The itch to compete doesn’t always go away when a professional athlete retires.
The latest evidence of this comes from U.S. men’s national soccer team legend Landon Donovan, who is set to play the remainder of the MLS season with the LA Galaxy after retiring in 2014.
Donovan isn’t the first star athlete to retire and then change his mind, and he probably won’t be the last. Not every comeback goes particularly well—Bjorn Borg comes to mind—but sometimes an athlete finds a second wind. Here’s a look at some of the most notable comebacks in sports following retirements.
Favre’s retirements and unretirements became a self–reinforcing joke at one point. He said a tearful goodbye to the Green Bay Packers in 2008, only to change his mind and request a trade to the New York Jets ahead of the 2008 season when the Packers decided to stick with Aaron Rodgers as the starter. He retired after his season in New York but then came back again with the Minnesota Vikings, where he threw for 6,711 yards and 44 touchdowns for two seasons, leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship (and nearly the Super Bowl) at the conclusion of the 2009 season. Favre last played in 2010, an injury–riddled season.
There was also that commercial that dubbed him the 2020 NFL MVP.
Jordan retired in 1993 after leading the Chicago Bulls to three NBA titles at just 30 years old. The shocking move came shortly after his father was murdered and while the NBA was investigation allegations of illegal betting before eventually clearing Jordan’s name. Instead, Jordan chose to pursue baseball with the Chicago White Sox.
The world rejoiced in 1995 when he declared, “I’m back.” He proceeded to add three more NBA championship titles with the Bulls, including hitting the winning shot of the 1998 NBA Finals. He retired again, then came out of retirement in 2001 and played two seasons with the Washington Wizards before calling it quits at 40 years old in 2003.
Clemens initially retired after the Yankees dropped the 2003 World Series to the Florida Marlins, but he went back on that decision to play closer to home and join the Houston Astros. The Rocket showed no signs of slowing down, and he proceeded to win the 2004 National League Cy Young Award. He retired and un-retired to helped the Astros reach the World Series in 2005. The process became a tradition as he retired and returned ahead of the 2006 season, which would be his last with the Astros.
A full-off-season and spring training passed before the Clemens speculation started back up and the Yankees were in need of another arm in their rotation. Enter William Roger Clemens.
His Yankees comeback gave us this gem from Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman.
He finished the season with the 6–6 and a 4.18 ERA, as the Yankees made the playoffs but were trounced in the first round by the Cleveland Indians.
He last pitched for the Sugarland Skeeters at 50 years old in 2012. In his second start for the team, his son, Kolby, served as his catcher. That’s when you know you’re getting old.
Pittsburgh Penguins legend Mario Lemieux stepped away from hockey in 1997 due to a battle with cancer. By the time he returned to the ice in 2001, he was already inducted into the Hall of Fame and was an owner of the team. In a remarkable year, he finished the season with 76 points in 43 games and was even in consideration for the Hart Trophy, the league’s MVP award.
When he retired in 2006, the Pens had already found his successor in Sidney Crosby, who won his second Stanley Cup earlier this summer.
This one is fresh. Phelps left the 2012 Olympics as the most decorated Olympian of all-time and decided to retire. But we know how that story goes. In 2014, he changed his mind and decided to compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. From his smiles while celebrating with his newborn son and beaming joy on the podium, it was apparent that Phelps was enjoying this Olympics more than 2012. He ended up winning five gold medals and one silver medal. He has repeatedly said that Rio would be his last Summer Games—though he did spend his first day of retired life in the pool with his fiancee and baby. Tokyo, here we come! (We hope.)
Before there was Phelps’ retirement from the pool, there was Dara Torres. She competed at the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Olympics before returning to training in 1999 and competing at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where she won four Olympic medals. Amazingly, eight years later, she managed to medal three times in Beijing at age 41. She finished her Olympic career with 12 Olympic medals, four of which were gold, at five Summer Games.
She also pulled a successful April Fools’ prank when she announced her “comeback” on April 1, 2015.
The Swiss star rose to prominence quickly in the 90s as she was the world’s No. 1-ranked singles player, winning five Grand Slam singles titles. She announced her first retirement in 2002 due to injury before a brief comeback in 2005. She took a break after 2007 again due to injuries as well as a positive test for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine. Three years ago, she announced she’d return to tennis as a doubles specialist—and it’s been a smashing success. She’s currently ranked No. 2 in the world for doubles, and since her return she has won three women’s doubles and four mixed doubles Slam titles.
Gordon got back in the car to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard while Earnhardt recovers from concussion symptoms. Since Earnhardt Jr. will miss the remainder of the season, Gordon will continue to drive the No. 88 car in that time. He has now raced more than 800 times in 25 years. How do you slow down a NASCAR legend?
A lot can happen in a decade, but George Foreman never lost his step in his long break from boxing. He returned to the ring at 38 years old and managed to fight 12 rounds with Evander Holyfield. He became the oldest heavyweight champion when, as a 45-year-old, he knocked out Michael Moorer in 1994.
Armstrong, a seven–time Tour de France champion, retired in 2005 and then returned in 2009—though this one may be a bit more controversial knowing what we now know.