Learning when to walk away is key for any sports star. Staying too long can damage the image of a great athlete, but when they do come back and it’s a slam dunk like Michael Jordan, it’s a great feel-good story.
That is what sports is at times, great feel-good stories, and with the return of Tom Brady to the NFL, it is another indicator that great players leave when they want to, not when their told.
Here is a list of 25 sports stars who came out of retirement and tried to make a comeback. The situation may vary, and the end result may be different but all 25 wanted to return and make a splash, this is how they fared.
25. Tom Brady
The greatest NFL player of all-time Tom Brady retired in 2022 after winning 7 Super Bowls, 5 Super Bowl MVPs, and 3 NFL regular season MVP awards. Brady at 44 still has something left in the tank and after only 40 days of retirement he announced he’d be back with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the 2022 season.
24. Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Pretty boy Floyd Mayweather Jr was boxing’s pound for pound best and retired a total of three times, nonetheless Mayweather still has a professional boxing record of 50-0, undefeated in 5 weight classes. Despite his out of ring persona, Mayweather was a great defensive boxer and came out of retirement on three occasions usually for big time money fights and today boxes in exhibition bouts. His comebacks can be graded as B+ given that they were demanding fights that at times failed to meet expectations.
23. Landon Donovan
Landon Donovan was the poster boy of American soccer for much of the 2000s, a player known for showing up in big games. Donovan was one of the best players in the 2002 and 2010 World Cups for the USMNT. In MLS Donovan had an exceptional career winning 6 MLS Cups, despite retiring in 2014 he did comeback to two terrible stints, a poor 6 game run with the Galaxy in 2016 and a marketing stunt with Leon of Liga MX in 2018. Grade F.
22. Lance Armstrong
Winner of seven consecutive Tour de France, Lance Armstrong retired in 2005 and was considered one of the greatest athletes in history. Unfortunately, a big doping scandal would tarnish his career and achievements. Armstrong tried to clear his name and reputation with a comeback in 2009 but did not win the Tour de France. Grade F.
21. Gordie Howe
NHL legend Gordie Howe retired in 1971 at 43 after an amazing career, even more amazing was he came out of semi-retirement eight years later and played in the NHL and had a decent season for the Hartford Whalers, scoring 16 goals and 27 assists. Grade B+
20. Daniel Bard
Relief pitcher Daniel Bard played on and off for the Boston Red Sox from 2009 - 2013, after dropping out and failed attempts to make any MLB roster in 2020 he got his chance with the Colorado Rockies and has steadily been rebuilding his career since. Grade C
19. Troy Percival
Another MLB pitcher who had two comebacks was Troy Percival, the first one in 2007 with St. Louis and in 2008 with the Tampa Bay Rays where he saved 28 games for the club. Grade B+
One of the greatest attacking midfielders in Brazilian soccer history, and that is saying a lot, Zico retired after a celebrated career in 1989. When the Japanese J-League began in the early 90s, Zico was tempted out of retirement with a big contract to play for the Kashima Antlers and he delivered 35 goals in 45 games. Grade A+
17. Johan Cruyff
Legendary Netherlands player Johan Cruyff played for Ajax and Barcelona and retired after a storied career. Upon hanging his boots up Cruyff was tempted to play in the NASL for the Los Angeles Aztecs and later the Washington Diplomats. The great attacking midfielder and forward would return to Europe and play in Spain and again at Ajax producing excellent numbers. Grade A+
16. Arjen Robben
Another Netherlands great Arjen Robben played for such big clubs like PSV, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Winner of 30 titles throughout his career, Robben came out of retirement to play with his first club FC Groningen, as a way to help the club financially due to COVID-19 losses. Robben, well past his prime played in only 6 matches. Grade - F
15. Dominik Hasek
The iconic NHL goalie Dominik Hasek retired in 2002 in order to spend time with his family. In 2003 that changed quickly as Hasek laced up his skates and returned to the Red Wings. Hasek would play until 2008 before calling it a day in the NHL. Grade B+
14. Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon retired unofficially when he decided to not race full time in the NASCAR Cup circuit. In 2016 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was injured, Gordon hopped back into a race car and drove as a substitute. Grade - C
13. Brett Favre
Brett Favre called it a day in March of 2008, but then changed his mind and returned in 2009 with the New York Jets. It was with the Minnesota Vikings that Favre turned back the clock and produced 2 solid years getting the Vikings just one game from the Super Bowl. Grade B+
12. Björn Borg
