Biggest Heroes to Zeros in Sports History

Bleacher ReportContributor IIIFebruary 8, 2012

Biggest Heroes to Zeros in Sports History

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    Success on the field can propel athletes into impossible realms of fame. How they handle that celebrity lifestyle and all of its trappings can tell us a lot about athletes' character. Unfortunately, some of our brightest stars can't stand the spotlight and falter, seemingly falling further than from where they originally climbed.

    Whether they succumb to any number of vices--drugs, gambling, violence, or something else—certain athletes can't seem to get out of their own way, causing their own fall from grace, no matter how big or small.

    Here is Bleacher Report's list of the Biggest Heroes to Zeros in Sports History—those athletes that rose to the highest possible heights of success and fame, only to come crashing back down after one or a series of terribly bad choices.

10. Jose Canseco

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    In his 17 seasons in Major League Baseball, Jose Canseco became the game's first 40-40 man and registered 1877 hits, 462 home runs, 1407 RBIs and a .868 career OPS. He was a central part of the Oakland A's famous Bash Brothers teams that went to three straight World Series from 1988 through 1990, winning in 1989's Bay Bridge Series against the San Francisco Giants.

    During his career, Canseco also provided his fair share of comedic fodder, striking out more than 1,700 times (fifth most all time), letting a ball bounce off his head for a home run, and requiring Tommy John surgery after tearing up his elbow during an emergency pitching performance.

    Unfortunately, since his 2002 retirement, Canseco hasn't wasted a minute in his seemingly endless quest to become one of the game's biggest embarrassments.

    After unrelentingly burning a hole in his pocket (not to mention hemorrhaging an estimated $7 million to $8 million in two separate divorce settlements), Canseco took to the reality TV circuit, appearing on shows like The Surreal LifeThe Girls Next DoorCelebrity ApprenticeCelebriDate, and something new called Celebrity Close Calls.

    He also earned paychecks playing and coaching in various independent leagues, and fighting the likes of former NFL football player Vai SikahemaDanny Bonaduce of The Partridge Family, and 7' 2" kickboxer Choi Hong-man.

    In 2005, Canseco succeeded in ostracizing himself from the rest of the baseball world with the release of his book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big, his infamous book that details his own use of steroids and other PEDs during his playing days, and also throws hundreds of other ballplayers under the bus for juicing.

    While the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire are no stranger to Major League ballparks these days despite their established use of PEDs, the guy who blew the whistle on many of them will likely never see the inside of another ballpark unless he buys a ticket.

    None of the negative publicity seems to bother Canseco, who continues to embarrass himself regularly on Twitter and to become embroiled in various legal troubles, unable to slow the train wreck that his life has become.

9. Pete Rose

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    Pete Rose, the man known as "Charlie Hustle," suffered an almost unparalleled fall from grace (hello, 1919 Chicago White Sox) when he agreed to a lifetime ban from baseball in 1989 after an investigation into his gambling activities while he was the manager of the Cincinnati Reds.

    Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, baseball's all-time hits leader, three-time World Series champion and previously sure-thing Hall of Famer denied the gambling allegations for years, only relenting when he released his 2004 autobiography My Prison Without Bars.

    That's right: he came clean only when there was an opportunity to pocket some dough through a publishing deal. Pretty honorable guy, right?

    As part of Rose's lifetime ban, he is ineligible for the Hall of Fame and will remain ineligible unless and until Major League Baseball lifts the ban, something that is unlikely to happen despite. So baseball's hit king will likely forever toil in his own self-created purgatory, unable to be enshrined alongside the rest of the game's all-time greats.

8. Todd Marinovich

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    Mike Sager's excellent May 2009 Esquire article "Todd Marinovich: The Man Who Never Was" and the recent ESPN documentary "The Marinovich Project" both tell the compelling story of former USC and Raider quarterback Todd Marinovich's legendary fall from grace.

    Marinovich was already smoking marijuana daily in high school when he was dubbed "Robo QB" because of his less-than-normal upbringing with father Marv. After arriving on USC's campus in 1988, he was introduced to cocaine during his redshirt season and then played two star-crossed seasons highlighted by a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan on New Year's Day 1990 and a dramatic win over UCLA the following season.

