Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Gone too soon: Sport's most stunning early retirements

Lionel Messi after defeat against Chile in the Copa America final. Photo / Getty
Lionel Messi after defeat against Chile in the Copa America final. Photo / Getty

Argentina's little genius Lionel Messi has stunned the sports world by retiring from international football at the age of 29, beaten down by his country's repeated tournament failures. We'll believe him for now, and look at other top sports stars who have called it quits before everyone else was ready.

Bjorn Borg (tennis)

The Swedish tennis superstar said goodbye to the big time at the age of 26. "When I retired from tennis I wanted to do other things with my life," said Borg. It's not the most exciting of quotes, but kind of sums the man up.

Peter Snell (running)

The great Kiwi Olympian, a triple gold medallist, was jaded and his form fading when he retired in 1965 aged only 26. He stepped into a world of academia and eventually life in America. In 1976 he told The Listener's Geoff Chapple: "'The medals lost their lustre long ago. I want to stay in learning as long as possible, until I'm ready to step out into the world and apply knowledge.

I want to make a worthwhile contribution to society."

Chris Borland (NFL)

A landmark retirement. The standout San Francisco 49ers gridiron rookie quit aged 24 last year over concussion fears. There was no overt problem, but linebacker Borland feared the unavoidable dangers of head trauma, an issue that is not going to go away.

"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health...from what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."

Chris Amon (motor racing)

The dashing Kiwi with world champion potential was spooked by the accidents and deaths at a time when F1 was lethal. He quit in 1976 aged just 34 and headed to his Bulls sheep farm. The final straw was Austrian ace Niki Lauda's blazing crash in Germany, when Amon had refused to join the race re-start.

"I'd seen too many people fried in racing cars by that stage," he said. "When you've driven past Bandini, Schlesser, Courage and Williamson (drivers who died on the track), another shunt like that was simply too much."

David Kirk (rugby)

Kirk not only led the All Blacks to the inaugural 1987 World Cup title on home soil, he provided a refreshing and boyishly handsome face to a game tarnished by the Cavaliers ill-advised venture to outlawed South Africa the previous year. He played extremely well during the tournament, something that hasn't always been remembered so well because he was in a team of budding legends. The World Cup was over and out for the 26-year-old Kirk, after just 17 tests, as he took up a Rhodes Scholarship. "I am kind of restless, so I'm not sure I would have stuck with anything too long," he told The Listener years later.

John Reid (cricket)

The Auckland left hander averaged a mighty 46 in tests but quit after just 19 matches, at the age of 30, to return to life as a geography teacher.

Jamie Lyon playing for New South Wales in 2002. Photo / Getty
Jamie Lyon playing for New South Wales in 2002. Photo / Getty

Jamie Lyon (league)

A football anomaly. The classy Manly centre, aged 34, would have notched up many more games for New South Wales and probably Australia, but has bailed out of representative football since his last appearance in 2010. Lyon- who retires at the end of this season - told the Daily Telegraph he struggled dealing with criticism earlier in his career. "You try to ignore it but it does knock you around when people are saying that it probably does take your confidence away." He has also talked about the effects of the game's physical battering. The battering continues though. Some claim there will "always be an asterisk next to his name" because of his representative reluctance.

Rocky Marciano (boxing)

The American, who retired undefeated in 49 bouts aged 31, is the only heavyweight champion to quit with a perfect record. "I am retiring because of my wife and baby...I am comfortably fixed and I'm not afraid of the future," he said in 1956. "I don't want to be remembered as a beaten champion." He died 13 years later in a small plane crash.

Lorena Ochoa (golf)

The Mexican stunned the sports world with her retirement announcement in 2010, when she was in her third year as the world number one. Ochoa, a popular champion, said "it was really clear to see that I didn't want to be out there" and has described motherhood as her top priority. "For sure, everybody (in Mexico) thought I would play forever... I was very secure about my decision."

Jim Brown (Gridiron)

Regarded by many as the greatest American football player ever, the Cleveland Browns running back departed in 1966 aged 30, the budding actor holding his press conference on the set of The Dirty Dozen.

Brown told Sports Illustrated: "I wanted to play this year, but it was impossible. We're running behind schedule shooting here, for one thing. I want more mental stimulation than I would have playing football. I want to have a hand in the (black rights) struggle that is taking place in our country."

An early retirement prediction

Lydia Ko

The Auckland golfer, the world number one, is already on course for greatness, but not longevity judging by the hints she gives. The 19-year-old will likely walk the professional fairways for a final time around the age of 30.

- NZ Herald

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