Few things haunt athletes and fans like wondering “What could have been?’’ year after year and few things lead to such lingering “What if’’ scenarios like injuries.
For all their rare athletic gifts, athletes are people too. They can be hurt, their bodies can break down. Their dynamic talents and and hard-earned opportunities do not guarantee long-term success. It’s rigorous and demanding to ask even these most chiseled humans to endure the wear and tear that comes with being a professional athlete.
Recovering from yet another knee surgery, Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose is the latest athlete with a potentially legendary career that seems jeopardized by an inability to avoid injury. The 26-year-old suffered a medial meniscus tear in his right knee in February, and basketball fans in Chicago and beyond fear he’ll never regain the form that made him the youngest MVP in NBA history.
While Rose has a chance to recover and dominate again, not every phenom slowed or halted by injury has been so lucky. Here are 11 examples of dynamic athletes whose careers were cut short or irrevocably altered by injury.
11. Brandon Roy
A three-time All-Star in his first four NBA seasons, Roy was establishing himself as one of the game’s top guards before knee issues caused him to retire — twice — before his 29th birthday.
The 2007 NBA Rookie of the Year had a procedure to remove a piece of cartilage in his left knee in 2008, and he tore the meniscus in his right knee in 2010. Roy was having trouble with a lack of cartilage in both knees during the 2010-11 season and had arthroscopic surgery on both of them. He retired after that season due to his degenerative knee condition and his comeback attempt with Minnesota in 2012 lasted just 5 games before he needed season-ending surgery on his right knee. He retired for good after that season.
10. Robert Edwards
The Patriots drafted Edwards in the first round of the 1998 draft, and he paid immediate dividends. The rookie running back out of Georgia rushed for more than 1,100 yards. His promising career was forever changed by a freak knee injury in the “Beach Bowl’’ game during Pro Bowl nearly led to his left leg being amputated below the knee.
Edwards made it back tgo the NFL as a reserve for the Miami Dolphins in the 2002 season, but would only manage 20 rushes across 12 games. He played four years in the Canadian Football League before hanging it up for good.
9. Daunte Culpepper
Daunte Culpepper looked like the next big thing at the quarterback position in the early 2000’s. A Pro Bowler in 2000 and 2003, Culpepper had his finest season in 2004, leading the league with 4,717 passing yards and completing 69.2 percent of his passes. The 27-year-old added over 400 yards on the ground, threw 39 touchdown passes, and had just 11 interceptions in a standout campaign.
A year later, Culpepper shredded his right knee, tearing his ACL, MCL, and PCL. He was traded to the Dolphins in 2006, and played just 24 more games over the last four seasons of his career, throwing 14 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in that span.
As Tom Brady and Peyton Manning continued to play at a high level into their late-thirties, it’s easy to forget Culpepper was once on a similar path as one of the top young QBs of his era.
8. Clayton Weishuhn
Weishuhn vacuumed up opponents in his brief NFL career, and he still holds the Patriots’ single-season record for tackles with 229 in 1983. That 229-tackle campaign was just Weishuhn’s second season in the league, but it was the last full season he’d play.
A knee injury in Week 1 of the 1984 season cost Weishuhn his third year, and knee problems persisted and caused him to miss the 1985 season as well. Groin and hamstring injuries limited him to just 4 games in the 1986 season, his last in the league.
Despite essentially having a two-year career, his impact on the record books is still felt today.
7. Penny Hardaway
Over his first NBA seasons playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal with the Orlando Magic, Hardaway looked like a future Hall of Famer. Not only was he a dynamic point guard who was a threat for a triple double every night, but his “Lil Penny’’ ads were making him a superstar away from the court, too. A serious left knee injury early in the 1997-98 season put him on the shelf, and he’d have four more surgeries on that same knee before his career was over.
Hardaway moved on to Phoenix in 1999, and he meshed well with Jason Kidd in the backcourt. But microfracture surgery on his pesky left knee and the trade that replaced Kidd with Stephon Marbury didn’t bode well for Hardaway. His days as a star were over, and he made unceremonious stops in New York and Miami before retiring. Hardway never made another All-Star team after sustaining his first knee injury.
6. Marc Savard
Savard arrived in Boston by way of Atlanta in 2006, and quickly made an impact as a top line center and once of the top play-makers in hockey, averaging just under 90 points per season from 2005-06 through 2008-09.
His career took a dramatic turn for the worse when he was blindsided by Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke in March 2010, sustaining a severe concussion. He returned for the 2010 postseason, but Savard suffered another concussion in January 2011 and was shut down for the season. The Bruins went on to win the Stanley Cup, and Savard has not been able to play since. He still deals with the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome.
