Injuries are a fact of life when it comes to playing sports, but some athletes have no luck when it comes to staying healthy. Across all sports, there have been stories of great competitors who had their careers cut short because of a severe bite — or several – from the injury bug.
Here are some of the most promising professional athletes who had to walk away from the game they loved far too early because of severe injuries. You’ll notice two positions that pop up more often than others: pitchers and running backs. It just goes to show how demanding these positions are on even the fittest human bodies.
Many of these athletes still managed to make a great impact on the field but, without getting hurt, they likely could’ve done much more.
Gale Sayers — NFL Running Back (1965-1971)
Arguably the best football player on this list, Gale Sayers landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite only playing for seven seasons in the NFL. Sayers was a monster with the Chicago Bears in the 1960s, being named a first-team All-Pro selection in all five of his full campaigns and twice leading the league in rushing yards. In 1968, he severely injured his right knee but came back and was dominant again in 1969, before hurting his left knee in 1970, effectively ending his brilliant career. If Sayers could’ve had a career that lasted 10-15 full seasons, he likely could’ve gone down as the greatest rusher in NFL history.
Bobby Orr — NHL Defenseman (1966-1978)
Another absolute legend who can blame knee problems for ultimately limiting his career is Bobby Orr. The Boston Bruins icon shattered records at the position of defenseman, winning a record eight consecutive Norris Trophies, which honored him as the league’s best defenseman, and twice leading the league in points. Repeated injuries to his knees, however, left him unable to continue his punishing career, and he was forced to retire in 1978 at the age of 30. He easily was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and is hailed as one of the NHL’s all-time greats but there’s no telling how much more dominance Orr had in him if his knee hadn’t given out.
Bo Jackson — NFL Running Back (1987-1990) / MLB Outfielder (1986-1994)
Possibly the best all-around athlete in professional sports history, Bo Jackson became a legend for being an MLB All-Star and an NFL Pro Bowler in back-to-back years. The two-sport star seemed invincible to fans in the late 1980s but his body would falter a bit under the stress of his year-round athletic pursuits. After just four seasons as a running back in the NFL, Jackson suffered a career-ending hip injury. He continued to play baseball until 1994, when he retired at the age of 32. In 2017, Jackson told USA Today he wished he’d never played football and wouldn’t let his kids play the game because it’s “so violent, so rough.”
Yao Ming — NBA Center (2002-2011)
Towering at 7 feet 6 inches tall, Yao Ming was one of the tallest players in NBA history but his career only spanned a little more than seven seasons because of nagging injuries. He played in at least 80 games in each of his first three seasons in the NBA but played in less than 60 games in four of the last five seasons of his career, missing nearly two entire seasons. In 2011, at the age of 30, Ming hung up his sneakers for good, blaming constant injuries to his feet and ankles for his sudden retirement. He was an All-Star in all eight seasons he played and landed in the Basketball Hall of Fame despite the injuries that had kept his career totals down.
Earl Campbell — NFL Running Back (1978-1985)
Another player who landed in the Hall of Fame despite a career shortened by taking a beating was Earl Campbell. The legendary running back played just eight seasons in the NFL before calling it quits, being sidelined for plenty of games during the second half of his career. Campbell rushed for at least 1,300 yards in five of his first six seasons but barely topped 1,000 total yards in his final three seasons combined before retiring at the age of 31. These days, Campbell can hardly walk after having both knees replaced and four back surgeries, but he doesn’t blame football for his condition. Instead, he insists it’s genetic.
Daunte Culpepper — NFL Quarterback (1999-2009)
Unlike running backs, NFL quarterbacks are often able to play for 15-plus seasons, provided they keep winning — but Daunte Culpepper wasn’t so lucky. In his first five seasons as a full-time starter, Culpepper was pure magic, being named to three Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams, and twice taking the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs. But a severe knee injury in 2005 effectively ended his career as an NFL star, leading him to bounce around between several teams and never play in more than eight games in a season for his final five seasons. He retired in 2008 at the age of 31.
Kerry Wood — MLB Pitcher (1998-2012)
At 13 seasons, the length of Kerry Wood’s MLB career was longer than some on this list but it included 14 stints on the disabled list and a ton of shackled potential. When he was healthy and at his best, Wood was nothing short of brilliant on the mound, racking up 1,000 career strikeouts in a shorter span than any pitcher in MLB history. However, that hard-throwing style also seemed to cost him, as Wood spent plenty of time battling injuries, including missing an entire season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Brandon Roy — NBA Guard (2006-2013)
A three-time NBA All-Star and former rookie of the year, Brandon Roy was forced to call it quits in his prime because of problems with his knees. He was a total workhorse during his short career, playing for at least 37 minutes per game in three of his six total seasons. In 2011, Roy announced his retirement at the tender age of 27, citing his problematic knees as the reason. He attempted a comeback in 2012 but it only lasted five games before he had to have knee surgery, ending his playing days for good.
