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The Unretired NFL All-Stars: Jason Witten joins the list

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Riddick: Witten still in 'phenomenal shape' (1:27)

Louis Riddick explains how being away from the game can affect ex-players, and adds that Jason Witten is still in great shape to play in the NFL. (1:27)

Tight end Jason Witten stunned the NFL world Thursday by announcing his return to the Dallas Cowboys, less than a year after retiring to join ESPN's Monday Night Football booth. The decision thrust Witten into a select group of NFL players who interrupted retirement to get back on the field.

How have others fared in similar situations? The list is relatively small, especially when you eliminate those whose "retirements" lasted less than one offseason. (Ahem, Brett Favre.) I also didn't consider players such as Michael Vick or Plaxico Burress, who returned to the field after time in jail. Here are six of the most notable efforts to return from retirement, ranked more or less in order of their success.

Note: This an updated version of a story that ran in April 2017.


1. Randall Cunningham

Cunningham had the best season of his career after retiring (for the first time). His career appeared over in 1995 when, at age 32, he received almost no interest on the free-agent market. So Cunningham retired, moved home to Las Vegas and operated a granite and marble shop. But Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green convinced him to resume his career as a backup in 1997. When starter Brad Johnson was injured in 1998, Cunningham took over and led the team to an overall 15-1 record (13-1 in Cunningham's starts) with an MVP-caliber season, throwing for 3,704 yards and 34 touchdowns. He earned a contract extension worth up to $28 million but was benched after six starts in 1999. He finished his career as a backup for the Ravens in 2001.

2. Deion Sanders

Sanders fashioned an improbable second career as a part-time defensive back with the Baltimore Ravens -- after a full three seasons away from the game. He initially called it quits after the 2000 season; he was so eager to get away that he forfeited part of an $8 million signing bonus he had received from the Washington Redskins. In 2004, he signed with the Ravens and took the number 37 to match his age. In 25 games, including six starts, he intercepted five passes -- returning one for a touchdown -- and defended a total of 10 passes. But the Ravens missed the playoffs in both seasons and he retired for good in 2006.

3. Ricky Williams

Williams played longer after his first retirement than he did before it, but he never replicated his early-career production. After rushing for a combined 4,470 yards from 2001 to 2003 for the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, he retired rather than endure a 2004 drug suspension. At age 27, Williams moved to India to study yoga and holistic medicine. He returned for 12 games in 2005, rushing for 743 yards and six touchdowns, but was suspended and moved to the CFL in 2006. A torn pectoral muscle limited him to one game for the Dolphins in 2007. Incredibly, he went on to play four 16-game seasons between 2008 and 2011; he managed only one 1,000-yard season among them before retiring permanently at age 34.

4. Bronko Nagurski

Simply put, Nagurski was one of the baddest men ever to play pro football. In 1943, at age 35 and after five years away from a game that battered his body, Nagurski came out of retirement to help the Chicago Bears during World War II. Although he was best known as a running back, Nagurski was 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds and also played defensive tackle during an era of two-way players. Bears owner George Halas needed his help on defense more than anything, but he sneaked Nagurski onto the field for offense a few times, too. Nagurski played in eight games, rushing for 84 yards, and he had a touchdown in the NFL championship game. The Bears won the title with a 41-21 victory over the Washington Redskins.

5. Marshawn Lynch

Lynch first retired in February 2016, famously tweeting an image of his cleats hanging from a power line. At age 29, ancient for running backs, Lynch had missed nine games for the Seattle Seahawks and by all appearances seemed ready to move on from the field. As it turned out, however, Lynch had one more goal to reach: playing for his hometown team in Oakland. After making his desires known in April 2017, Lynch convinced the Seahawks to trade his rights to the Raiders. In 21 games over two seasons since then, Lynch has rushed for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns.

6. Steve DeBerg

I just love this story. In the summer of 1998, the Atlanta Falcons signed DeBerg to be their backup quarterback because they were concerned about depth behind starter Chris Chandler. DeBerg was 44 -- that's not a typo -- and had last been on an NFL roster in 1993. DeBerg was a friend of coach Dan Reeves and knew his offensive system, so not only did he make the team, but he also started one game and played in a total of eight as the Falcons marched to Super Bowl XXXIII. DeBerg had an 80.4 passer rating, completing 30-of-59 passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns. The only player in NFL history with more attempts at that age or older is Vinny Testaverde, who threw 172 at age 44 in 2007.