Greatest Athletic Careers Cut Short by Sports Injuries
When it comes to sports, injuries are inevitable. World-class athletes running as fast, jumping as high and throwing as hard as they physically can creates a strain on the body. Some of the greatest athletes in sports history have been able to overcome injuries, but others haven’t had the same success. That has led to some of the most spirited barbershop-style discussions about, “What if xxx never got hurt?”
We’ll never know how these athletes’ careers would have played out, but it’s always fun to speculate. Some athletes suffered one career-altering injury and were never the same, while others had various injuries that made them shells of their previous selves. We will look at athletes under both of those umbrellas and everything in between and imagine what could have been. Here are the 30 greatest athletic careers ruined by injuries.
30. Derrick Rose
Career: 13 seasons (2008-present)
Injury: Torn ACL
Injury date: April 28, 2012
Bottom line: One year after becoming the youngest MVP winner in NBA history, Rose tore his ACL in a playoff game, which set off a six-year cascade of injuries. Rose was forced to change the way he ran and jump after the injury, and that led to not one, not two, but three torn menisci over the next four years. He was on a Hall of Fame trajectory but would only play in 216 of 492 games (44 percent) from age 24-29, which should have been his prime. Rose was able to find his niche in his 30s and become a productive player off the bench, but it’s sad that he went from an MVP to a Sixth Man.
29. Ryan Shazier
Career: 5 seasons (2014-17)
Injury: Spinal contusion
Injury date: Dec. 4, 2017
Bottom line: The Steelers have a lengthy list of great linebackers, and Shazier appeared to be on the same trek as guys like Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. He made Pro Bowls in his final two seasons, but his career came to an end due to a tackle on Monday Night Football in December 2017. Shazier made a head-on tackle, which left him with a spinal contusion and provided a scary scene, as he was clearly trying to move his legs afterward but was unable to. He underwent spinal stabilization surgery three days later, and it took him 11 months just to be able to jog again. Even though he stated his goal was to play football again, Shazier officially announced his retirement in September 2020, more than 1,000 days after the injury.
28. Johan Santana
Career: 12 seasons (2000-10, 2012)
Injury: Shoulder capsular tear
Injury date: Sept. 2, 2010
Bottom line: Only four other men besides Santana have unanimous Cy Young wins multiple times, and they’re recognizable by one name: Clemens, Koufax, Pedro, Maddux. That’s the type of company that Santana keeps, but he lacked the longevity of those four due to recurring injuries. After tearing his shoulder capsule at the end of the 2010 season, Santana would pitch in just 21 more games. That injury also led to other injuries including a re-tear in 2013, a torn Achilles in 2014 and a toe infection in 2015. He kept hoping that his body would cooperate and allow him to pitch, but that was never the case, and he retired in 2018, six years after his final game.
27. Ralph Sampson
Career: 9 seasons (1983-91)
Injury: Knee cartilage tear
Injury date: Feb. 2, 1987
Bottom line: “I should have been out for a year but came back after eight weeks because I wanted to play the game of basketball and the sport that I love,” Sampson said of his knee injury.
That haste return would change the trajectory of Sampson’s career, even though he was one of the first “unicorns” of the NBA. He was 7-foot-4 but could dribble in the open court and pass like a guard. Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon teamed to form the Twin Towers for the Rockets in the mid-80s and made an NBA Finals in their second season together. But Sampson’s body betrayed him after he returned too soon from injury, and he could barely move on the court afterward, as his career ended at 31.
Career: 13 years (2005-17)
Injury: Spinal disc herniation
Injury date: June 27, 2016
Bottom line: At just 21 years old, Paige became the youngest Divas Champion in WWE history. But a neck injury/surgery two years later was the beginning of the end of her career. After that surgery, she was out for 1.5 years before returning to the ring. But just six matches after her return, she suffered another neck injury that ended her career at just 25 years old. It ended a promising career that started very early, as Paige made her in-ring debut at 13 years old. And while others like Edge and Daniel Bryan have returned to the ring after serious neck injuries, others like Stone Cold Steve Austin and, thus far Paige, have yet to return.
25. Kenny Easley
Career: 7 seasons (1981-87)
Injury: Bone spurs in ankle
Injury date: Nov. 16, 1986
Bottom line: It wasn’t Easley’s bone spurs that ended his career at 28 but rather the treatment for his ankle that did so. A Seahawks team doctor advised Easley to take Ibuprofen to deal with the pain in his ankle, and Easley ended up taking 15 to 20 pills a day for three months. That painkiller abuse destroyed his kidney to the point he was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome and now has to undergo dialysis three times a week.