    But Marinovich was arrested for possession of cocaine after the end of his redshirt sophomore season, and subsequently left for the NFL Draft after playing just two years for the Trojans, eventually being taken by Al Davis and the Los Angeles Raiders with the 24th pick.

    Once in the NFL, Marinovich's erratic behavior and drug use didn't slow down. He admitted to using marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, pharmaceutical amphetamines, and Vicodin, and by 1993, he failed three drug tests, ending his NFL career.

    After his forced retirement, Marinovich racked up 10 arrests for investigation of cultivation of marijuana and possession of narcotics (source), sexual assault (source), suspicion of heroin possession (source), skateboarding in a prohibited zone & possession of meth and syringes (source), a probation violation (possession of drug paraphernalia) (source), possession of a controlled substance, unauthorized possession of a hypodermic needle & resisting a police officer (source), and another probation violation.

    Marinovich's post-retirement, drug-addled years weren't without their football highlights, though. He made comebacks with both the CFL's BC Lions and the Arena League's Los Angeles Avengers, once throwing for ten touchdown passes for the Avengers while going through severe heroin withdrawal and soiling his drawers at halftime.

    It doesn't get much lower than crapping your pants during a football game, does it?

    Allegedly clean after years of abusing his once seemingly robotic body, Marinovich is putting his work in USC's Fine Arts Department to good use, painting in his Southern California studio and selling his work online.

7. Maurice Clarett

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    During his freshmen year at Ohio State, Maurice Clarett helped the Buckeyes to an undefeated 14-0 record and the BCS National Championship following a 31-24 victory over Miami (FL) in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Clarett led OSU in rushing with 1,237 yards and scored 18 touchdowns in just 11 games. There was little question he would be the Heisman frontrunner heading into 2003 season.

    Then, it all started to unravel.

    First came allegations from a teaching assistant that Clarett received preferential treatment in OSU classrooms. Then he was charged with filing a false police report after he told police that $10,000 in cash and merchandise was stolen from a car he had "borrowed" from a local dealership. He was eventually suspended for the 2003 season for receiving improper benefits and lying to investigators (two things that would be themes of Jim Tressel's tenure in Columbus).

    Clarett then sued to gain early admission the NFL, claiming that the league's prohibition on players fewer than three years removed from high school violated Federal antitrust law. Although he won at trial, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the District Court's ruling, and the Supreme Court declined to intervene after two last minute emergency appeals. The 2004 NFL Draft proceeded without Clarett, the Second Circuit eventually reversed the District Court holding, and the Supreme Court declined to review the case.

    In limbo between college and the pros, Clarett began to hurl allegations at OSU and Tressel about improper benefits and academic improprieties, allegations which were unsurprisingly denied.

    Taken by the Denver Broncos in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft, he was eventually released after coming to camp overweight and dealing with a nagging groin injury before playing a single down.

    Not content to just fade away, Clarett was charged with two counts of aggravated robbery and four lesser robbery counts after allegedly pulling a handgun and demanding items from two people behind a Columbus nightclub on New Year's Day 2006.

    Six months later, he was Maced and arrested following a high-speed chase after which cops found three loaded semi-automatic handguns and a loaded AK-47-type assault rifle in his car.

    After a guilty plea to charges of robbery and carrying concealed weapons, he was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, although he was eligible for parole after three and a half years and was released in April 2010.

    Clarett eventually reenrolled at OSU and signed with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League, playing in 2010 and 2011.

6. Art Schlichter

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    From one Buckeye to another, no list of athlete's falls from grace can be complete without Art Schlichter.

    A four-year starter at quarterback for Ohio State, Schlichter finished in the top six in Heisman voting in 1979, 1980 and 1981 and came within one point of winning a national championship in 1979. Revered by Buckeye fans, he was selected by the Baltimore Colts with the fourth overall pick in the 1982 NFL Draft, but washed out of the league after playing in only parts of three seasons.

