, 2006
Super Mario retired due to back problems and a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis before throwing his hat back on the ice in December 2000. Following a 44-month retirement, Lemieux joined Gordie Howe and Guy Lafeur as the third Hall of Famer to play after being inducted. Lemieux won a gold medal as the captain of Team Canada at both the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
8. Mark Martin
True, the ageless wonder never left the NASCAR track. But Martin did take a last lap in 2006, his supposed final season running a full-time schedule. Three years later, Martin was a five-time winner and Cup runner-up while racing full 36-race slate for the top team in the business, Hendrick Motorsports. Martin only ran 24 races last season and there is speculation that this will be the 54-year-old’s final race to the finish. But after a third-place finish at this year’s Daytona 500, it’s hard to believe Martin is going to park his car.
Retired: 1972, 1977
A living legend, Pele stopped playing full-time for his Brazilian club Santos in 1972. The three-time World Cup champion came out of his quasi-retirement to play for the New York Cosmos in 1975, however, instantly becoming the face of the upstart NASL. Fittingly, Pele went out in style in an exhibition match between Santos and Cosmos on ABC’s Wide World of Sports in 1977.
10. Sugar Ray Leonard
Retired: 1982, 1987, 1991, 1997
Unretired: 1984, 1988, 1991, 1996
A detached retina started a string of retirement-comebacks for Sugar Ray, who won the WBC middleweight title belt from Marvin Hagler in 1987 to highlight his many moves in and out of the ring. His last few bouts had mixed results, as he defeated Roberto Duran to take a 2–1 career lead over the Panamanian in 1989, then lost to Terry Norris in 1991 and suffered a TKO to Hector Camacho as a 40-year-old in 1997.
11. Deion Sanders
Retired: 2000, 2005
At 37 years old, Prime Time returned to the gridiron to team up with good buddies Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as a member of the Baltimore Ravens. Once the fastest man in the NFL, Deion wore No. 37 to remind opponents just how old he was. In two seasons, Sanders hauled in five INTs for 144 yards and his ninth career pick-six.
12. Ricky Williams
Retired: 2004, 2011
After leading the NFL in carries in back-to-back seasons and failing a few drug tests, Ricky went up in smoke — retiring from football after earning both an NFL rushing title and Heisman Trophy. Williams served a suspension, studied yoga and played a little ball in Canada before returning to the league, where he posted an 1,100-yard, 11-TD season in 2009 but never regained his All-Pro pre-retirement form.
13. Ryne Sandberg
Retired: 1994, 1997
After struggling to stay healthy and hitting a combined 14 home runs during the 1993 and 1994 seasons, Sandberg hung up his spikes and sat out the 1995 season. The 1984 NL MVP returned in 1996, however, hitting 25 HRs and 92 RBIs as a 36-year-old in 1996 and taking one last trot around the bases in 1997 before retiring — for good this time.
14. Magic Johnson
Retired: 1991, 1996
After retiring from the NBA due to HIV in 1991, Magic was named MVP of the 1992 NBA All-Star Game and won a gold medal as a member of the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. But he didn’t officially return to the NBA until 1996, when Johnson played 32 games, primarily as a power forward, averaging career lows in points (14.6 ppg), rebounds (5.7 rpg) and assists (6.9 apg).
15. Justine Henin
Retired: 2008, 2011
A seven-time Grand Slam champion, Henin retired while ranked No. 1 in the world and set to return to the French Open, where she was the three-time defending champion heading into the 2008 event. She returned to the courts in 2010, but a brutal elbow injury suffered at Wimbledon derailed the comeback attempt and ended a brilliant career.
16. Lance Armstrong
Retired: 2005, 2011
The seven-time Tour de France winner — results that have since been voided due to a steroid scandal that finally caught up with the yellow-bellied yellow jersey-wearing cyclist and cancer survivor — probably wishes he hadn’t come back in 2009. After finishing third and 23rd in the 2009 and 2010 Tours de France, Armstrong peddled away from the sport in 2011 but ultimately couldn’t outrace his past.
17. Reggie White
Retired: 1999, 2001
The Minister of Defense played 13 consecutive Pro Bowl seasons with the Eagles and Packers before retiring following the 1998 season. The 2000’s were not as kind to the gentle giant, as White managed a career-low 5.5 sacks — just the third single-digit sack total of his NFL career — during his solo season with the Panthers.
18. Bjorn Borg
Retired: 1983, 1993
The 11-time Grand Slam winner grew his hair out long like the old days and grabbed a wooden racket nearly a full decade after leaving the courts. But the Swede was ill-prepared for the comeback, failing to win a single set in his first nine matches back.
19. Bob Cousy
Retired: 1963, 1970
The Houdini of the Hardwood spiked ticket sales in Cincinnati as a 41-year-old player-coach, suiting up for seven games at the end of the 1970 season — averaging an un-Cousy-like 0.7 points and 1.4 assists while sharing the court with legends such as Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas.
20. Muhammad Ali
Retired: 1979, 1981
Two of Ali’s five career losses came during a comeback effort that, in hindsight, may have contributed to the current physical state of the boxing icon who famously could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” during his prime. Back-to-back losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick proved disastrous in both the short and long term for Ali.
Most Popular Articles
Sign Up For Our Newsletter
Get the latest news and find out what our Athlon Sports experts have to say each week.
Contests & Promotions
Athlon Sports Fantasy Racing!
Enter the Athlon Sports Fantasy Racing game. Just head over to athlon.myfantasyracing.com and register for your chance to win a chance to watch a 2014 race from the grandstands. You'll also have a chance to win other amazing prizes such as an autographed Kyle Busch helmet.