The condition was discovered when Easley underwent a routine physical following a trade in 1988, but he would never play a snap with his new team or any team. The condition would end his career just one year after a Pro Bowl season and three years after becoming the second safety to win Defensive Player of the Year.
24. Nomar Garciaparra
Career: 14 seasons (1996-2009)
Injury: Strained Achilles’ tendon
Injury date: March 5, 2004
Bottom line: In 1999 and 2000, Garciaparra won back-to-back batting titles, becoming the first AL player to do so since Joe DiMaggio 60 years earlier. His .372 average in 2000 remains the highest by a right-handed batter since World War II, and he hit above .300 in all six of his full seasons with the Red Sox. However, an Achilles’ injury during 2004 Spring Training changed the trajectory of Garciaparra’s career, as it affected both his mobility as a fielder and his power as a hitter.
While he initially hit decently after the injury, his defense had fallen off a cliff and expedited his trade from Boston. It also necessitated a move from shortstop to other infield positions. Garciaparra was a great hitter for a shortstop but merely average at other positions where you are expected to put up big numbers. He never truly recovered as 41.3 of his career 44.3 WAR came before the injury, and what seemed like a Hall of Fame career fell well short of that.
23. Brad Daugherty
Career: 8 seasons (1986-94)
Injury: Herniated discs
Injury date: Feb. 23, 1994
Bottom line: From 1990-97, there were 24 All-NBA selections for centers, and Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson or Patrick Ewing gathered 23 of them. Brad Daugherty in 1992 was the only player to nab a selection outside of that Big Four.
Daugherty was one of the most skilled big men of his era, but recurring back injuries forced him from the game. He met with various doctors, and the consensus was that he shouldn’t be running, which would have made his job on the court pretty difficult.
22. Tony Conigliaro
Career: 8 seasons (1964-67, 1969-71, 1975)
Injury: Retina damage
Injury date: Aug. 18, 1967
Bottom line: Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Conigliaro debuted as a 19-year-old with the Red Sox. A year later in 1965, he hit 32 home runs to become the youngest home run champion in AL history. However, just weeks after playing in the 1967 All-Star Game, Conigliaro was hit by a pitch in the face, and he wasn’t wearing a helmet with an ear flap. The pitch resulted in a broken cheekbone, dislocated jaw and severe damage to his eye. He would be out of action for 20 months before returning in 1969; however, his vision just wasn’t the same. With his eyesight deteriorating, he retired abruptly midway through the 1971 season. He tried a last-ditch comeback four years later but hit just .123 through 21 games and retired for good.
21. Eric Lindros
Career: 13 seasons (1992-2007)
Injury date: March 7, 1998
Bottom line: Lindros suffered multiple injuries throughout his career, but it’s the concussions that defined him. He had eight (reported) concussions during his 13 NHL seasons, and they prevented what could have been one of the all-time careers. Lindros was the fourth-fastest player in NHL history to score 300 points, with Wayne Gretzky ranking first on that list, but unlike Gretzky, Lindros didn’t have durability and longevity. Thus, despite him being a Hall of Famer, he was never able to live up to his nickname of “The Next One,” a play off Gretzky’s “The Great One” moniker.
20. Bob Sanders
Career: 8 seasons (2004-11)
Injury date: Multiple
Bottom line: Sanders was nicknamed "The Hit Man" despite being undersized for a safety at just 5-foot-8. He earned the nickname for throwing his body around all over the field, but his body would betray him in the NFL. He had injuries to seemingly every body part, including his knees, ankles, feet and biceps, and that prevented him from playing in 61 percent of the available games. Only twice during Sanders’ eight-year career did he play more than six games in a season, but he was amazing in those two seasons. He was named first-team All-Pro in both (2005, 2007) and won Defensive Player of the Year in the latter.
19. Greg Cook
Career: 2 seasons (1969, 1973)
Injury: Torn rotator cuff
Injury date: Sept. 28, 1969
Bottom line: The only rookie to lead the league in passer rating in the Super Bowl era, Cook is one of the greatest one-shot wonders due to his injury. In his third career game, Cook heard his shoulder pop when he tore his rotator cuff. He missed a few games but then continued to play through the injury with the help of cortisone shots. That only did further damage, and despite having three operations after the season, he was never able to regain full mobility or strength.
