The Rebels: Athletes redefining retirement


Donovan plays his first game after his return from retirement. Photo via

Hang up the cleats. Frame the jersey.

More and more often, those words are becoming just talk.

Retirement is something that is tempting for a veteran athlete. Whether it’s to go out on top, to live the rest of your life a hero, or just to spend more time with family, it is something that always hangs over an athlete’s head.

Not all athletes get to go out the way they want to. Prince Fielder will likely never play baseball again due to a neck injury, while Alex Rodriguez was essentially forced to end his Yankees’ career mid-season.

But, when players do get to retire on their own terms, it turns out they don’t always mean it.

On Sept. 8, American-born soccer icon Landon Donovan announced he was coming out of retirement to once again play with his former team, the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer.

Donovan originally retired in 2014 after he helped the Galaxy win the MLS Cup.

He went out on top.

He announced his retirement prior to his final game, so the last days of the longtime U.S. soccer star were well-marketed. U.S. Soccer, among many others, used the hashtag ‘#LegenD’ online to mark the goodbye of the United States’ all-time leading scorer.

His final career stat-line included 57 international goals, 14 years of experience and three World Cups,. The MVP award was even renamed to honor him.

At 34 years-old, he’s back. His “retirement” is stalled. He can win the Landon Donovan MVP Award himself.

Donovan is not the first big-name athlete to come out of retirement. Quarterback Brett Favre did it multiple times. The return of Michael Phelps resulted in five more gold medals and one silver in this summer’s Olympics, extending his legacy as the most decorated Olympian of all-time.

Phelps insisted his career was over after the 2012 Summer Olympics, where he made it clear to all who asked that he was entering retirement.

“Michael Jordan couldn’t resist the competitive itch and he came back,” NBC reporter Bob Costas told Phelps in 2012.

But Phelps remained firm. “We’ll go to watch, but we’re not competing,” said Phelps.

While the return of an athlete post-retirement is often initiated by money, for Phelps, the sport of swimming was more. It was an escape.

In an interview with Costas before the 2016 Olympics, Phelps told the man he had undoubtedly told four years earlier of his retirement that he considered suicide after he stopped swimming.

“The thoughts were there,” Phelps said. “I was on the express elevator to the bottom floor, wherever that might be.”

Sometime after weight gain and a drunk driving arrest in September 2014, the 31-year-old Phelps made the decision to compete in the pool and return to the Olympics. But this time, it wasn’t about money, and it wasn’t all about medals.

It was about returning to a person that he liked to be, and he found that in the pool.

Phelps showed in the Rio Olympics that he had more left in the tank. Perhaps it is a big win that gets an athlete thinking about hanging up the cleats.

After the Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA title, coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors, 15-year veteran Richard Jefferson said he was retiring.

A few weeks later, the 36-year-old announced on Snapchat he signed a new deal with the Cavaliers.

So money talks, but the love of the sport can too. The reason for Donovan’s return at 34 years old is unknown at the moment, but his team, the Galaxy, needs healthy players. He fits the bill.

When athletes retire, they can’t always be counted out. The pull for victory is appealing. Who doesn’t love to win? Winning is great. When winning isn’t there, money is. When money doesn’t matter, underneath it all, there’s always the sport one has come to love.

There’s always the itch to come back. Athletes that return from retirement are rebels; it’s not meant to be done, but it is.

Donovan, Favre, Phelps and Jefferson won’t be the last ones.

Elizabeth Swinton is a television production major from Linden, N.J. She can be reached at or on Twitter @eswint22.

Author: Elizabeth Swinton

Elizabeth Swinton is a television production major at Seton Hall University where she serves as Sports Editor of The Setonian. In addition, Swinton is a social media specialist and contributing writer for The Brooklyn Game. You can follow her on Twitter @eswint22

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