When Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten retired at the end of the 2017 season, it capped off a 15-year career that included 11 Pro Bowls and 1,152 receptions — good for fourth all-time in NFL history. Witten followed the route taken by many former athletes and immediately launched a broadcasting career, joining ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth. After just one season on the air, Witten came out of retirement and rejoined the Cowboys on a one-year, $4.25 million deal for the 2019 season. Whether Witten can match his previous accomplishments remains to be seen, but it’s certainly not unheard of in the modern sports landscape. Here are 13 athletes who retired, only to come back bigger than ever.
Before the 1993 NBA season, after winning three consecutive NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan stunned the basketball world by retiring at age 30. His Airness said he had lost the desire to play the game and by the following spring, he was playing minor league baseball in the Chicago White Sox farm system.
Michael Jordan's Comeback After Retirement
Of course, Jordan returned near the end of the 1995 season and led the Bulls to a repeat of their championship three-peat, winning titles from 1996-98. He retired again in 1998, but that one didn’t take either, as he came back for a much less memorable stint with the Washington Wizards from 2001-03. Jordan won five NBA Most Valuable Player awards during his career.
George Foreman burst onto the boxing scene by taking home a gold medal in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Nearly five years later, he became world heavyweight champion after a knockout of Joe Frazier. After a loss to Jimmy Young in 1977 and a health scare that resulted from it, Foreman retired from boxing at age 28.
George Foreman's Comeback After Retirement
Ten years later, in 1987, Foreman returned to the ring and, in 1994 at age 45, he became the oldest heavyweight champion ever when he knocked out Michael Moorer. He retired for the final time in 1997.
Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre played 16 seasons for the Green Bay Packers, capturing three MVP awards and leading The Pack to a Super Bowl victory in 1997. But in 2008, he retired at age 38, saying he was “mentally tired.”
Brett Favre's Comeback After Retirement
Favre quickly changed his mind, but the Packers had moved on to Aaron Rodgers, leading Green Bay to trade Favre to the New York Jets. After just a single season with the Jets, Favre retired a second time, only to come back with the Minnesota Vikings for the 2009 season, leading them to a 12-4 regular-season record and the NFC championship game.
In 2012, at age 27, swimmer Michael Phelps announced his retirement. At that point, Phelps had won 22 Olympic medals — including 18 of the gold variety — and received a statuette to commemorate his status as the greatest Olympian of all time.
Michael Phelps' Comeback After Retirement
Phelps did return for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro and reinforced his status as the greatest Olympian ever. He won five more gold medals and threw in a silver medal for good measure. Phelps retired again after the 2016 Olympics, saying this time he meant it. His career medals tally: 23 gold, three silver and two bronze.
When he first retired from baseball in 2003, 41-year-old Roger Clemens had won six Cy Young Awards and more than 300 games, and he had struck out 4,000-plus batters while playing for the Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees.
Roger Clemens' Comeback After Retirement
In early 2004, however, Clemens unretired and signed with his home-state Houston Astros. He won another Cy Young Award in 2004 and another ERA title in 2005 — his seventh — all while leading the Astros to the most postseason success the franchise had experienced up to that point.
Center Mario Lemieux played 12 seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning two Conn Smythe trophies for leading the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992. But following the 1997 season, after coping with recurring back problems and a battle with cancer in the years prior, Lemieux retired at age 31.
Mario Lemieux's Comeback After Retirement
Following a 44-month retirement, Lemieux returned in December 2000 to help take the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Final in his first season back. He played another four seasons with the franchise, all while being part of the Penguins’ ownership group.
Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg was a 10-time All-Star with nine Gold Glove awards to his credit when, at 34, he retired midway through the strike-shortened 1994 season. As with many players, he cited a loss of desire to do what it takes to play every day.
Ryne Sandberg's Comeback After Retirement
Sandberg missed the 1995 season as well, but he returned to the Cubs in 1996, hitting 25 home runs to go with 92 runs batted in. He retired at the end of the following season and at the time was the all-time leader in home runs for a second baseman.
Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Floyd Mayweather won a bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games and went undefeated up until his first (of many) retirements in 2006. After winning the welterweight championship by beating Carlos Baldomir, Mayweather retired. He almost immediately reversed his decision, winning two more fights before retiring again in June 2008 at 31.
Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s Comeback After Retirement
Simply put, Mayweather only comes out of retirement to win fights. In 2009, Mayweather reentered the ring to fight (and defeat) Juan Manuel Márquez. He continued fighting and ran his record to 49-0 before retiring again in 2015. He had a one-fight comeback against Conor McGregor in 2017, which he won to improve to an even 50-0, and predictably, retired again.
Left-handed pitcher Andy Pettite retired before the 2011 season at the age of 38, citing a desire to spend more time with his family and children. The three-time All-Star helped to lead the New York Yankees to five World Series titles and holds the major league record for postseason wins with 19.
Andy Pettite's Comeback After Retirement
After one season away from baseball, Pettite returned to the Yankees in 2012 and, despite an injury-shortened season, pitched well enough to help take the Yankees to the American League Championship Series. After the 2013 season, Pettite retired for good alongside longtime teammate Mariano Rivera.
After 11 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Randall Cunningham was released following the 1995 season at age 33. Cunningham had offers to play for other teams but decided to retire.
Randall Cunningham's Comeback After Retirement
Like so many athletes before him, Cunningham missed a season, then signed with the Minnesota Vikings for the 1997 season as a backup quarterback. However, in 1998, Cunningham started 14 games and had, perhaps, his greatest season, posting a 13-1 record as a starter and leading the Vikings to the NFC championship game. That season, he threw for more 3,700 yards and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 34 to 10.
In June 1969, Joe Namath was the defending AFL Player of the Year coming off of a Super Bowl III victory with the New York Jets when he abruptly announced his retirement from football. The 26-year-old was a part-owner of the nightclub Bachelors III, which was frequented by gamblers and mobsters. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle demanded Namath divest himself of the establishment or face a suspension. Rather than give in, Broadway Joe chose to retire on principle.
Joe Namath's Comeback After Retirement
His retirement didn’t last, however. After convening with Rozelle, Namath relented and sold his stake in the business. Namath played eight more seasons, capturing a fifth Pro Bowl selection and the 1974 Comeback Player of the Year award.
Goalie Dominik Hašek was a two-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner, which is given to the NHL’s Most Valuable Player; a six-time All-Star; and a gold medal winner with the Czech Republic in the 1998 Winter Olympics. The Stanley Cup proved more elusive, but after winning it all with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002, the Dominator decided to hang up his skates at age 37.
Dominik Hašek's Comeback After Retirement
Hašek returned to the Red Wings during the 2003 season, and outside of a short stint with the Ottawa Senators, he played three more seasons in Detroit. The 43-year-old retired from the NHL after the 2008 season when he won his second Stanley Cup.
Randy Couture was a four-time UFC champion with two heavyweight and two light heavyweight belts when he retired in 2006 after a loss to Chuck Liddell.
Randy Couture's Comeback After Retirement
Couture came out of retirement in 2007 to take on 31-year-old Tim Sylvia. Couture, 43, won by decision and earned his third heavyweight championship and his fifth title overall.
More on Money