    The Buckeye gunslinger apparently had a taste for the track even before he left Columbus, and proceeded to take the term "degenerate gambler" to another level once he entered the NFL, becoming a conman to support his habit.

    According to a 2004 New York Daily News feature,

    By his own count, he has been in more than 30 prisons over the last 10 years. His list of felonies—fraud, forgery, and corrupt business practices—pushes 20. He has swindled scores of victims at a cost in the millions. Schlichter won $136,000 on a single night once. Four days later, he was $48,000 in the hole. He pawned his own wedding ring, and his wife's, and he stole from family and friends. When his father died two years ago Art couldn't attend the funeral. He was in jail.

    Despite allegedly climbing back on the wagon, founding a non-profit organization, Gambling Prevention Awareness, to educate people compulsive gambling, and appearing with his mother in TV ads opposing an Ohio casino statewide ballot issue, Schlichter returned to the dark side in 2011 when he was charged with theft for his role in a multimillion dollar sports ticket scam.

    But wait, it gets worse.

    While under house arrest awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty, he twice tested positive for cocaine and refused to report for testing on other occasions and was arrested for violating his bond conditions.

    Old habits sure die hard, and it sounds like Schlichter is developing some new ones as well.

5. "Fast Eddie" Johnson

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    "Fast Eddie" Johnson, a guard from Auburn, played ten seasons in the NBA, mostly with the Atlanta Hawks before brief stints with both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Seattle SuperSonics. Racking up more than 10,000 points over those ten seasons, Johnson also played in two All-Star games and made two All-NBA Defensive Teams before his career was derailed by drug addiction.

    After his NBA career ended, Johnson's life spun out of control. By his own estimates, he was arrested more than 100 times, and the charges against him have been wide-ranging: burglary, battery, robbery, possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, resisting arrest, battery on a law enforcement officer and writing bad checks, among others.

    Johnson's last run-in with the law—a 2006 arrest for sexual battery and sexual molestation of an eight-year-old girl—was met with his steadfast denials.

    But the facts say otherwise, as Johnson was subsequently convicted and is now serving a life sentence at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution Annex in Florida.

4. Lawrence Phillips

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    Heading into the 1995 season under at Nebraska as the Heisman front-runner, Lawrence Phillips had the entire world laid out before him. But, after just two games, Phillips' future started to crumble.

    After the Huskers dropped Michigan State 50-10 in East Lansing, they returned to Lincoln, where Phillips allegedly caught quarterback Scott Frost with his ex-girlfriend. Phillips dragged his ex down three flights of stairs—by her hair—and was promptly arrested, charged, and placed on probation after a please of no contest

    Phillips was suspended for six games and even started in the Husker's 62-24 pasting of Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, completing the team's undefeated national championship season.

    He entered the 1996 NFL Draft and was taken sixth overall by the St. Louis Rams, lasting little more than one season with the team, before playing parts of two seasons with the Dolphins and 49ers before apparently deciding to pursue a life of crime.

    While still in the league, Phillips had already been charged with DWI, disorderly conduct, a probation violation, and battery. He continued down this path after his forced retirement, getting arrested in 2000 for domestic abuse, making a terrorist threat, conspiring to dissuade a witness, possessing a concealed firearm in a car, carrying a loaded firearm and vandalism, and again in 2005 for attempted murder and domestic violence.

    The attempted murder charges resulted from an incident where Phillips ran down three teenagers with his car after a dispute during a pickup game near the LA Coliseum, and he was wanted at the same time by San Diego authorities for domestic abuse. After trial on charges arising out of both incidents, he was sentenced to a total of 31 years behind bars, with a release date as late as 2037.

3. Jim Leyritz

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    Jim Leyritz spent 11 seasons in The Show, playing for the Yankees, Angels, Rangers, Red Sox, Padres and Dodgers, and most famously hitting a home run for the Yankees off Mark Wohlers in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series. The three-run jack tied the game, and the team would go on to win the game in extra frames and take Games 5 and 6 to win the first of their four World Series championships during their late '90s run.

