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Athletes work their entire lives attempting to reach the professional level. If they manage to get there, they find the cold, hard truth that no matter how big of a star they were at the high school or college level, they are now facing very long odds to have a sustained career, especially in the NFL.
An average career in the NFL lasts about three years. Most players don’t leave the game by a choice they’ve made but because the choice was made for them after teams decide they were simply not good enough.
The stars of the sport have the luxury of choosing when they feel it’s time to hang up their cleats and end their time in the league. They may do it because they feel they have nothing left to prove, or that their body is no longer healthy enough to hold for an entire season. Some simply lose the passion for the game.
Following the 2021 season, Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady officially announced that he was stepping away from the league. That decision lasted 40 days, as he announced he would unretire on the eve of 2022 free agency. Time will tell if Brady will regret changing his mind, but the following players who came out of retirement certainly do.
Trey Junkin – (NFL Career 1983-2001, 2002)
They say you only know a long-snapper’s name if it’s for a bad reason, and Trey Junkin’s name will forever live in infamy after the debacle in the 2002 Wildcard Playoff game between his New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers.
Junkin called it a quits following a steady career of long snapping and he did his job so well, no one bothered to mention him. Junkin played over 280 games for the Cardinals, Bills, Raiders, and Seahawks and retired in 2002 after failing to make the Cowboys roster.
Late in that season, the playoff bound Giants lost their long-snapper Dan O’Leary to injury and convinced Junkin to get off his couch and snap for them in the playoffs. Junkin agreed, a decision he says he regrets to this day.
During the game, Junkin botched not one but two snaps in the fourth quarter, including on a field goal attempt in the final seconds that could have won the game for the Giants. New York had built a 38-14 lead over the 49ers only to see Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens come all the way back to take the lead in the final minutes. Following that last botched snap by Junkin, Giants holder Matt Allen attempted to pass the ball to offensive lineman Rich Seubert, but it fell incomplete. The play also became controversial because of an uncalled pass interference on the 49ers after the botched snap.
Tiki Barber – (Career 1997-2006)
Tiki Barber probably suffered the most embarrassing comeback attempt following a retirement.
Barber is one of the best players in Giants franchise history, having run for 10,449 yards, catching 586 passes for 5,183 yards and scoring 67 total touchdowns. He holds nearly every rushing record in team history.
Barber was a well-liked player by fans during his playing days but soon after he retired in 2006, Tiki joined the media and openly criticized his former teammates, including quarterback Eli Manning.
Fans, coaches, and the Giants locker room quickly turned on Tiki following those disparaging remarks and ended up having the last laugh after finishing the very next season following Tiki’s retirement on top of the NFL mountain, beating the then-perfect 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII without him.
Tiki’s comeback attempt happened in March 2011, at age 35, five-years after playing his last down in the NFL. Barber officially filed paperwork to come out of retirement, expecting NFL teams to immediately pour offers for him to join their franchises. He also reportedly attempted the comeback because he was not financially solvent. The published story said that he was unable to pay his divorce settlement with his ex-wife after he left her while she was 8-months-pregnant with his child.
Ultimately, no offer came for Tiki. On September 5, 2011, Barber’s agent, Mark Lepselter, confirmed that no NFL team was interested in signing him. Not exactly what Barber had in mind.
Kerry Collins – (NFL Career 1995-2010, 2011)
Kerry Collins started his career as the 5th overall pick by the Panthers in the 1995 Draft. He was considered a big-arm pocket passer that could excel at getting the ball downfield. Things didn’t quite work out in Carolina and Collins became a journeyman, ultimately playing for six NFL teams.
The two-time Pro-Bowler’s career highlight was taking the 2000 Giants to the Super Bowl against the Ravens. Unfortunately, he was unable to lead his offense to a single point against that historic Baltimore defense and the Giants lost by 27 points.
The rest of Collins’ career was mostly down from there but he did manage to take the 2008 Titans to the playoffs with a 13-3 regular season — after replacing Vince Young in the lineup. But once again, his career slowly faded from there and he ultimately announced his official retirement following the 2010 season.
On August 24, 2011, only a couple of weeks before the season started, the Colts convinced Collins to come out of his short retirement after finding out that Peyton Manning’s neck injury would force him to miss the entire season. Collins became the first quarterback other than Manning to start a regular-season game for the Colts since Jim Harbaugh in Week 17 of the 1997 NFL season.
His 2011 season was short-lived. Collins started only 3 games before suffering a concussion that ended his season and eventually his career. Collins threw only two touchdown passes and had five turnovers.
Jay Cutler – (Career 2006-2016, 2017)
Smokin’ Jay Cutler is probably known better in reality TV circles now than he was as an NFL player for most of the world, but he was once considered the franchise quarterback of two different NFL teams. Cutler rose to fame as the risk-taking, gunslinging passer of the Denver Broncos before being traded to Chicago following a coaching change in Denver.
Cutler holds most of the Bears all-time passing records, including for passing yards, completions and passing touchdowns. It’s a very low bar to cross, but he did accomplish it.
After a mostly disappointing career, at least in terms of team accomplishments, Jay retired following the 2016 season and was hired by Fox Sports to be a commentator.
In 2017, after a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins called up Cutler to see if he would take a 1-year, $10 million contract to be their starter. Cutler couldn’t refuse and agreed to sign.
Cutler started 14 games for Miami that season, going a losing 6 and 8 in them, while throwing for fewer than 3,000 yards and passing for less than 20 touchdowns. Jay unceremoniously retired following the season, this time for good.