Greg Oden — NBA Center (2008-2014)
Greg Oden’s NBA career spanned eight years but only included 105 games played in just three seasons on the court. Like several others on this list, Oden’s problem came down to his knees, which severely limited his 7-foot frame in terms of mobility. After a fantastic college career, he was drafted first overall in the 2007 NBA Draft but missed his entire rookie season after having knee surgery before it started. He’d have two more knee surgeries before being cut by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012, eventually landing with the Miami Heat where he’d play one more season before his NBA career came to a sudden close.
Ralph Kiner — MLB Outfielder (1946-1955)
Nagging back issues cut Ralph Kiner’s MLB career down to just 10 seasons but he did enough in that span to land in the Baseball Hall of Fame. A crushing hitter, he led the National League in home runs in each of his first seven seasons before seeing his numbers steadily decline in his final three seasons. His record-pacing career was cut short at the age of 32 when he retired because of his back injuries. He ended up spending much of the rest of his life as a beloved broadcaster for the New York Mets until his death in 2014 at the age of 91.
Herb Score — MLB Pitcher (1955-1962)
Some devastating sports injuries are easy to predict but what ended Herb Score’s career was a freak occurrence. Score’s career immediately took off like a rocket. He was named the AL’s rookie of the year and would lead the league in strikeouts for both of his first two seasons. But it was during a game in his third season on the mound that things went very wrong; he was hit in the face with a line drive that severely injured his eye. He eventually recovered his vision and continued pitching but was never dominant again, likely because he changed his delivery motion as a result of the accident. Like Ralph Kiner, Score eventually found success in the broadcasting booth, calling Cleveland Indians games for more than 30 years.
Rob Gronkowski — NFL Tight End (2010-2018)
Like some other superstar athletes on this list, saying Rob Gronkowski’s career was “ruined” by injuries might be a stretch but it was certainly hampered by them. Despite spending plenty of his career banged up, “Gronk” won three Super Bowls, was a four-time All-Pro pick and helped the New England Patriots make the playoffs in all nine seasons of his career. He only played in all 16 games of a season twice — and those were his first two seasons. He missed at least eight games in two other seasons. He will undoubtedly end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame but there was likely plenty more he could’ve done if he hadn’t retired in 2019 at the age of 29.
Andrew Luck — NFL Quarterback (2012-2018)
Similar to Rob Gronkowski, star quarterback Andrew Luck suddenly retired in 2019 at the age of 29 in what seemed to be the prime of his career. In just seven years in the NFL, the former top overall draft pick missed a full season and a half of games due to various injuries. In 2015, he suffered some nasty internal injuries that forced him to miss nine games and he sat out the entire 2017 season after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Just ahead of the 2019 season, Luck shocked the world by walking away from the game after a season in which he took the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs. He blamed his decision on constant injuries taking the fun out of the game.
Sandy Koufax — MLB Pitcher (1955-1966)
In just 12 seasons in professional baseball, Sandy Koufax proved himself one of the greatest pitchers in history — but he was robbed of even more dominance. The Dodgers legend was a three-time Cy Young Award winner and a three-time pitching triple crown winner and he led the NL in ERA for five consecutive seasons. He was simply untouchable until arthritis hit him hard at the age of 29. Despite searing pain in his throwing arm, his production never dipped but doctors told him he could permanently lose the use of the arm if he didn’t quit baseball, which he did at the age of 30 before becoming the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Brad Daugherty — NBA Center (1986-1994)
Cleveland Cavaliers great Brad Daugherty likely could’ve landed in the Basketball Hall of Fame if injuries hadn’t cut his career short. The 7-footer spent eight seasons in the NBA, all with the Cavs, and was a five-time All-Star in that span. He put up more than 10,000 points and 5,000 rebounds, averaging 19.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game for his career. But he twice sat out more than 30 games in a season because of ailments. Recurring problems with his back caused Daugherty to retire young. He never played another NBA game after the age of 28.
Billy Sims — NFL Running Back (1980-1984)
Former Heisman Trophy winner and top draft pick Billy Sims lived up to his billing in the NFL but his career burned out far too quickly as the result of a single injury. Sims spent just five seasons in the NFL, all with the Detroit Lions, but was named to three Pro Bowls and two All-Pro squads, and was also chosen as the league’s offensive rookie of the year. He averaged 1,000 yards per season for his entire career, but it all came to a sudden end in 1984, when he suffered a severe knee injury in what would be his final NFL game.
“I had never felt pain like that in my life,” Sims later told the Detroit Free Press of the moment his life changed.
