Those who remember him as the freewheeling, rocket-armed hero from the Packers know Brett Favre probably shouldn’t have come back to football after retiring the first time. Now, of course, he’s dithering about whether to unretire again. But he’s hardly alone: Being a professional athlete requires believing that you can be the best even when your body is telling you otherwise. Here’s our reckoning of superstars who sullied their legacies by coming out of retirement, in order from the least to the most damage done.
10. Ricky Williams
The notoriously strange running back — he would keep his helmet on in interviews because of his social anxiety disorder — tested positive for marijuana before the 2004 season, a second offense. Rather than serve the four-game suspension, he retired and studied at the California College of Ayurveda. He returned to football one year later, played a season, and then failed another drug test. After a yearlong suspension, he returned again, this time to the Miami Dolphins, where he’s a workmanlike spot starter. He works as a yoga instructor in his spare time.
9. Tommy Morrison
It’s almost a cheat to put boxers on this list, since pretty much every one of them unretires a few times, but we have two especially egregious examples. “The Duke” was an actual boxer when he played Rocky Balboa’s traitorous protégé Tommy Gunn. After that movie made him something like a household name, he beat fellow infamous non-retirer George Foreman to win the heavyweight title in 1992. He lost that title to journeyman Michael Bentt and was drilled by Lennox Lewis. Then things got really bad: Morrison tested positive for HIV in 1996, which forced his retirement. And yet, in 2007, Morrison — who at first claimed that he was given a false positive, and, later, that he had been “cured” of the virus — was licensed by the West Virginia Athletic Commission to fight a man named John Castle. He knocked Castle out in the second round and plans another fight this year. He has also dabbled in MMA fighting. Doctors still consider him HIV-positive.
8. Lance Armstrong
It’s almost too early to call Armstrong’s “comeback” a mistake — he’s clearly just trying to get himself in shape for the Tour de France in July — but it’s difficult to come up with a better final chapter than winning your seventh Tour after overcoming cancer and thoroughly infuriating the French by evading all their attempts to bust you as a drug cheat. Armstrong better win this next one (he’s not exactly tearing Italy’s Giro d’Italia apart right now) and elude the drug testers again, or we’ll remember him not as the guy who won seven straight titles, but as a mere mortal like the rest of us.
7. Priest Holmes
Hero to fantasy-football fans everywhere, thanks to his amazing 2003 season of a then-record 27 touchdowns, Holmes was forced to quit with a spinal injury in 2006, although he never called it a retirement. Even though he was 34 years old — ancient for a running back who hadn’t played in two years — he came back in 2007 with the Chiefs. He was slow and lumbering and ultimately hurt his neck, requiring him to retire again three days later. Many fantasy-football fans picked him up off the waiver wire anyway, as a salute to his once-dominant days.
6. Dominik Hasek
The future Hall of Fame goalie initially retired in 2002 after setting tons of playoff records and winning the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings. He changed his mind after one year, got hurt, and roamed around various teams, playing well but winning no titles (and getting injured again). He returned to the Red Wings last year and won another Cup … as their backup. He retired again, then changed his mind, signing a one-year deal with the Czech team with whom he started his career.
5. Ryne Sandberg
Few people remember it, but the Cubs Hall of Famer actually returned to the team in 1996 after retiring two months into the 1994 season, saying he had “unfinished business.” The business seems to have remained undone: He actually hit 25 homers in 1996, but he only batted .244 for a couple of losing teams and quit for good after the 1997 season.
4. Evander Holyfield
Holyfield retired in 1995 because of a heart condition, then returned to have his ear bitten by Mike Tyson, retired again, then decided he wanted to become the first person to win the heavyweight championship five times (a quixotic pursuit if ever there were one, given that it requires a boxer to also lose the heavyweight championship four times). In 2005, the New York State Athletic Commission banned him from fighting because of his “diminishing skills,” but that didn’t stop Holyfield: Just last December, he lost to someone named Nikolai Valuev in a “controversial” decision — he had to fly to Zurich to do it — and wants a rematch. He will be 47 years old in October.
3. Michael Jordan
Obviously, the first unretirement — which resulted in three more championships — worked out fine, but Jordan’s decision to come back and play for the Washington Wizards was a disaster for anyone who didn’t get a cut of Wizards jersey sales. Jordan played two seasons, looking old and slow, and missed the playoffs both times, a travesty that was beneath the man who epitomized winning. Plus, he’s responsible for what is left of Kwame Brown. At least he found a job for Charles Oakley for a couple of years.
2. Brett Favre
In a profession of men (and women) too insecure to let go of their past glories, Favre earns special notice for retiring, unretiring, and dithering so often that it threatens to make you forget that you once admired and loved the guy. The yearly drama with the Packers finally came to an end in 2007, his first quality season in three years. His one season with the Jets — after he retired from Green Bay, then changed his mind, then became furious at the Packers for not dropping everything else on a moment’s notice and embracing him — started fine, but collapsed near the end, and the Jets missed the playoffs. If he actually goes through with playing for the Vikings, expect a disaster … and a slot at the top of this list.
1. Roger Clemens
No one hurt his legacy more than Clemens, who, if he had just retired the first time when he said he would (to a standing ovation from the opposing team during the 2003 World Series), might have avoided a few of his current disasters. Instead, he came back the next year with Houston, pitched three excellent seasons, retired again, came back for one very expensive (and lousy) go-around with the Yankees, retired again … and placed a large target on his back. Eventually, Brian McNamee, George Mitchell, and Congress hit it.