20 sports legends who ended their careers with random teams

Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing
Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing left their longtime teams to finish their careers with different clubs. (REUTERS/Joe Skipper)

While most of us have been bunkered down in our homes with no sports amidst the coronavirus pandemic, football has provided an escape thanks to a frenzied start to free agency. 

Over the past week, the NFL has seen several blockbuster deals and notable names swapping sides — especially at the quarterback position. 

Two of the game’s top quarterbacks of this generation who spent their decade-and-a-half-plus tenures with the same team — Tom Brady and Philip Rivers — have new homes. 

Brady shocked the world by leaving the New England Patriots after 20 years and six Super Bowl titles. To make things odder, he headed south to Tampa for the Buccaneers. 

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Chargers cut ties with Rivers — who they acquired at the 2004 draft. He signed up with the Colts for 2020. 

To say that seeing both passers in different uniforms next season will be weird is an understatement and unprecedented. 

Alongside longtime Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who signed with the Las Vegas Raiders last week, this is the first time that multiple players who spent 16-plus years with the same team swapped sides in the same offseason. 

Before this month, it had happened just eight times in NFL history. 

It’s certainly rare in the football world, but we’ve seen legendary athletes who spent a majority of their careers with one team across the four major sports change jerseys in the twilight of their playing days. 

Here are some of the most notable cases: 

Joe Namath

After 12 seasons with the New York Jets — where he developed into the franchise’s greatest quarterback ever — Namath was waived in 1977 to facilitate a trade to the Los Angeles Rams. He lasted just four games as injuries caught up with him, forcing him into retirement.

Johnny Unitas

Johnny U was one of the first great passers in NFL history, passing for over 40,000 yards in 17 seasons with the Baltimore Colts. At 40 years old, he was traded to the San Diego Chargers where he appeared in just five games before calling it quits.

Jerry Rice

The NFL’s greatest wide receiver ever built that reputation on 16 sterling seasons and three Super Bowl titles with the San Francisco 49ers. But the emergence of Terrell Owens led to Rice hopping over to Oakland for three-plus seasons, which included an AFC Championship before he was traded to the Seattle Seahawks. He played 11 games in the Pacific Northwest in 2004.

Joe Montana

Rice’s first quarterback in San Francisco, Joe Montana, is in the pantheon of the NFL’s great passers and winners, nabbing four Super Bowl titles and seven Pro Bowls in 13 seasons. In 1993, he was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs where he spent two seasons. He made it to the playoffs in both of those seasons including a trip to the AFC Championship Game. 

Franco Harris

Franco Harris will always be remembered for his four Super Bowls and “Immaculate Reception” during a 12-year stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1972-1983. But before the 1984 season, he was released by Pittsburgh and picked up by the Seahawks where he played in just eight games, retiring 192 yards of Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record.

Babe Ruth

Sports fans will always think of Babe Ruth as the Yankees slugger sold by the Red Sox. The mythic lefty slugged 714 career home runs — mostly in New York — but his final six in 1935 came in Boston… with the Braves. The National League’s Boston team signed him to get fans in the seats after the Yankees released him.

Willie Mays

Willie Mays exemplified the idea of a five-tool player over 21 seasons with the New York/San Francisco Giants. At 41 years old and after 646 career home runs, the Giants traded Mays back to New York to finish his career with the Mets, where he appeared in the 1973 World Series before retiring. 

Ty Cobb

Given the period in which he played — and his uncontrollable rage — Ty Cobb is often overlooked when speaking about the game’s greatest hitters. In 22 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, he batted .368 and amassed 3,900 hits before retiring in 1926. It turned out he did so to try and escape game-fixing allegations. He returned in 1927 with the Philadelphia Athletics where he played two seasons, slashing .343/.419/.460 in 228 games.

Hank Aaron

After breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home-run record following 21 years with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, Aaron was sent back to Milwaukee to play with the Brewers for two seasons from 1975-1976.

Christy Mathewson

Mathewson is one of the greatest pitchers of the early 1900s, making his name with John McGraw’s New York Giants. In 1916, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds where he was named player-manager but appeared in just one game.

Hakeem Olajuwon

“Hakeem the Dream” spent 17 seasons with the Houston Rockets that featured 12 All-Star selections and two NBA titles from 1984-2001. Before the 2001-02 season, he was traded to the Toronto Raptors where he spent one season, appearing in 61 games.

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan will always be synonymous with the Bulls while basketball fans everywhere debate whether or not he’s the greatest of all-time. But he still put up decent numbers in two random seasons with the Washington Wizards from 2001-2003.

Patrick Ewing

After 15 seasons at Madison Square Garden, Knicks fans had to deal with the uneasy sight of seeing their franchise great, center Patrick Ewing, spend his last two seasons with the Seattle Sonics and Orlando Magic. 

Karl Malone

One of the game’s greatest scorers, Karl Malone, spent his last NBA season with the Los Angeles Lakers, whom he joined via free agency. That was after 18 years and 14 All-Star selections with the Utah Jazz.

Dave Cowens

Dave Cowens was the face of the Boston Celtics throughout the 1970s, helping them to a pair of titles following the dynastic 60s. Following 10 seasons in Boston and a two-year retirement, Cowens cropped back up in 1982 with the Milwaukee Bucks, whom he played just 40 games with.

Gordie Howe

“Mr. Hockey” is also the greatest Detroit Red Wing of all time, playing 25 years with the franchise from 1945-1971 while scoring 786 goals. After two years away from the game, Howe returned as a 45-year-old to play four seasons with the WHA’s Houston Aeros and another three with the New England/Hartford Whalers. He retired at the age of 52.

Bobby Orr

Many will consider Bobby Orr as the greatest defenseman ever thanks to 10 groundbreaking seasons with the Boston Bruins. But as injuries derailed his career, he was dealt to the Chicago Blackhawks in 1976. He played just 26 games over three years.

Martin Brodeur

After 21 years and countless goaltending records with the New Jersey Devils, Martin Brodeur joined the St. Louis Blues as a 42-year-old in 2014. He lasted just seven games.

Mike Modano

If it wasn’t for Mike Modano, the Stars might not have caught on in Dallas after they moved from Minnesota. But the Hall of Famer’s 1,050 points in 16 years made him a legend in Texas, which made his final NHL season with the Detroit Red Wings in 2010-11 so odd.

Brian Leetch

In 17 years with the New York Rangers, Brian Leetch became the franchise’s greatest blueliner ever, playing an integral part in their 1994 Stanley Cup title. After he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2003-04, Leetch emerged from the lockout in 2005 as a member of the Bruins, a team he played 61 games with before retiring.

More from around NYC