Sterling Sharpe — NFL Wide Receiver (1988-1994)
Green Bay Packers fan-favorite receiver Sterling Sharpe likely would be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame had injuries not capped his career so suddenly. In seven seasons in the NFL, Sharpe led the league in catches three times, was a three-time All-Pro pick and was a five-time Pro Bowler. Unlike other athletes on this list, Sharpe never missed a single game during his career. But a dangerous neck injury forced him to retire before the age of 30. Like Billy Sims, Sharpe is proof that it only takes a single injury to suddenly end a great athlete’s career.
Mark Mulder — MLB Pitcher (2000-2008)
Former MLB starter Mark Mulder’s career on the mound was productive but far too short. He only spent nine seasons in MLB, but logged fewer than 20 starts in three of those seasons because of persistent injuries. He was on and off of the disabled list while pitching with the St. Louis Cardinals in the second half of his career but had been an All-Star in consecutive seasons with the Oakland Athletics in 2003 and 2004. Mulder even led the AL in wins for the 2001 season and racked up more than 100 of them in his short career — but he should’ve had many more. Repeated shoulder injuries ended his career in 2008 and a comeback attempt in 2014 sadly ended in spring training, when he tore his Achilles’ tendon.
Mark Prior — MLB Pitcher (2002-2006)
Mark Prior was actually teammates with Kerry Wood, another ill-fated pitcher on this list, with the Chicago Cubs. Prior spent his entire big league career with the Cubs, only lasting five seasons before shoulder surgery ended his time on the mound. He had an incredible college career, being given the prestigious Dick Howser Trophy in 2001, which is college baseball’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. He seemed to be living up to expectations by being named an MLB All-Star in 2003 but his career unfortunately evaporated not long after that.
Patrick Willis — NFL Linebacker (2007-2014)
When Patrick Willis was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers as a first-round pick, expectations were sky high and he managed to live up to them… for a short time, at least. In eight seasons in the NFL, Willis was a seven-time Pro Bowler and a six-time All-Pro, and was named the league’s defensive rookie of the year. He was as tough a linebacker as there’s ever been but, ironically, it was something as small as a toe that brought him down. He hardly missed a game in his career until his final season, when he missed 10 of them because of an injury to his big toe. The endless pain in his feet eventually led him to retire in 2014 at the age of 30.
Penny Hardaway — NBA Guard (1993-2007)
In the ’90s, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway was one of the NBA’s most popular new stars, making four straight All-Star teams and being named to three consecutive All-NBA teams. His final All-Star game appearance came in 1998 and it’s no coincidence that he suffered a severe knee injury that same season. Hardaway continued to play in the NBA for various teams until 2007 but his statistics fell sharply. He was never considered a star player after the knee injury and he routinely missed dozens of games a season for issues with his ankles and hands.
David Pollack — NFL Linebacker (2005-2007)
David Pollack has become a star broadcaster, thanks to his role on ESPN’s “College GameDay,” but his NFL career ended as quickly as it began because of a frightening injury. Pollack was drafted in the first round by the Cincinnati Bengals after an incredible college career that saw him chosen as a first-team All-American three times and twice named SEC Player of the Year. Pollack was effective during his first season in the NFL but his career suddenly ended during the first game of his second season, when he broke his neck while making a tackle. At 24 years old, Pollack was done playing football but he was considered lucky to not be paralyzed.
Tony Boselli — NFL Lineman (1995-2002)
Offensive linemen have a reputation for being nearly invincible but Jacksonville Jaguars icon Tony Boselli was forced to leave the field in his prime because of a persistent injury. In seven seasons with the Jaguars, Boselli was recognized as one of football’s best offensive tackles, allowing just 15.5 total sacks in that time and being named to five Pro Bowls. A shoulder injury caused him to miss most of the 2001 season, a first for Boselli, and it was that injury that cost him his career. He retired in 2002 at the age of 31, saying his left shoulder wouldn’t allow him to keep playing.
Justine Henin — Tennis Player (1999-2011)
Tennis stars like Serena Williams and Roger Federer continue to prove that age can be defied in that sport — but it wasn’t the case for Justine Henin. The Belgian star won seven Grand Slam singles titles, including four French Opens, and spent plenty of time atop the WTA rankings during the 2000s. Henin was actually the world’s top-ranked player when she retired for the first time in 2008, citing an elbow injury. She made a comeback in 2010 but retired for good in 2011 because of the same issue that had sidelined her the first time. At 28 years old, she was forced to quit playing the game she had mastered.
Greg Cook — NFL Quarterback (1969-1973)
Before David Pollack, this was a tragic story that crushed fans of the Cincinnati Bengals. Greg Cook was seen as one of the then-AFL’s youngest rising stars when he started for the Bengals in 1969. He threw for more than 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns that season, being named the league’s rookie of the year. But that would end up being Cook’s only season of professional football, as a shoulder injury extinguished his rising career before it even really started. Cook would miss the next two seasons and would undergo two shoulder operations but would eventually retire in 1973, at the age of 25. He’s one of pro football’s all-time “What if …?” stories.