His rookie season saw him win AFL Rookie of the Year, but that season was essentially his entire career. He sat out three straight seasons after that, then attempted a comeback in 1973. But he quickly realized he had nothing left and threw just three more passes in 1973 before retiring.
18. Don Mattingly
Career: 14 seasons (1982-95)
Injury: Herniated discs
Injury date: June 5, 1987
Bottom line: There is some debate as to how exactly Mattingly hurt his back, with some reports stating he suffered the injury while play-fighting in the clubhouse. But all we know for sure is that it derailed a Hall of Fame career. Through 1989, Mattingly was a .323 hitter who averaged 23 HRs per year, won an MVP and was a six-time All-Star. But after the injury and it constantly flaring up, Mattingly simply became a slap hitter. From 1990-95, Mattingly hit just .286 while averaging 10 HRs and never made a single All-Star team.
17. Andrew Luck
Career: 6 seasons (2012-16, 2018)
Injury: Torn labrum
Injury date: Sept. 27, 2015
Bottom line: It wasn’t necessarily Luck’s shoulder injury that hastened his retirement but rather the mental scar tissue that came with it. He had an arduous 18-month rehab after having labrum surgery that knocked him out of the entire 2017 season. He was the Comeback Player of the Year in 2018 and seemed to be back on his Hall of Fame trajectory. But a seemingly simple leg injury during 2019 preseason was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Luck chose to retire rather than go through the rehab process again. Colts fans didn’t like it, or probably even understand it, but Luck felt it was the best thing for him to do both physically and mentally.
16. Bobby Orr
Career: 12 seasons (1966-78)
Injury: Various knee injuries
Injury date: Dec. 4, 1966
Bottom line: Just 19 games into his NHL career, the then-18-year-old Orr suffered the first of many knee injuries. He would battle knee injuries throughout the entirety of his career with some of the ailments more serious than others. He would miss games here and there due to general soreness while also having several surgeries to repair ligaments or clear out cartilage.
But even through all of this, Orr was magnificent on the ice, as he won three MVP awards and remains the only defenseman to lead the league in scoring, which he did twice. He also brought two Stanley Cup championships to Boston, and we can only imagine what more he could have accomplished had his career not essentially ended at the age of 26.
15. Brandon Roy
Career: 6 seasons (2006-12)
Injury: Meniscus tear
Injury date: April 11, 2010
Bottom line: In his first four NBA seasons, Roy was the Rookie of the Year, a three-time All-Star and a two-time All-NBA selection. However, knee injuries that had bothered him since college flared up in his fourth season, requiring arthroscopic surgery on both knees at the same time. With a lack of cartilage in his knees, Roy was simply not the same player when he returned, and he knew it.
Unlike many players in similar situations who stick around as a shell of their former selves, Roy played just 29 games after his operations before calling it quits. After averaging 19.9 points, 4.9 assists and 4.5 rebounds pre-injury, Roy averaged 7.6 points, 2.6 assists and 2.3 rebounds post-injury.
14. Maureen Connolly
Career: 10 years (1944-54)
Injury: Compound fracture of fibula
Injury date: July 20, 1954
Bottom line: If it wasn’t for a horseback riding accident, it could be Maureen Connolly’s Grand Slam records that Serena Williams has been chasing the last few years. Connolly was the first woman to win the Grand Slam, which she did at just 18, and won nine major championships before she even turned 20.
However, it was at 19 that Connolly was riding a horse when the horse became frightened by a passing truck and threw Connolly to the ground. She suffered a compound fracture to her leg, which ended her career instantly. She never even had a chance to profit off her tennis career while playing, as all of her success and championships came as an amateur.
13. Sandy Koufax
Career: 12 seasons (1955-66)
Injury: Arthritic elbow
Injury date: April 22, 1964
Bottom line: Nicknamed the Left Arm of God, Koufax had one of the finest four-year runs in MLB history. However, due to an arthritic left elbow, those four years were the final four of his career. From 1963-66, he won four ERA titles, won three Cy Youngs, led the NL in wins three times, won three strikeout titles, won two World Series rings and won one MVP. He did this while playing in pain and would get cortisone shots and take various medications. Because of the pain, and due to not having access to modern technology, Koufax had to retire that Left Arm of God at the age of 30.