5. Grant Hill
The third overall pick in the 1994 NBA Draft, Hill established himself as one of the best all-around players in basketball before multiple ankle surgeries sabotaged his career. Ater six stellar seasons with the Detroit Pistons, Hill joined the Orlando Magic on a blockbuster deal. Rather than shine in Florida, Hill was besest by chronic ankle issues and and appeared in just 200 regular-season games between the 2000-2001 and 2006-2007 seasons.
Reinventing himself as a role player after leaving Orlando to join the Phoenix Suns, Hill was able to play until age 40. After starting his career on a Hall of Fame pace, he would never make an All-NBA team after leaving Detroit.
4. Bo Jackson
A fixutre of any debate about the greatest all-around athlete of all time, Bo Jackson was the first athlete to ever be an all-star in both the NFL and MLB. A three-sport athlete at Auburn (he ran track too), Jackson was a fourth round draft choice of the Kansas City Royals in 1986, as well as the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that same year.
Jackson refused to sign with the Bucs and decided to focus on baseball. By 1987, the Heisman Trophy-winner had cracked the everyday lineup in K.C. and wowed fans with his strong arm, blazing speed, and powerful swing. After the Bucs forfeited his NFL rights, the Raiders used a seventh round pick on him in 1987 and convinced him to play football during the baseball offseason. Early in his NFL career, Jackson beat out Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen for a starting spot and exposed former Oklahoma superstar Brian Bosworth as something less than “The Boz.’’
Jackson led off the 1989 MLB All-Star Game with a monstrous home run, and he was named to the Pro Bowl in 1990. During the 1990 NFL playoffs, however, he was tackled from behind and dislocated his hip in a freak injury. Jackson never fully recovered from the injury and played just two more seasons in MLB in 1993 and 1994.
3. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood
The Chicago Cubs have been through a lot of unfortunate situations over the last 100-plus years, but losing not one, but two blue chip aces from the same team seems unfair even by their standards.
At the age of 22, Prior went 18-6 with a 2.42 ERA in 2003. Wood, 26 at the time, went 14-11 with a 3.20 ERA. They were the top two strikeout pitchers in the majors, with Wood fanning 266 batters and Prior 245. With those two at the top of the rotation, the Cubs won the NL Central and were one postseason collapse (featuring the infamous Steve Bartman play) from advancing to the World Series.
By 2007, Wood was out of the starting rotation and Prior was out of the major leagues. Triceps, elbows, shoulders, you name it – Wood and Prior were constantly battling the injury bug. While it looked like the Cubs had the best one-two-punch in baseball for the foreseeable future, the injury bug became the one opponent Wood and Prior couldn’t strike out.
2. Bill Walton
Among the greatest college basketball players of all time. Walton’s UCLA teams won 88 straight games at one point. The big red head’s ability to rebound, pass, score, and block shots earned him the Naismith Trophy three times (1972, 1973, 1974) at the men’s college player of the year and the No. 1 overall selection in the 1974 NBA Draft.
Selected by the Portland Trail Blazers with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft, Walton appeared in just 35 games as a rookie and then 51 in his second season. He improved that total to 65 games during the 1976-77 season, and then went on to appear in all 19 of the team’s postseason games as it surged to an NBA championship. He would be named NBA Finals MPV and then NBA MVP the following season despite missing time with injury. Foot and ankle injuries hampered Walton for the rest of his career. He played in just 47 games over the four seasons immediately after his MVP campaign. He did win the 1986 NBA Finals as a valuable role player on the Boston Celtics, but NBA fans only got a glimmer of his immense talents.
1. Tony Conigliaro
It’s impossible to think of tragic injuries in sports and not picture Tony C. The promising Red Sox slugger and Boston-area native hit 32 home runs at the age of 20, and racked up 104 career dingers by age 22.
He was hit by a pitch just below his eye socket in 1967, and he did not play again until 1969. His vision continued to deteriorate over time, and Conigliaro was forced to retire after the 1971 season. He made a brief comeback with the Red Sox in 1975, but he was never able to sustain the success he was once assured as a young superstar. Conigliaro suffered a massive heart attack in 1982 and died in 1990 at just 45 years old.
Tony C’s legacy lives on in Boston and beyond. MLB named an award after him to honor a player each season for overcoming adversity. He finished his career with 166 home runs, but he was likely missed out of hundreds more due to his misfortune.