    Unfortunately for Leyritz (and victim Fredia Ann Veitch), his status as an icon of the Yankees championship run came crashing down in December 2007 when he was charged with DUI manslaughter after running a red light and colliding with Veitch's car, resulting in the death of this 30-year-old mother of two.

    While he awaited trial, Leyritz apparently failed to learn any lesson whatsoever, getting jailed for drinking—a violation of the conditions of his pretrial release. He was then jailed again after his ex-wife accused him of domestic battery.

    Inexplicably, Leyritz was acquitted of the DUI manslaughter charge, despite his BAC registering .14 three hours after the accident (Florida's legal limit is .08) and Veitch's death clearly resulting from the collision. He was convicted of a lesser DUI charge and given one year probation and a $500 fine. He also paid the victim's family $350,000 to settle a separate civil lawsuit.

    Leyritz now spends his days as the pitching coach for the independent Can-Am League's Newark Bears.

2. Jerry Sandusky

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    The inclusion of this animal should come as no surprise. Charged with unspeakable acts against an untold number of minor boys over the period of decades, the man formerly known as the architect of the defenses for JoePa's "Linebacker U" will hopefully spend the rest of his days behind bars learning from his prison mates about the abuse that his victims endured, if you catch my drift.

    Some might say JoePa should also be on this list. He allegedly failed to bring his assistant's heinous conduct to light, despite being one of the most powerful people in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and was relieved of his duties as Penn State's head coach shortly after the allegations against Sandusky were revealed.

    But, unfortunately, Paterno will never be a total "zero," as millions of Nittany Lions fans with Penn State blinders firmly attached to their heads still hold their former coach in the highest regard.

    And the fact remains that, despite the systemic failures within Penn State that allowed Sandusky to continue his assaults on defenseless children, it was Sandusky himself who took his school from such great heights (winning two National Championships, producing the likes of future NFL stars Jack Ham and LaVar Arrington, and being carried off the field following his final game, the 1999 Alamo Bowl) to the lowest of depths of humanity.

1. O.J. Simpson

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    Knowing the downward trajectory of O.J. Simpson's life since 1994, it's hard to remember just how decorated his career was (both on and off the field) before he threw it all away.

    After winning the 1968 Heisman Trophy for the USC Trojans, O.J. was drafted first overall by the AFL's Buffalo Bills in the 1969 Common Draft. During his 11-year pro career, "The Juice" led the league in rushing four times, was the first player to run for 2,000 yards in a single season (2,003 in 1973), and racked up 11,236 rushing yards, which was second all-time (behind Jim Brown) upon his retirement following the 1979 season. 

    In 1985, his first year of eligibility, O.J. was elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame alongside Roger Staubach, Joe Namath and Pete Rozelle.

    O.J.'s time in the spotlight wasn't limited to the field, and certainly didn't end with his retirement and enshrinement in Canton. He shilled for a number of companies, most famously Hertz Rent-A-Car, appeared on both the small screen (SNL and even Roots) and big screen (all three Naked Gun movies, among others), and even worked on Monday Night Football and The NFL on NBC as a sideline reporter (back when networks still used male sideline reporters).

    But O.J.'s shiny little Camelot came crashing down in 1994 when, after a nationally-televised low-speed car chase along Los Angeles area freeways, O.J. was arrested for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and a waiter named Ronald Goldman. Although he was eventually found not guilty of the grisly double murder, Simpson was found liable in 1997 in a civil wrongful death case brought by members of Goldman's family and his ex-wife's estate and ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages.

    Living a reclusive life while allegedly trying to avoid paying on the civil judgment, O.J. found himself in trouble with the law on regular basis, and in 2008 he was found guilty of robbing two sports-memorabilia dealers at gunpoint in a Las Vegas hotel room and sentenced to 33 years in prison. He's currently serving out his time in Lovelock Correctional Center in northern Nevada.

    O.J.'s fall from grace is unparalleled. From Heisman Trophy winner and Hall of Famer to murderer and felon, O.J. stunned the world on his descent from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.