Swedish Tennis star Björn Borg was once a world number 1 player and winner of 11 Grand Slam tournaments, who first retired in 1982. 10 years later in 1991 the tennis star returned but to little fanfare, his comeback lasting three years with embarrassing losses. Grade - F
11. Joe Louis
Boxing icon Joe Louis returned to the ring in 1951 for a mega fight with Rocky Marciano. Louis, who was in a financial bind, did his best and held his own against the up-and-coming Marciano, going down in the eighth round. Only losing three times in his career, during his comeback Louis won 8 fights and dropped 2. Grade B+
10. Diego Maradona
Diego Maradona was the greatest soccer player of all time during his days in Napoli and with Argentina in the mid 80’s to his first fall from grace in 1991. Maradona would be suspended for cocaine abuse and his first of many comebacks in Sevilla of Spain in 1992 ended after all of one season. In trying to prepare for the 1994 World Cup in the United States, Maradona would play all of 5 games at Newell’s Old Boys before being expelled from the 94 tournament for intaking a banned substance. Maradona would try a third time to return to the sport he loved so much playing three seasons with Boca Juniors. Although his time at Boca was always on again off again, usually with Diego dealing with his addictions. Maradona had two careers, everything from the start to his first doping suspension in 1991 and the downward spiral afterward. Grade - D
9. Jim Eisenreich
Outfielder Jim Eisenreich was forced to retire from 1994-1987 due to his battle with Tourette syndrome. In 1987 Eisenreich returned to the Kansas City Royals, eventually winning a World Series with the Florida Marlins. Grade A-
8. Deion Sanders
“Prime Time” as Deion Sanders was known, stepped away from the NFL in 2001 after only one season with the then Washington Redskins. Then in 2004 in a shock move “Neon” Deion came back with the Baltimore Ravens. Grade C+
7. Magic Johnson
Forced to retire in 1991 due to being diagnosed with HIV and the stigma there was around the virus at that time, the NBA lost one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Nonetheless when the world became a bit more informed and understanding, Magic made a comeback in 1995 playing one season with the Lakers. Despite the long hiatus and stigma that there was at the time, Magic averaged a respectable 14.6 PPG during his 32 games. Grade A
6. George Foreman
George Foreman retired from boxing in 1977 forever pointed as the man knocked out by Muhammad Ali in Zaire. 10 years later at near 40 and considered a laughingstock the now easy going and “fun” Foreman began to shed his bad guy image and was known as the “yes we can” athlete. It all culminated when at 45 Foreman knocked out reigning heavyweight champion Michael Moorer and became WBA and IBF heavyweight champion. Foreman would sell his grills and fight four more times and retire at 48 with a better image and an even bigger wallet. Grade A+
5. Martina Hingis
Former women's tennis star Martina Hingis returned many times to the sport, first retiring in 2003 due to injuries. She later came back in 2005 but was suspended for testing positive for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine. Hingis would return on again off again until 2017. The 5-time Grand Slam champion never really ever showed her full potential after her first retirement but did find success in doubles. Grade C+
4. Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps retired from swimming in 2012 after the Olympic games and with 22 medals to his name. After battling depression and a few arrests he made a comeback in the 2016 Olympics, adding six more medals to his resume. Grade A
3. Muhammad Ali
The greatest, Ali left the sport of boxing in 1979 with a 59-3 record and an image that no athlete has yet to ever achieve. Then he was convinced to make a comeback and lost both fights, one worse than the other showing signs of his Parkinson's disease. Grade F
2. Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan retired after the murder of his father in 1993, winning three NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls in a row. In 1995 MJ returned and won three straight from 1996-1998. Jordan’s second comeback was in 2001 with the Washington Wizards and still his airness was able to put up decent numbers considering his age and team he played for. Grade A+
1. Sugar Ray Leonard
No comeback will ever be as defining and great as the comeback by Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987 after a four-year layoff to face then WBC and The Ring middleweight champion Marvin Hagler. In one of the greatest fights in boxing history the tight contest was decided on the scorecards and the flashy Leonard defeated the powerful Hagler in a decision that is still debated to this day. The context of the fight is what makes the comeback great, Marvin Hagler was by far one of the best boxers in the world and Leonard took no warmup fights to face the towering Hagler, instead going straight at him. Leonard showed no ring rust and at times dominated parts of the fight. Grade A+