12. Klay Thompson
Career: 9 seasons (2011-19, 2022-present)
Injury: Torn ACL/Torn Achilles’
Injury date: June 13, 2019
Bottom line: We realize it may be a little premature to put Thompson on this list, but the two-plus years of missed basketball certainly affected his career accolades and all-time standing. If he doesn’t get hurt again, we totally admit that he doesn't belong here, especially since he seemed to come back with a vengeance in 2022 as part of the reason the Warriors had a victorious season. But as too many other athletes on this list have shown us, one injury often leads to many others, and not playing for two years is never great for someone of Thompson's caliber.
11. Sterling Sharpe
Career: 7 seasons (1988-94)
Injury date: Dec. 18, 1994
Bottom line: From the 1970 AFL-NFL merger through 2000, just two men won the receiving Triple Crown by leading the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Their names are Jerry Rice and Sterling Sharpe. But while Rice’s career lasted into his 40s, Sharpe couldn’t even make it to his 30s.
He suffered a neck injury while blocking during Week 16 of the 1994 season. Even with the injury, he played a week later and put up a 9-132-3 stat line in what proved to be his final NFL game. He had surgery afterward to fuse two vertebrae together, but the Packers deemed it too risky to put him back on the field, so they cut him. He wouldn’t join another team and had to retire at just 29.
10. Monica Seles
Career: 14 years (1989-93, 1995-2003)
Injury date: April 30, 1993
Bottom line: In 1990, Seles became the youngest-ever French Open at 16 years old and would then win another eight major championships before her 20th birthday. However, when she was 20 in 1993, a deranged Steffi Graf fan came from the stands to stab Seles in her back during a break in a match. Seles was the No. 1 player in the world at the time, and the “fan” wanted her out of action so Graf could assume the ranking. The injury wasn’t a serious one, physically, but the mental harm kept Seles out of the sport for nearly two years. When she finally returned to the court, she was still a good player but not a great one. Seles would only win one more major after her stabbing.
9. Bernard King
Career: 14 seasons (1977-85, 1987-91, 1993)
Injury: Torn ACL/Broken leg
Injury date: March 23, 1985
Bottom line: Only two men averaged at least 32.5 PPG in a season during the 1980s: Michael Jordan and Bernard King. However, at the peak of his career, King suffered the unholy trifecta of injuries, as he tore ligaments, tore cartilage and broke a bone in his leg all in one play.
King did not play for two full years after the injury and was never the same after returning. He would have flashes and could still fill up the hoop, but his explosiveness and his efficiency had severely waned. Later in his career, he would suffer another knee injury that would knock him out another year, meaning he missed three full seasons due to knee injuries alone.
8. Paul Williams
Career: 12 years (2000-12)
Injury: Motorcycle accident
Injury date: May 27, 2012
Bottom line: Williams was a bit of a unicorn within the sport of boxing because, at 6-foot-1, he was unusually tall for his weight divisions. For comparison, Floyd Mayweather (5-foot-8) and Manny Pacquiao (5-foot-6) competed in some of the same divisions as him and had nowhere near the height or the reach. His length and reach enabled him to keep opponents at a distance, as he suffered just one knockout defeat in his career. Williams won three championshipsm but his boxing career ended just as he was preparing for a title fight with Canelo Alvarez. Williams crashed his motorcycle in Atlanta and was launched nearly 60 feet before landing on his head. The accident bruised his spinal cord and left him a paraplegic.
7. Grant Hill
Career: 18 seasons (1994-2013)
Injury: Sprained ankle
Injury date: April 15, 2000
Bottom line: Hill’s career serves as a cautionary tale for those athletes who take pride in playing through injuries. Hill hurt his ankle a week before the 2000 playoffs and tried to play through it. He ended up doing more damage, which led to an assortment of maladies, including doctors purposely breaking his ankle in an attempt to realign it. That then led to a potentially fatal staph infection. And then all of this changed his gait, which led to groin injuries and a sports hernia. When Hill finally recovered by 2007, he had played in just 200 of a possible 574 games (35 percent) over the previous seven.
Hill had numbers comparable with LeBron James, Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird prior to his injuries but was essentially a journeyman by the time he regained his health. Hill had 29 triple-doubles before the injuries but 0 afterward and had just 31 double-doubles for context.
6. Ken Griffey Jr.
Career: 22 seasons (1989-2010)
Injury date: Multiple
Bottom line: Before turning 30 years old, Griffey was a 10-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner, a one-time MVP and hit 398 home runs. Then, he turned 30, moved from the Mariners to the Reds and saw his body fail him. There was never one injury that set the wheels in motion for Griffey’s decline, but a compilation of injuries to various body parts. Some speculated that Griffey didn’t keep himself in the best shape in Cincinnati, and his weight gain was noticeable compared to his Seattle days. All of the various injuries robbed Griffey of his all-world abilities and also kept him on the disabled list for various stints. He only played in roughly two-thirds of possible games while with the Reds and hit 232 homers over the second half of his career.
Career: 18 seasons (1993-2011)
Injury: Ruptured knee tendon
Injury date: Nov. 21, 1999
Bottom line: Before Cristiano Ronaldo came along, another Ronaldo was the best soccer player in the world, and he was Brazilian. No striker had his combination of size, speed and technical ability, and he won two Player of the Year awards by the age of 21. But he partially ruptured a knee tendon late in 1999 and then completely ruptured the same tendon after coming back too soon. He missed nearly two full years of play and also gained weight during his absence from the pitch. When Ronaldo returned, he was still great enough to win his third Player of the Year award — and a World Cup — but he was no longer the physical marvel that he was in the late 1990s.
4. Bill Walton
Career: 10 seasons (1974-78, 1980, 1982-87)
Injury: Broken foot
Injury date: Feb. 28, 1978
Bottom line: Walton’s injuries actually started in the 1960s when he broke his ankle and leg while in high school. Those would be a sign of things to come, as he broke his foot in 1978, which was the same year he won NBA MVP. He then took a painkilling injection to suit up in the playoffs, only to break his foot again. Walton would accuse the Trail Blazers of unethical treatment of his injury, sat out the entire 1978-79 season out of protest and would never play for Portland again.
He then moved onto the Clippers but had the same bad luck with injuries. Walton would only play in 14 games from 1978-82 and was nowhere near the two-way force he was that earned him an MVP award. He finished out his career with the Celtics as a Sixth Man.
3. Cheryl Miller
Career: 1 season (1986-87)
Injury: Torn ACL
Injury date: April 18, 1987
Bottom line: To this day, Hall of Famer Reggie Miller says that he was the second-best player in the Miller household behind his sister, Cheryl. She is widely considered to be the greatest women’s basketball player of all time, despite her career ending at 24. She was the first player — male or female — to be named a Parade All-American all four years in high school, and she set the California prep record for career points. Then at USC, she was a three-time Player of the Year and two-time national champion, but that would be her career peak. While training for USA Basketball in 1987 for the Pan-American Games, Miller tore her ACL and then re-injured herself multiple times while trying to make comebacks. She was never able to fully recover and retired shortly thereafter.
2. Gale Sayers
Career: 7 seasons (1965-71)
Injury: Torn ACL/Bone bruises
Injury date: Nov. 10, 1968
Bottom line: As breathtaking a runner as the NFL has ever seen, Sayers was an All-Pro in each of his first five seasons. That includes in 1968 when a torn ACL limited him to nine games. He returned in 1969 to lead the league in rushing, but his body would fall apart afterward. Perhaps from overcompensating, Sayers would hurt his other knee in the 1970 preseason and would never be the same.
He averaged 139 all-purpose yards per game prior to the injury but just 21 all-purpose yards per game in the four games afterward. His last game came at 28 years, and his career was so brief that he became the youngest ever inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, doing so at just 34 years old.
1. Bo Jackson
Career: Football: 4 seasons (1987-90), Baseball: 8 seasons (1986-91, 1993-94)
Injury: Dislocated hip
Injury date:Jan. 13, 1991
Bottom line: Over 30 years later, avascular necrosis, which was the condition Jackson had, still isn’t commonplace in any sport. The condition eventually led to Jackson having hip replacement surgery in 1992, although he was able to play two more years in MLB afterward.
What we didn’t get to see after Jackson’s hip injury was the continuation of his football career, and that’s a shame. Jackson was the most unique combination of size, power and speed the running back position has ever seen, and his physical traits translated on the field. As a part-time player for four NFL seasons, Jackson averaged 5.4 yards per carry, which is the second-highest average by an RB in NFL history (min. 500 attempts).
For reference, when Derrick Henry ran for 2,000 yards in 2020, he also averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Jackson’s entire career had the productivity of Henry’s best season, yet we only got to see it for 38 NFL games.